Asia-Pacific, Headlines

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Progress in Bougainville Talks Fires Hopes

Kevin Pamba

SYDNEY, Aug 3 1997 (IPS) - A major step toward ending the long- simmering rebellion on Papua New Guinea’s copper-rich island of Bougainville was recently brokered by New Zealand, with the involvement of major parties.

A two-week meeting in July in New Zealand’s Burnham Army camp, provided the ‘Burnham Declaration’ calling for the complete demilitarisation and removal of blockades put in place by a recent declaration between the PNG government and the neighbouring Solomon Islands.

The Declaration is the fifth attempt at finding peace and bringing back normalcy to Bougainville, an island in western PNG where a secessionist movement led by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army has been fighting for self-rule for nine years now.

New hope for some progress also stemmed from the recent release of five PNG government security force members, who had been held captive for 10 months by Bougainville rebels.

The hostages included five PNG soldiers and two policemen captured after a rebel ambush on an army camp that saw the massacre of 12 others. They were handed over to New Zealand officials aboard the New Zealand frigate, HMNZS Canterbury at Buka in Bougainville.

From there, the five were airlifted by New Zealand army transport to PNG capital Port Moresby, where they were greeted by an emotional crowd of family members, the PNG army and the government of the new Prime Minister Bill Skate. But things were not to be so simple.

The Bougainville rebels’ supreme commander Francis Ona, who did not attend the New Zealand meeting but participated in the previous four peace meetings, disassociated himself from the hostage release. He said it was done without his knowledge.

While the Burnham meeting was going on, Ona also told the international media that a referendum on the island’s fate should be a must in any peace initiative. This was the only way its people could decide whether to remain part of PNG, or become independent. Still, the BRA was among the parties that approved the Burnham Declaration. Its other participants included the secessionist Bougainville Interim Government, whose military wing is the BRA and the pro-PNG government of Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG).

Former New Zealand High Commissioner to PNG John Hayes brokered the agreement, along with other New Zealand government officials.

The declaration stated: “In order to end the war and restore lasting peace on Bougainville, we hereby commit ourselves to the establishment of a clear process for the achievement of a political settlement to the war on Bougainville with the Government of Papua New Guinea.”

It also listed common points of agreement among the parties, which included a call for the setting up of a process for negotiations between Bougainville leaders and the PNG government.

Likewise, it said a ceasefire declaration would be agreed upon by all parties under force of arms and would take effect simultaneously with the arrival of the first contingent of a peacekeeping force on Bougainville. It added that a neutral United Nations peacekeeping force would be invited into Bougainville at the start of the process for a period of not more than three years with the agreement of the PNG government, the Bougainville Transitional Government and the rebels.

The declaration said a call for the demilitarisation of Bougainville is an “essential part” of the peace process, including the complete withdrawal of the PNG Defence Force from all parts of Bougainville within a time frame to be agreed upon between Bougainville leaders and the government.

As part of the demilitarisation process, all Bougainvilleans currently under force of arms will lay down their arms under the supervision of the peacekeeping force.

Other terms include a lifting of the blockade and restrictions on Bougainville to allow access to foreign donors and humanitarian agencies carrying out social services. Likewise, it says the PNG government must fully restore freedom of movement of all Bougainvilleans, internally and externally.

Parties to the declaration are targetting a first meeting of Bougainville officials with the PNG Government by September this year in a neutral place, to set up the settlement process and begin its implementation.

PNG’s Skate, who assumed the post a week after the New Zealand talks, welcomed progress made so far and said his government would look into the contents of the ‘Burnham Declaration’.

The PNG government was not represented at the Burnham Camp meeting, because newly elected parliamentarians were busy negotiating to form a new government after the June elections. However, leaders of the pro-PNG ‘Bougainville Transitional Government’ were present.

Observers say the election of Skate as premier may not help the Bougainville talks since he is unknown to majority of Papua New Guineans and Bougainvilleans. Many thought that founding PNG premier Michael Somare, who met the Bougainville rebels on the island late last year, would take the top job and succeed Julius Chan, whose government was tainted by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Skate, who made a name for himself as governor of Port Moresby, defeated Somare with a resounding 72 to 36 absolute majority in an eleventh hour turn of events two weeks ago.

The Bougainville rebellion traces its roots to discontent among landowners, disgruntled with the financial benefits from the rich Panguna mine and blockaded it. This was among the incidents that escalated into an island-wide insurgency.

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