Cultural practices, absence of arms at the heart of Bougainville peace process

by Kevin McBride
Pax Christi Aotearoa

The Bougainville civil war was one of the most serious conflicts in the South Pacific region since World War II. Some thousands of people died as a direct or indirect result of the conflict, which began in 1989 and dragged on until the early months of 1998. It arose partly from the desire of the people of Bougainville, a separate island off the coast of Papua-New Guinea (P-NG), to gain independence from P-NG. Both had been part of European colonisation which devolved to Australia during the 20th century. P-NG gained independence in 1975, which included control over Bougainville, largely because of its vast deposits of copper and other minerals. This resulted in continued development of mining in the interests of overseas investors, while the people of Bougainville received very little of the income generated from the mining carried out on their land.

Suffering on the island during the conflict was widespread. At one point 70,000 of a population of 180,000-200,000 were displaced in care centres or camps.

In July 1997, the Bougainville factions first met in New Zealand to discuss a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In October 1997 they agreed to an immediate truce. New Zealand was given responsibility for monitoring the truce and in an unprecedented move, decided to do so by way of a contingent of unarmed military personnel which included women.

The New Zealand-led Truce Monitoring Group was deployed from December 1997. Its approach was greatly affected by a commitment to the inclusion of Maori protocols in its processes, including cultural processes like the powhiri (ceremonial encounter between ‘strangers’) and the haka (ritual acknowledgement of the status of a person or group). This involvement of cultural practices resonated well with the conflicting parties in Bougainville who developed increasing levels of dialogue and trust which eventually led them, on 30 April 1998, to a permanent ceasefire agreement. On 30 August 2001, a comprehensive Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in Arawa, largely under the influence of Bougainville women, using their status in a matrilineal society to end the divisive conflict. Their commitment and strength carried the day. The Agreement included a weapons disposal plan and provided for elections for the establishment of an autonomous government on Bougainville.

It also provided for a referendum on the question of Bougainvillean independence, initially set for 10 to 15 years after the election of the Autonomous Bougainville Government. That referendum is now set to happen between 2015 and 2020.

In May 2005, the United Nations Observer Mission on Bougainville declared the weapons disposal program complete and verified that the situation on Bougainville was conducive to holding elections. The election took place from 20 May to 2 June 2005.

It was a momentous event in the long process of establishing and consolidating a permanent peace on Bougainville which may not have come about without the decision of the NZ Army to undertake their monitoring task without resource to arms. An International Election Observer Mission – invited by the PNG Government and Bougainvillean leaders to observe the election – concluded that the election was competently and transparently conducted in all key respects.

On 15 June 2005, the first Bougainville President, Joseph Kabui, and the members of the Autonomous Bougainville Government were sworn into office in a ceremony in Buka.

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