Bougainville: Beyond Survival


Located 1,000 kilometers east of the mainland national capital of Port Moresby, Bougainville is the most remote of Papua New Guinea's 19 provinces. It consists of two large islands, Bougainville (8,646 square kilometers) and Buka (598 square kilometers), separated by a narrow passage, as well as many smaller islands. Its 9,438 square kilometers constitute about two percent of Papua New Guinea's land area. Geographically, culturally, and linguistically, Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands chain, but became part of Papua New Guinea rather than the British colony of Solomon Islands as an "accident" of late-19th century colonial map-drawing.

With a population of approximately 200,000 speaking 21 distinct languages, 8 sub-languages, and 39 dialects, and with considerable cultural diversity both within and between language groups, Bougainville fits the Papua New Guinea pattern of remarkable cultural and linguistic diversity (there are more than 800 language groups in Papua New Guinea).

Pre-colonial social structures, incorporating small land-holding local clan lineages, mainly within language groups, continue to be the main social units. In all but the Buin area (in the south of Bougainville), the clans and lineages are matrilineal. Only in Buin, Buka, parts of north Bougainville, and some of the atolls are there hereditary leaders, often now referred to as "chiefs." In other areas leadership is based on performance, though there may often be a hereditary element involved in accession to leadership status. Even in these latter areas there is a growing tendency to refer to all leaders as "chiefs."

Bougainville's close contact with the outside world and its integration into Papua New Guinea are recent. The first permanent Christian mission and first colonial administrative post (under German New Guinea) were established in 1901 and 1905 respectively. Relations were often troubled between Bougainville and central colonial authorities (German New Guinea to 1914, Australian-administered New Guinea from 1914 to 1946, with an interlude of Japanese Army control from 1942 to 1945, and Australian-administered Territory of Papua and New Guinea from 1946 to 1975). Bougainville attempted to secede only days before Papua New Guinea's independence. The situation was resolved only by constitutional changes guaranteeing autonomy for Bougainville under a provincial government system.

The pattern, however, continued after Papua New Guinea became independent from Australia in 1975. The conflict that began in 1988 prompted the closure of one of the world's largest copper and gold mines, operated at Panguna in central Bougainville from 1972 to 1989. The mine, together with widespread plantation and small-holder cocoa production, had made Bougainville Papua New Guinea's wealthiest province. But for most rural communities, patterns of considerable isolation and autonomy were changing only slowly in the 1980s. Most people continued to rely heavily on subsistence agriculture.

From independence to 1990, Bougainville had its own relatively effective provincial government and a local government system. But the state structure in Papua New Guinea—including Bougainville—was weak at all levels; it often failed to impose policies on local communities determined to oppose them.

Conflict and Peace

While the Panguna mine was the major contributor to Papua New Guinea's GDP and government revenue, its perceived imposition by the colonial regime for the benefit of the rest of Papua New Guinea was widely resented in Bougainville, and from the mid-1960s contributed to an already emerging ethno-nationalist movement for secession from Papua New Guinea. Bougainville attempted secession through a unilateral declaration of independence in 1975, the dispute being settled by Papua New Guinea establishing a constitutionally based system of decentralization from 1977.

In 1988, localized disputes over impacts of the mine and the revenue share received by younger landowners sparked violent conflict. Papua New Guinea police responded to destruction of mine property with widespread violence that was the catalyst for the mobilization of a wider ethno-nationalist rebellion built on a long history of grievances and resistance.

Separation from Papua New Guinea became the central goal of a rapidly escalating rebellion. Most non- Bougainvilleans left Bougainville during 1989 and early 1990, many fearing for their lives in a process that was in some respects a form of ethnic cleansing.

After Papua New Guinea forces withdrew from Bougainville following a March ceasefire, Bougainville declared independence in May 1990 in a unilateral declaration that gained no international recognition. Intra-Bougainville conflict developed from the early 1990s, complicating the rebels' efforts.

A series of peace-making endeavors ended the conflict in 1997. Long and complex negotiations aimed at resolving both intra-Bougainville tensions and those between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville resulted in the political settlement of August 2001.

Among the goals for an independent Bougainville fought for by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was autonomy for customary social groupings. The BRA also sought to strengthen these groupings as well as Bougainville state structures by building close links between the two. Such goals remained central to the Bougainvillean agendas; a political settlement with Papua New Guinea in the Bougainville Peace Agreement of August 30, 2001 guaranteed them a high level of autonomy. The settlement kept open the possibility of independence through a constitutionally guaranteed referendum on the subject, to be held among Bougainvilleans 10 to 15 years after the first autonomous government is established.

Almost all senior Bougainville leaders see the process of building linkages between customary and state power as crucial to developing sustainable state structures for Bougainville—whether they be those of an autonomous Bougainville government or of an independent Bougainville.

The Impacts of Change

As elsewhere in Melanesia, the impacts of colonial and post-colonial change on the preexisting social structures in Bougainville have been immense. A wide range of new ideologies were introduced, as were new arenas for power competition: the Christian missions, the colonial administration, cooperatives and companies, elected local-level governments, village courts, and the elected provincial government. Challenges arose to traditional understandings of the world and how it worked, and new sources of identity emerged.

Undoubtedly, Bougainvilleans were relatively powerless in relation to the force of colonialism, but they were not simply swamped by change imposed on them. While there is ample evidence of resentment and resistance, many people welcomed change, seeking and often finding personal or group advantage from it. In the process, customary social structures and their associated traditions were altered.

Yet customary social structures--including customary authority--in many ways remained strong and vibrant. In particular, customary authority remained important to decision-making and dispute resolution. Many rural communities, for example, dealt with criminal offenses internally. Those dissatisfied with the decisions of traditional authority, however, were able to engage in "forum shopping," taking matters to the police or to village courts.

Identity and Separatism

During the 20 years following World War II, Bougainvilleans increasingly expressed grievances about racist treatment by "whites" as well as colonial neglect resulting in limited infrastructure and economic development.

From the late 1960s the most important grievances related to the copper mine. Residents most resented the influx of thousands of outsiders from elsewhere in Papua New Guinea who, they felt, disrespected Bougainville cultures, squatted on customary land, and competed for economic opportunities that Bougainvilleans regarded as rightfully theirs. The distribution of mine revenues--both between the Papua New Guinea government and Bougainville and within the Bougainville lineages whose land was leased for mining-related purposes--was also seen as unfair.

Efforts to come to terms with the outside world included various forms of resistance to colonial rule, among which were the "cargo cults," evident even before World War II and continuing even today. Cargo cults probably originated in beliefs widespread in pre-colonial Melanesia about a millenium when all good things would be available. In the colonial era such cults were also a reaction to what was seen as the inexplicable injustice of the affluence of whites. They were most likely influenced by Christian missionary promises about the afterlife. The cargo cults involved Bougainvilleans' assertion of autonomy over their communities and lives.

Resistance was also evident in different movements emerging after World War II, the best known being the Hahalis Welfare Society (Hahalis) in Buka, which for several years from the late 1950s sought to develop its own path toward the economic advancement of its 6,000 members and many sympathizers. A mixture of customary and "modern" forms of organization, Hahalis refused to participate in the colonial elected local government system, opposed integration of Bougainville into Papua New Guinea, and criticized the Catholic Mission for failing to assist people's material advancement. Confrontations with police riot squads, followed by mass prosecutions, ensued. Concern about the impact of Hahalis resulted in development projects for Buka, and greater interest by the Catholic Church in material progress and social justice for its adherents.

Hahalis had links with similar movements. Notable among these was a group in the mountains of central Bougainville that remains active today: Damien Dameng's Me'ekamui Onoring Pontoku (roughly translated from the Nasioi language as "government of the guardians of the sacred land"). Often called the "Fifty Toea Movement" (a reference to the monetary contributions members made), it was often dismissed as an ill-informed cargo cult, but was in fact rather different.

Dameng and his supporters believed that customary social structures and ways were being undermined by the outside world. From around 1959, Dameng built support among several thousand people around ideas of rebuilding customary social structures. In the process, however, they built something new, rejecting "bad" aspects of custom, and building in some "good" aspects of the changes brought by the missions and the colonial administration.

The movement’s adherents, however, believed that their social structure was built mainly upon custom, and saw it as superior to the colonial administration and the Christian missions, both of which Dameng opposed. His opposition extended to elected local-level governments, to Bougainville's provincial government, and to the services these governments provided, including formal education.

Dameng's opposition to the damaging impacts of the outside world also extended to the Panguna mine. He believed it destroyed land (the basis for social relations), introduced cash payment for use of land (thereby undermining Bougainvilleans' relatively egalitarian customary social organization), and brought in large numbers of outsiders. These earlier forms of resistance were linked with a broader separatist movement emerging at least as early as the late 1950s that opposed the BCL copper mine and supported Bougainville's separation from Papua New Guinea. The continuity is illustrated by Dameng's position within the coalition of Bougainville groups opposing the Papua New Guinea government during the conflict. Separatist support mobilized on the basis of identity, both in the lead-up to the attempted secession of 1975 and in the conflict from 1988 to 1997. The most distinctive marker of Bougainvillean identity was dark skin color. (Bougainvilleans tend to refer to the lighter-skinned people of other parts of Papua New Guinea by the pejorative term "red-skins.")

Pan-Bougainville identity was itself probably a product of colonialism, originating perhaps in a sense of superiority on the part of domestics and security personnel on German colonial plantations over people from other parts of New Guinea. This identity was reinforced by geography--the concentration of a relatively homogenous but distinctive population in a defined area remote from the rest of Papua New Guinea and closely linked to the Solomon Islands.

Commentary on Bougainville often presents Bougainvilleans as a united people, resisting colonialism, mines, and, later, Papua New Guinea. In fact, sentiments about grievances, resistance, and separatism varied considerably throughout Bougainville, probably reflecting differences in language, culture, length and intensity of colonial contact, and economic status. Separatist support has generally been weaker in Buka and in the north of the main island of Bougainville, the areas with earliest colonial contact and consequential advantages in terms of education and access to economic opportunities. Such differences were important among the complex factors contributing to intra-Bougainville conflict between 1988 and 1997.

The Importance of Custom

By the mid-1980s, increasing intensity of participation in the cash economy gave rise to new kinds of disputes that traditional leaders were not well-equipped to deal with. The increasing availability of education, together with new forms of economic activity and increasing mobility, reduced social cohesiveness, and young people were less willing to accept customary authority and limits on behavior.

Bougainvilleans believed that customary social structures were threatened by the disinterest of the youth, the election of persons other than chiefs as local government members and village court magistrates, and the continuing influx of outsiders. Bougainvilleans also saw increasing crime, especially, but not only, in urban areas, as a symptom of social disintegration.

In response, Bougainvilleans proposed reducing the number of outsiders by returning the unemployed and squatters to their home provinces elsewhere in Papua New Guinea and transforming elected local level governments into councils of chiefs. Public concern and debate about such issues undoubtedly impacted the early stages of the conflict, especially the pressure on outsiders to leave Bougainville, and enhanced the status of customary authority and customary ways during the period of the conflict.

During the conflict, especially in areas where all forms of government authority had ceased (the whole of Bougainville and Buka for most of 1990 and most of Bougainville for the early 1990s, as well as much of Central and South Bougainville until the late 1990s), the absence of alternative forums enhanced traditional leaders' status. Communities relied more on customary social organization and customary authority for general decision-making and dispute resolution.

The BRA and its associated civilian government (the Bougainville Interim Government, or BIG) established in April 1990 sought to build local administration and dispute settlement procedures upon customary authority. From 1991, a three-tiered system of councils of chiefs (COCs)--clan, village, and area councils--was established in many areas. The COCs dealt with administrative matters and disputes at their own levels, and the higher level COCs could review decisions of lower levels.

The COCs were, of course, not customary organizations, but they included customary leaders who applied, as best they could, customary norms, and so were generally understood to be strengthening custom, by their very existence and through the norms they applied. It was not just a matter of adapting custom; in some ways, it was also a matter of reviving it. For example, in part of southwest Bougainville, the identity of the "chiefs" was not readily apparent. It was finally agreed that they must be the people at the end of the "rivers of pigs" distributed in certain kinds of ceremonial exchanges, and those so identified were expected to exercise customary authority through the COCs. In general, the work of the COCs in most areas was well regarded within the community.

In 1996, Theodore Miriung, the premier of Bougainville's provincial government (which had been suspended in 1990 but was reestablished in 1995), developed a modified version of the COC. Miriung had earlier been involved in establishing the COCs, and considered strengthened social structures necessary to a restored social cohesion. The new bodies, called councils of elders (COEs), were set up under provincial government law to cover people from culturally coherent areas.

The people of a COE area were empowered to choose whether to select their representatives by election or by custom. COEs were to be the basic unit of administration and of judicial power, and the basis for bottom-up planning. Miriung envisioned COEs providing the basis for a symbiotic relationship between customary authority and state authority. Basing the state on customary authority would enhance its legitimacy, and exercising state powers would enhance the stature of customary leaders. On the other hand, Miriung recognized that customary authority was essentially autocratic and might only be viable as a transitional measure over perhaps 10 to 15 years, by which time economic and social change could be expected to create pressure for a more democratic system of government. It was in part for this reason that the COE legislation gave communities the right to choose, at five-year intervals, whether to select COE members by custom or through elections.

COEs now operate in most parts of Bougainville. Their performance has so far been uneven, for many reasons. Some COEs are far too large, and remote from the communities they serve. For example, one of the largest, the Leitana COE, serves the whole of Buka Island, more than 30,000 people, and has become deeply involved in Bougainville-wide politics rather than staying focused on the many Buka communities. The COE system lacks adequate administrative support from the provincial government, due partly to the government's ongoing financial crisis, and partly to the political leadership’s focus on negotiating future arrangements rather than on consolidating existing structures.

As "normalcy" has returned to various parts of Bougainville, and as their stature has diminished, chiefs are no longer an almost unchallenged source of authority.

Future Governance in Bougainville

Under the autonomy arrangements agreed to in the Bougainville Peace Agreement, Bougainville has wide power to establish its own institutions. While the original leader of the 1988 rebellion, Francis Ona, has not yet joined the process, most other Bougainville leaders--including Damien Dameng, who, in his early seventies, continues to lead Me'ekamui Onoring Pontoku--support it.

Most people agree that a new Bougainville government should be based on customary authority. Processes for drafting a constitution for an autonomous Bougainville, expected to begin this year, are likely to involve wide public consultation. But discussion has thus far been limited to the strengthening of the COE system and the possibility of establishing of a bicameral legislature involving an upper house representing chiefs.

A range of difficulties, both practical and fundamental, confronts the enterprise. The practical difficulties have already limited the effective implementation of the COE system in Bougainville. More fundamental issues involve challenge to customary authority; rapid economic and social change will only exacerbate the problem. Resolving the tension involved in basing an accountable democratic system of governance for an autonomous or independent Bougainville on what is in many respects an autocratic system of customary power will not be easy. There is also potential for tension between conceptions of individual rights and responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities of groups, though of course Bougainville will not be the first place to deal with such tensions, and could learn much from experiences elsewhere. Discrimination by powerful local leaders against outsiders, both people from elsewhere in Bougainville and people from other parts of PNG, is also a threat.

These and similar potential problems should not be unmanageable, however, especially if effective and sensitive support and guidance is provided to customary authorities exercising new forms of power. Bougainvilleans are committed to the enterprise, and will undoubtedly bring great energy to it. They do not have a static view of their own custom. They want to build on it, and in so doing, to enable their multiple communities to find their own paths into an unpredictable future.

Anthony Regan, a constitutional lawyer, advises Bougainvillean parties to the negotiations with the Papua New Guinea government on the political future of Bougainville. He is a fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

References & further reading

Denoon, D. (2000). Getting Under the Skin. The Bougainville Copper Agreement and the Creation of the Panguna Mine. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Ghai Y., & Regan, A.J. (2000). Bougainville and the dialectics of ethnicity, autonomy and separation. In Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating Competing Claims in Multi-ethnic States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp 242-265.

Nash, J. & Ogan, E. (1990). The red and the black: Bougainvillean perceptions of other Papua New Guineans. Pacific Studies 13:2, pp 1-17.

Ogan, E. (1991). The cultural background to the Bougainville crisis. Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes 92-93:1-2, pp 61-67.

Oliver, D. (1991). Black Islanders: A Personal Perspective of Bougainville 1937-1991. Melbourne: Hyland House.

Regan, A.J. (1998). Current developments in the Pacific: causes and course of the Bougainville conflict. The Journal of Pacific History 33:3, pp 269-85.

Regan, A.J. (2000). 'Traditional' leaders and conflict resolution in Bougainville: reforming the present by re-writing the past? In Reflections on Violence in Melanesia. Dinnen, S. & Ley, A., Eds. Sydney and Canberra: Hawkins Press/Asia Pacific Press. Pp 290-304.

Wesley-Smith, T. (1992). Development and crisis in Bougainville: a bibliographic essay. The Contemporary Pacific 4:2, pp 407-432.

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