Australia’s diplomatic push into Bougainville coincides with a referendum on independence and calls to reopen the mine that was closed by bloodshed
Kristian Lasslett | The Guardian
Amid elections on Bougainville, news broke that the Abbott government will establish a new diplomatic mission in this autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Australians were subsequently banned by the PNG government from travelling there.
The announcement has surprised many, including PNG’s prime minister, who faces an impending referendum over Bougainville’s independence.
It shouldn’t have. The Australian government has been embedding itself on the island and inside the autonomous Bougainville government, through an expansive diplomatic presence and advisory program.
Australia’s movement has its origins in a 1994 decision by the Keating government to downgrade covert military support for the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), who were brutally suppressing Bougainville’s independence struggle.
Since then, successive Australian governments have accepted that the independence question must be decided politically.
Whatever the result of the independence referendum, the Abbott government wants to see independence or autonomy arrangements on Bougainville pursued in a way that is congruent with its vision for a stable South Pacific.
This vision is a far cry from the principles that initially inspired landowners to take up arms on Bougainville, which centred on defending indigenous ways of life, cultural systems and ecological values.
The blueprint outlining the Abbott government’s position is the 2014 report, Australian aid: promoting prosperity, reducing poverty, enhancing stability. It argues for an aid and diplomacy program centred on “greater trade liberalisation in our region” and making “economies more attractive to investment and other sources of private development finance”.
These aims are underpinned by a strategic belief that security in the Asia-Pacific will be assured when business prospers.
Accordingly, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has proposed withdrawing aid from frontline services in PNG – including the provision of “basic medical supplies”. The savings made will be invested in initiatives designed to “reduce the constraints to business”.
In a part of the world where corporate actors have been free to engage in large scale land grabs, illegal logging, and gross human rights abuses, enhancing the “enabling environment for business” will worry many communities at the coalface of resource extraction and agribusiness.
On Bougainville, the Australian government’s faith in business as a primary driver for security and development has seen a considerable investment in the political infrastructure needed to revive a range of industries. Mining has been at the centre of these efforts.
Australian officials advising the Autonomous Bougainville Government maintain that mining is the only viable economic route for supporting independence or autonomy. Bougainville’s president agrees, and has committed his government to reopening the Panguna copper mine.
This is a contentious move. In 1988 customary landowners used industrial sabotage to close the mine. They shed considerable volumes of blood to ensure it remained closed, as the PNGDF torched villages and executed civilians.
In the war’s immediate aftermath, landowners’ alleged that the mine’s owner, Rio Tinto, logistically aided the PNGDF through its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited. These allegations are supported by senior executive testimony and internal company records.
Nevertheless, Australian scholars and journalists are reporting that Bougainvilleans support a resumption of mining under Rio Tinto management. This counterintuitive claim is often followed by the hackneyed claim that landowners “prefer the devil they know”.
There is no factual basis for these generalisations, which have little currency in mine affected communities. It is hard to imagine that landowners, who sacrificed so much to revive a culture and way of life put under existential threat by the mine, will allow its reopening to occur without mounting formidable resistance.
Tensions have been raised by the recent passing of the Bougainville mining bill. Celebrated in the media as a coup for indigenous rights, the legislation, we are told, places landowners in the box seat when it comes to mining.
That one of the act’s principal architects is Adam Smith International (ASI) – an offshoot of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, the intellectual hub for Thatcherism during the 1980s – has not prompted commentators to pause for thought.
Under the legislation, landowner consent for mining is given an ominously vague definition. For instance, it is possible for a small number of individuals organised through a government sanctioned landowners association, to consent on behalf of landowner communities.
The legislation also gives Bougainville’s government the power to confiscate customary land, with specific provisions nullifying constitutional and common law protections. Those who resist confiscation, face stiff custodial penalties of up to five years prison.
The Abbott government’s controversial decision to upgrade its Bougainville office is perhaps the strongest signal to date of the potential turbulence ahead if Australia’s vision for a prosperous Bougainville is shared by whoever leads the next autonomous Bougainville government.
With Australia’s presence on Bougainville growing, vigorous diplomacy will no doubt be employed to ensure the two governments’ policies continue to align.