People’s Will: Bougainville Island Declares Independence! A new state may appear on the world map soon, but it’s not that simple

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“Another nation gained independence”, “In the near future a new state will appear at the UN”, “The parliament has remained a formality – to ratify the results of the will of the people on Bougainville.” With such headlines over the past week, newspapers around the world, including Russia, appeared after the referendum was announced on the distant tropical island of Bougainville: 97.7% for complete independence from Papua New Guinea. Such attention to what is happening is understandable: not so often recently new states appear on the official map of the world. However, everything is not so simple: the Papua parliament is not at all eager to let the bougainvillea go free, and the declaration of desired independence may well be postponed indefinitely. Why – Izvestia understood.

Tangled past

Bougainville – the northernmost largest island in the Solomon Islands – was discovered in 1768 by a French round-the-world expedition under the command of Count Louis Antoine de Bougainville and named after him. By that time, people were already living on the island – Melanesians, close relatives of those who inhabited other islands of the archipelago. In the following decades, Europeans and Americans rarely visited the island: only British and American whalers during the next century occasionally visited the island to stock up on provisions, water and wood.

None of the civilized states of that time claimed Bougainville: the local climate was considered unhealthy, the natives were wild and bloodthirsty savages, and besides, there were enough other islands around for colonization.

Everything changed at the end of the 19th century. The colonial powers in the process of dividing the last undeveloped pieces of the world drew attention to the previously wild lands – Africa and the islands of Oceania. Germany was particularly active, which joined the colonial race rather late and tried to catch up. In 1885, the Germans declared a protectorate over the northern Solomon Islands – Bougainville, Buka, Choiseul, Santa Isabel and Ontong Java .

Eight years later, the British took the southern islands under their protectorate, and another five years later – the central. In 1899, London and Berlin signed an agreement on the division of spheres of influence, according to which Britain refused claims to Samoa, and in return received part of the German possessions in the Solomon Islands. At the same time, the Germans left Bougainville and the neighboring island of Buka, including them in their colony German New Guinea, which occupied the northeastern part of the vast island of New Guinea (the so-called Kaiser Wilhelm Land) and several small archipelagos.

German Bougainville did not stay long. After the outbreak of World War I, he, along with most of German New Guinea, was occupied by Australian troops, and after the end of the war, Australians received Kaiser Wilhelm Land in command based on the mandate of the League of Nations. Given that by that time the Australians already owned the southeastern part of New Guinea, under their control was the entire eastern part of the island – and, of course, Bougainville and Buka. The rest of the Solomon Islands remained British.

As a result, when in 1975 Australia granted independence to the new state of Papua – New Guinea, Bougainville and Buka became part of it . Three years later, the rest of the Solomon Islands gained independence, now from Britain, but it was too late: Bougainville, inhabited by the Melanesians and having long maintained cultural and linguistic ties with its southern brethren, ended up in another country, the majority of whose population belongs to a different ethnic group and speaks strange languages.

This is not to say that the Bougainvilleans were very pleased. A couple of weeks before the declaration of independence of Papua (September 16), the Provisional Regional Government of Bougainville announced the creation of a new state – the Republic of the Northern Solomon Islands. This happened on September 1st. The newly formed republic appealed to the UN for recognition – but to no avail; they also failed to join the British protectorate of the Solomon Islands.

As a result, the Bougainvilleans signed an agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea that the island would temporarily remain part of a large Papuan state as autonomy, and in five years it would gain independence. But officials at Port Moresby were in no hurry to keep their promises, and the point was not only that new states were usually extremely jealous of sovereignty. Bougainville was a real pantry.

Owners of the copper mountain

Back in the first half of the 20th century, geologists discovered copper on Bougainville , in large quantities and very close to the surface. Its development began in 1964: CRA Exploration, a subsidiary of the Australian company Rio Tinto Zinc, began work on the mine, which was called Panguna. The mine began operating at full capacity in 1969, and Bougainville Copper Ltd. was established to manage it.

Locals from its activities were initially not enthusiastic. All profits from copper mining went to Australian owners, the mine polluted the environment. In addition, when it was created, geologists demolished several villages without paying compensation to the residents, and Papuan workers from New Guinea were massively brought in to work at the mine. Local residents, therefore, were left with destroyed houses, without jobs and any compensation .

When Papua New Guinea gained independence, the authorities in Port Moresby promised the Bougainvilleas that now everything will change and that at least a third of the money received from the sale of copper mined on the island will go to the locals. But nothing happened: the inexhaustible Panguna gave up to 40% of the country’s GDP in the best years, while the situation of the native Bougainvilleans worsened. And then they rebelled .


In 1987, two mine workers — cousins ​​Francis Ona and Pepetua Serero — called on farmers living near Panguna to civil disobedience . They created the Association of Landowners Panguna, Serero was elected chairman, Onu – Secretary General. The peasants demanded to pay them in compensation an amount equal to the cost of half of the copper mined in the mine. Australian mine owners refused, then the miners and peasants rebelled.

She formed from the farmers the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (ARB). The first combat operation was an attack on the mine: the peasants destroyed the buildings, looted the shops and took explosives with them, which undermined the poles of the power supply line, thereby completely de-energizing the mine. He commanded the rebels Sam Cowona – a deserter from the Papuan army, who had previously undergone military training in Australia. Unable to fight the Papuan soldiers on equal terms, the Bougainville revolutionary detachments switched to guerrilla warfare, attacking officials and ore convoys. As a result, in less than a year, the Australians realized that the losses were too great and closed the mine.

The police and military repeatedly tried to catch Ona and his assistants, but to no avail: the partisans had an extensive network of informants and sympathizers in the upper circles of the Bougainville autonomous government. With each passing month, the confrontation became more and more fierce: the army, trying to get to the elusive partisan leaders, beat and tortured civilians, and the revolutionaries responded with acts of terror – so they shot John Bika, the local minister of trade who advocated peace between Papua and the Bougainvilleans. Unable to cope with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, Port Moresby declared a state of emergency on Bougainville. It did not help.

The government of Papua tried in the fight against the Bougainvilleans both the carrot and the stick. In 1990, it agreed to withdraw troops in exchange for the disarmament of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army under the control of foreign observers. Following the army, police escaped from the island, fearing reprisals, and Bougainville completely came under the control of the rebels. Papua authorities declared a complete blockade of the island, in response to Francis She unilaterally re-declared independence.

In the ranks of the Bougainville revolutionaries, decomposition began: since the majority in the command were immigrants from the Nasioi clan, representatives of other clans accused them of trying to seize power. As a result, the ARB split into fractions that began to fight with each other; many deserted, got into gangs and began to terrorize farmers, who in response created self-defense forces.

Port Moresby kept a close eye on what was happening, tossing weapons to any force opposing the ARB. On the neighboring island of Buka, the local militia, with the active help of the troops who arrived at their call from Papua, drove off the Bougainville revolutionary detachments. In those years, many people tried to catch fatter fish in troubled waters: volunteers from the Solomon Islands actively participated in the Bougainville strife.

When power changed in Port Moresby in 1992, the new Prime Minister Wingti decided that the time had come. A year later, Papuan troops began a massive landing on the island. This time the soldier was supported by local militia, tired of the thugs and deserters from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The flag of Papua again fluttered over the island’s capital – Arava, the army stormed Panguna by storm – but then Wingti resigned. The new government first tried to resolve the matter again with peace, withdrawing the troops, but then waved a hand and again sent the soldiers to fight in Bougainville. This time with the support of professionals.

Professionals enter the game

Papua authorities have decided to seek help from mercenaries, a London-based private military company Sandline International. The detachments of this PMC were manned from former soldiers who served in the British and South African armies and had combat experience in Sierra Leone and Angola. While the parties shook off the amount of remuneration and the terms of the contract, the Papuan troops launched an attack on the position of the ARB, which ended in disaster: the militants launched a counterattack, defeating the army camp on Cangue Beach. The operation was attended by fighters of the local militia, who, having looked at the behavior of the Papuan soldiers on Bougainville, decided that their looters and murderers were better than strangers, and once again changed sides.

Meanwhile, the government at Port Moresby finally managed to negotiate with the mercenaries, but this time the military of Papua New Guinea were indignant, who until then carried the brunt of the fighting on their shoulders. Especially when they found out about the amount of remuneration: $ 36 million, and despite the fact that the New Guinean soldiers received mere pennies for their service.

Jerry Singiroc, commander of the Papua New Guinean army, ordered all mercenaries to be arrested upon arrival and surrounded by parliament in case he tried to approve a government decision. As a result of the ensuing crisis, the mercenaries left Papua, the government resigned, and Singiroc was arrested on suspicion of an attempted military coup, but later acquitted.

The war on Bougainville itself began to gradually fade. Government forces could not drive the rebels out of the mountains, and they were not able to drop the New Guinean soldiers into the sea. The parties finally sat down at the negotiating table and concluded an agreement: Bougainville receives wide autonomy, and Port Moresby agrees to hold a referendum on the independence of the island after 10-15 years . The irreconcilable revolutionaries, led by She, retreated to the Pangun mine area, where they created their own unrecognized state, where neither government officials nor tourists were allowed to enter.

Francis She proclaimed herself king of Bougainville under the name Francis Dominic Dateransi Domanaa and ruled over her unrecognized kingdom until she died of malaria in 2004. His successor, King David Pei II (formerly Noah Musingku), launched an active foreign policy, creating a financial pyramid in Australia, the money from which went to fill the budget of the kingdom and pay for the army collected from the remnants of the ARB fighters and Fijian Protestant mercenaries.

The referendum was eventually held after 19 years, but the independence of the island is still in question. And the reasons are quite obvious: Papua New Guinea simply does not want to grant independence to Bougainville, and there is no one who could force it to do so.

Release cannot be left

Authorities in Port Moresby have taken a position that is not without grace. “We, of course, promised to hold a referendum and held,” Papua officials say. “But we did not promise to recognize its results as binding.” Surrender to the separatists is the last thing the New Guineans need now: the Republic of Papua itself is sewn on a living thread from many tribal associations, clans and families, and letting go of Bougainville now means to question the unity of the country.

The situation is complicated: 97.7% in favor of independence cannot simply be ignored, especially since Papua is not ready to get involved in a new war; but to risk the very existence of the state is even worse . So far, authorities in Port Moresby have said they will try to convince the separatists not to insist on leaving the united state, but it does not seem like proponents of bougainville independence have taken this idea with enthusiasm.

But the main thing is that none of the serious players with interests in the region can and do not want to play for a long time for Bougainville. Papua is rich in minerals: gold, copper, silver, tellurium, cobalt, nickel are mined there, there are deposits of oil and gas. This is a huge pantry, in the development of reserves of which Australia and China are primarily interested (more and more recently strengthening ties with Port Moresby), but in which other players, including the USA and India, are also ready to rummage.

Recognizing the independence of Bougainville means getting one, albeit a very large, copper mine, while losing access to New Guinean fossils. So far, it seems, none of the major players are ready. Until a mutually acceptable solution is found, Bougainville’s independence will remain a pipe dream .

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