Today the people of Bougainville are confronted with two decisions that will irreversibly determine the life that confronts future generations on the island. Bougainvilleans, who have sacrificed more than most for their young democracy, must choose whether they are to become an independent nation, or remain an autonomous region of PNG; and they must elect whether to welcome back Rio Tinto, to operate a mine whose scars are etched deep in the island’s lands and people.
The scars of the Panguna mine are etched deep in the land and people of Bougainville
The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), according to its officials, has begun an information offensive designed to give choice on Bougainville meaning, in a region of the world where ‘choice’ has often proved a tragic façade designed to mask profoundly undemocratic machinations.
General Amirmachmud, nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’, at a meeting on the West Papua referendum, July 1969
The proud and courageous people of West Papua, who have endured and resisted one of the most brutal and prolonged occupations of the 20th century, know this well. Their so called ‘act of free choice’, granting Indonesia sovereignty over a motherland it had no connection with, was anything but. ‘The act of free choice in West Irian [West Papua]’, wrote one US official, ‘is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the Government of Indonesia, cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia’.
Nevertheless, outright despotism required a veneer of democracy – accordingly a tragic spectacle was played out as 1025 West Papuan leaders, hand-picked by the Indonesian government, publicly elected, before complicit UN officials, to remain part of Indonesia. Reassuringly, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister told international audiences that West Papuans had been treated to ‘extensive consultation’.
The people of Bougainville also know how hollow choice can be. At the same time that Soeharto and his cut-throat Generals carefully stage managed a referendum over independence in West Papua, Australia stage managed its own democratic fraud – the opening of the Panguna copper and gold mine.
Rorovana women resist Rio Tinto bulldozers, August 1969
Although different governments, and different interests, both acted out of a common desire to ‘stabilise’ the region and commodify its rich natural bounty so that they could be auctioned off to international resource operators. And when the customary owners of these resources initiated epic struggles of resistance, these regional powers marshalled all the instruments of death modern industry can manufacture and hoisted them upon those largely unarmed people who dared to challenge an autocratic mandate.
In that context, PNG Exposed over the coming months will publish historical records long denied to Bougainville citizens, in order to increase the volume of independent information available to this fiercely independent island, as its people face historic choices. These records tell a history that began with a remarkable lie, whose sad progeny were a series of even more remarkable lies which culminated in a bloody war organised by the Australian and PNG governments in cooperation with Rio Tinto.
This grand swindle of a sovereign people and their resources began in the 1960s. Concerned citizens at home in Australia were told by the colonial administration that the indigenous peoples of Bougainville – who had valiantly helped Australian and US soldiers see off the Japanese onslaught – were being treated to a wealth of information on the mine and its impacts (see Appendix A). Fictions then flooded the emerging corridors of state-power in PNG, as Bougainville’s first great leaders were informed the mine would be nothing more than a discrete pit, tucked away in a forgotten jungle region of the Crown Prince Ranges. It would make their people rich, they were told, with very little environmental damage.
These were lies of course, necessary lies though, needed to erect the great facade of free choice behind which stands a hidden dictatorship administered by discrete corporate interests and allied state-powers; organisations who command vast masses of wealth, which itself is nothing more than the immense social labour of previous generations, washed of its exploitative origins, and used to begin the process anew.
The carefully orchestrated ‘consultation’ process in Buin.
While the actors and organisations may be different, the echo of these lies resonate today (see Appendix A). Like the colonial administration before it, the ABG attempts to quell rancour by assuring citizens that all stakeholders are being thoroughly consulted about the reopening of the Panguna mine. Indeed, we are told that landowners are happy to see a feared corporation return – who did so much to ravage the people when they dared defend their birth right – to consume what’s left of the rich ore deposit, which once made BCL the glimmering jewel in Rio Tinto’s crown.
Behind this new democratic façade lie preordained decisions made by government officials and their corporate benefactors. Earlier this year PNG Exposed published meeting minutes, where handpicked landowner leaders were informed by the ABG Mining Minister, ‘that there was no two ways about [it, the] Panguna mine [is] being opened in the not too distant future’. ABG’s President agreed, the mine ‘must be opened’, he said, ‘and there is an important need for a unified stand by the ABG and Panguna Landowners’.
But resistance to this historic decision, made quietly and discretely far away from public scrutiny, has emerged. The head of the Bougainville Independent Indigenous People’s Foundation, Bernadine Kama recently claimed: ‘I just cannot comprehend why we must continue to suffer at the hands of our leaders and our government, which has been negotiating to re-open the mine … Can we not be left alone to live our own lives in peace on our land?’
Francis Ona led a people’s revolution that aimed to end the despotism of capital and bring a new form of democracy
Kama’s words possess the simple elegance often witnessed in the speeches of another great Bougainvillean orator, Francis Ona, a man who led a people’s revolution, a revolution that aimed to end the despotism of capital, and bring a new form of democracy to Bougainville. It was a democracy where the people choose their future and how their resources will be used, rather than an air-brushed corporate elite who divide the global spoils with the aid and assistance of those mandated to represent the people, but who in the end represent money and inward looking political cabals far removed from the everyday miseries they generate.
The revolution should have been a great ray of hope to the people of Melanesia; but its message of sovereignty and justice was not allowed to circulate, a brutal military campaign and an indefensible blockade saw to that.
And just like in the colonial days, when missionaries would follow in the wake of brutal colonial massacres to convert those left after ‘pacification’, modern-day proselytisers holding the book of science, follow in the wake of war on Bougainville with apologetic myths that Francis Ona was no revolutionary, and that this was no revolution. He was we are told, a greedy man, after a ‘bigger slice of the pie’, others suggest he was confused independence fighter, a silly crank from the mountains who believed in spirits and hadn’t the nose for modernity.
The historical records reveal something different. They reveal a man of principle who had seen the despotism of capital creep into his very backyard, as a generation of leaders caroused with BCL and consumed scraps tossed to the landowners’ association and trust, while their people suffered. They reveal not only a man, but a woman, Perpetua Serero, sanctioned by the people to prosecute a very simple set of demands – environment, land, justice and equality – in an age where such simple demands are regarded as profane.
Ex-combatants attend a’ consultation meeting’
Of course, this narrative cannot be told today, it contains dangerous ideas. So it is denied, or worse yet, re-written to suit the interests of contemporary despots – who emerge from history dripping in blood – as they circle this so called ‘discrete little pit’, which would ‘harm nobody’.
However, PNG Exposed won’t retell the narrative. Instead it will publish the primary sources, let those who spoke, speak for themselves; and let the people of Bougainville give meaning to their own history, an innate right so often denied to the people of Melanesia. It is a complex history, full of imposition and resistance, underwritten by a hidden form of dictatorship that is epitomised not by a single despot but a social system organised around the demands of capital whose laws have nothing in common with basic values of humanity and justice. It is hidden dictatorship because even the fact of its existence cannot be acknowledged, for to acknowledge it would be to admit the obscenity of our age – democracy with no democracy.
Appendix A – The Lies Which Echo Today
Charles Barnes, Minister for Territories, 1969
John Momis, President of Bougainville, 2013
Interview: John Momis, President, Autonomous Bougainville Government
The President of Bougainville, John Momis, wants work on restarting the giant Panguna gold and copper mine to begin later this year. In this exclusive interview with Business Advantage PNG, he outlines the steps now needed to restart operations.
Business Advantage PNG (BAPNG): Why do Bougainvilleans now support re-opening the mine?
John Monis is desperate to see Rio Tinto reopen the Panguna mine
John Momis (JM): The Panguna Mine was the primary source of the war, which reduced Bougainville to basics. We need to deal with it because the Panguna Mine is a mega project. We need the revenue to be generated from it—revenue for the government as well as income for the people. So with the way things are going, we don’t have much option really.
We don’t have much money coming from the National Government in terms of its commitment to allocate adequate funding for reconstruction and for the big job of creating an autonomous government. I think, once the mine is open, Bougainville will be very well off, and we can manage to reconstruct Bougainville and promote sustainable businesses.
‘The former commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, Sam Kauona, is now on side and in agreement with the need to re-open the mine.’
With the collaboration of credible partners from outside, the government itself will have enough money to create a new government. We also need money to create something that’s sustainable and in accordance with the principles of good governance and democracy.
BAPNG: Is there much opposition among local landowners and Bougainville people to the re-opening of the mine?
JM: There is a little bit of opposition but with clarification and with our efforts to create awareness, more and more people are in support: ex-combatants generally, the landowners themselves and the population in general. So, there is not much opposition. There is opposition from some quarters, and that is quite small, due to a lack of understanding.
The former commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, Sam Kauona, is now on side and in agreement with the need to re-open the mine. He also agrees with the new mining law, which I expect the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) to pass by September this year.
BAPNG: The landowners’ umbrella group is seeking a payment of K10 billion (US$4.45 billion). How critical is that before any real work gets under way? Does it have to be in cash or could it be in some other form?
JM: No, it doesn’t have to be [in cash]. As a matter of fact, I am advocating that we should, without too much delay, start negotiations with Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) so that they can address some of the burning issues affecting the landowners whose land and whose lives have been detrimentally affected. But we can’t do that unless BCL are given some kind of guarantee that they will be allowed to operate. So, the sooner we negotiate with them, the better for us.
‘Well, people say that the lease has expired, but precedents have been set that say that once leases are expired they must be renewed to the same company, and that is BCL. So, that’s the assumption we’re working under.’
The K10 billion [that] people are talking about can be provided in different forms of development assistance to villagers to rebuild their villages and sort out some of the problems they’ve had as a result of the mine.
It’s not a question of paying K10 billion at one go.
BAPNG: Do you see BCL as the only viable company to re-open the mine itself, or do you see the possibility of another mining company competing for the rights?
JM: The landowners themselves want BCL. That’s their declared condition. I don’t necessarily believe BCL is the only one, but because they legally own the leases, we’ve got to start with them, and under our own law, BCL will have to meet our conditions. I have also mentioned to BCL that perhaps there is a place for a third party to be involved.
BAPNG: What do you regard as critical in order to get the mine up and running again?
JM: Law and order and rule of law–that’s number one. That is why we’ve spent a lot of time holding forums to allow people to participate in discussions of important issues including law and order, ownership, distribution of benefits and, of course, environmental impacts on the land.
Getting all the different factions together—landowners, ex-combatants, other citizens of Bougainville and the government—is crucially important. Once we come to a consensus, then people will have a sense of ownership of the project, and this also extends to whichever mining company that finally agrees to participate under our conditions.
‘We have had positive discussions with executives from BCL, but we now have to sensitise Rio Tinto executives in London about the way in which we want to proceed.’
We’ve already started the initial discussions with BCL about some of the issues that must be resolved before they start their construction work. It has done a study of the order of magnitude that seems to be very attractive and confirms that currently the mine is a mega project.
BAPNG: BCL estimates it could take five years to rehabilitate the environment and conditions in order to actually get the mine operating again. Do you see the length of time as a problem?
JM: For us, we need to start generating revenue as soon as possible. We have a time line—2015 and onwards is the ideal window. We have to conduct a referendum to determine our final political status. The historic moment of designing our future is imminent and we need money to achieve that. Procrastinating on opening the mine, even five years, is a bit far. We must come to an agreement to allow BCL to come and set up their liaison office in Arawa to deal with some of the practical problems, which are not immense, which are not insurmountable, to enable BCL to start spending money on reconstruction work, and that will bring a lot of income to the people and revenue to the ABG, and I think that is what we need.
People, I think, misunderstand that you must wait for the production phase. Reconstruction is where companies spend a lot of money and that’s what we want. We don’t want to procrastinate on that.
BAPNG: So would you like to see BCL physically return by the end of this year? Can you see it happening?
JM: That’s correct, yes. We will go for that. Of course, we have to take precautions. We have to do things right, and hence the lengthy period of consultation we’ve been having. That should iron out a lot of the problems and help us to come to a consensus to decide what to do.
We have had positive discussions with executives from BCL, but we now have to sensitise Rio Tinto executives in London about the way in which we want to proceed. So far, we have been successful in taking a consensual approach towards restarting the mine.