Asia-Pacific, Headlines

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Bougainville Braces for its ‘Darkest Hour’

David Robie

PORT MORESBY, Mar 25 1996 (IPS) - A Papua New Guinea (PNG) government decision to renew a military campaign to wipe out the separatist movement on the Pacific island of Bougainville, will not solve the problem, only resulting in needless bloodshed, observers say.

With peace talks held during the past 18 months of a ceasefire having failed to secure a negotiated settlement, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Julian Chan last week announced that “criminals who continue to kill, destroy and destabilise the peace longed for by all” faced their “darkest hour”.

Chan claimed “talking” had failed to resolve the crisis and it was time to look at other options. He blamed independence campaigners living abroad for undermining the peace talks by instigating a recent series of random attacks on government troops, leaving at least a dozen defence force members dead.

The prime minister’s announcement came one day after new army chief Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok, the PNG Defence Force’s youngest commander at 42, ruled out any military solution for the eight-year-old conflict.

Singirok, who was former head of military intelligence, said that the separatist movement, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) had enough community support to resist a government crackdown.

Observers say that for the government to nonetheless pursue a military campaign, suggest that the decision was politically motivated, with general elections due next year.

‘The National’, one of PNG’s leading daily newspapers, warned in an editorial that by bending to cabinet and community pressure, Chan had taken a “tragic and mistaken” decision.

“Once again, the innocent population may well find itself trapped between the rebels and the government forces,” said the paper, pointing out when the military had earlier been on the offensive, the BRA came out on top.

“Our fear, then, is that the pursuit of the military option on Bougainville will simply revalidate that which has been roundly discredited — the image and impact of the rebels — and at an unacceptably high human cost.”

Thousands of people have died — either in the guerrilla warfare or due to lack of medical supplies — since the conflict began in 1988.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), up to 5,000 children are believed to have died from preventable diseases due to lack of medical supplies and treatment.

Ever since Papua New Guinea secured its independence from Australia in 1975, it has found itself pre-occupied with a secessionist threat that together with a series of landowner compensation claims, have crippled the development of the South Pacific nation’s mineral reserves.

The initial rumblings were mollified in 1976 when the separatists were granted self-government, but relations remained tense and then there was bloodshed in 1988 when land owners who wanted compensation from the mine’s Australian operator, turned to sporadic guerrilla warfare when their claims were not met.

Bougainville Copper Ltd, which had operated the Panguna mine since 1972, closed the facility indefinitely in 1989 after sabotage and raids intensified. The Australian mining concern refused to bow to landowner demands for 10 billion dollars in compensation for environmental damage caused by mining.

Since then, the PNG government has sent thousands of troops to the island, but they have been unable to crush the separatists who declared the island’s independence in 1990 and maintained complete control until 1992.

But the rebel army’s failure to gain any foreign recognition, coupled with its authoritarian form of government, made it unpopular among much of the island’s 100,000 people, and soon Bougainvillean tribal chiefs were encouraging government efforts to regain control of the land.

As such, there are now two administrations on the island — Port Moresby has installed its own Bougainville Transitional Government in Buka, while the revolutionary army backed Bounganville Interim Government is based in Aieta.

Government and Bougainvillean negotiators were due to have held a third round of talks next month considering the disarming of both sides, an amnesty for the rebels and the political future of the island.

But Chan’s announcement last week would suggest those talks are now off.

He accused rebel leaders Francis Ona and Joseph Kabui and campaigners based abroad — Martin Miriori, Mike Forster and Moses Havini — them of being “selfish with evil motives”.

“They themselves are not physically fighting a battle. They command from a distance,” said Chan. “The blood that is being spilt is not their own — that blood comes from the innocent people, from women and children.”

The decision to lift the ceasefire, which had been negotiated with BRA military leader Sam Kauona shortly after Chan became prime minister in early September 1994, has restored full powers and responsibilities to the PNG Defence Force granted in a constitutional call-out on December 23, 1988.

Chan’s announcement came soon after five security force members were killed as BRA rebels stepped up their onslaught on Buka island, just off the Bougainville coast. This took the total defence force members killed in March to 10. A further two are missing, believed dead.

Leaders on the island of Buka demanded the immediately lifting of the ceasefire following the killings.

For the past two weeks, the township is reported to have been like a ghost town with all shops, the sole bank, post office and the government radio stations shut down. The airport was also closed to civilian traffic.

The rebels claim their strikes are retaliatory in nature.

Last month, the house of rebel spokesman Miriori in Honiara, capital of the neighbouring Solomon Islands, was burned down. The BRA claimed the PNG government was behind the arson attack while the government alleged that dissident rebels were responsible.

 
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