Hamish McDonald | The Saturday Paper
In his first couple of years as foreign minister, Alexander Downer had a lot of bombs explode in his portfolio.
Among them was the 1997 Sandline affair in which Papua New Guinea’s government brought in South African and other mercenaries to try to end the bitter conflict on Bougainville Island that had closed the giant Rio Tinto gold and copper mine there since 1989.
An army mutiny in Port Moresby scotched that idea, a truce with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army followed, and talks held in a New Zealand army camp led to a peace agreement in 2001 that set up an Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG). Throughout the talks, New Zealand sources say, Downer was out to prevent what he called the “Balkanisation” of Australia’s strategic arc of friendly states to its immediate north-east. The Kiwis were somewhat sceptical this could be avoided. Anyone who’s read the Lloyd Jones novel Mister Pip might agree.
An election starting on Monday among Bougainville’s estimated 300,000 people brings the issue closer to decision. The Bougainville government’s new president and legislature will hold a promised referendum some time during their five-year term on whether the island stays in PNG or goes independent.
John Momis, who is the current ABG president and favourite for re-election against eight other candidates, is adding another explosive issue. After getting a new mining law passed in March this year, he is pushing for the reopening of the Panguna copper mine that was the original cause of the civil war. With only 11 per cent of his government’s budget coming from local revenue, the rest mostly from Port Moresby grants, the mines are the only prospective source of revenue to make either autonomy or independence a reality. The island has plenty of other goldmines, feverishly worked over by about 10,000 panhandlers who aren’t taxed, but it would take much longer for other, less socially burdened medium-scale mines to eventuate.
According to Anthony Regan, an ANU constitutional law professor who advises the Bougainville government, most Bougainvilleans would prefer Rio Tinto to return to Panguna, under stricter local consent and environmental provisions. “They prefer the devil they know,” he said. Whether Rio Tinto wants to spend the $US5.2 billion it estimates it will take to reopen the derelict mine is another matter.
Other interests are hovering. Momis suspects that PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill wants to buy out Rio Tinto’s 53.83 per cent shareholding in Bougainville Copper Ltd, adding it to his contentious nationalisation of BHP’s former Ok Tedi mine at the other end of the country. Momis said this would lead to a demand for immediate independence. O’Neill denies any such plans.
A new face on the scene is Anthony Johnston, of Sydney-based waste disposal firm United Resource Management (URM) and sponsor of the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. Johnston and his old schoolmate, lawyer Ian de Renzie Duncan, have been cultivating former rebels around the mine who call themselves the Me’ekamui Government of Unity. Regan said URM’s interest appears to be in brokering the entry of a new mine operator to Panguna. At a meeting with ABG president Momis in February, which Regan also attended, Johnston and Duncan had argued that while Rio Tinto should be given first refusal, it should be given six months to make a decision. Johnston did not return calls to his Sydney office.
How will the Bougainvilleans vote in the referendum? Dark-skinned, like many of the peoples in the adjacent Solomon Islands, from whom they were separated by colonial rivalry between Germany and Britain in the 1890s, they regard the lighter-skinned people from the other parts of PNG as alien “redskins”. Efforts by Port Moresby to put resources into the ABG may have come too late to overcome bitter memories of the counterinsurgency campaigns by national police and soldiers in the 1990s. “Lack of support for the ABG from Moresby has loaded the dice towards independence,” Regan said.
So the fear of a chink opening in our belt of Melanesian buffer states could be realised. Yet there’s a sting in the peace agreement. At Downer’s urging, it left implementation of the referendum result to the PNG national parliament, contingent on disposal of weapons and development of good governance in the ABG, rather than making it automatic. Regan says there’s some legal opinion in Port Moresby the referendum can be stopped on these grounds. Any such effort, or to block the result, could reopen conflict.
Bougainvilleans accepted the compromise after Downer argued the international community would support implementation of “a free and fair referendum with a clear outcome”, Momis told his outgoing parliament ahead of the election. “The truth is that we may need to rely on international community support at that time,” he said.