War For Profit In Bougainville

“It is my opinion that absent Rio Tinto’s mining activity on Bougainville or its insistence that the Panguna mine be re-opened, the government would not have engaged in hostilities or taken military action on the island.”

”Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the government.”

”The government of PNG followed Rio Tinto’s instructions and carried out its requests … BCL was directly involved in the military operations on Bougainville, and it played an active role. BCL supplied helicopters, which were used as gunships, the pilots, troop transportation, fuel and troop barracks.”

– Sir Michael Somare

Haven’t heard of Bougainville (pronounced:  BO-gan-vill)? You’re not alone. Bougainville was- and kinda sorta still is- part of Papua New Guinea (PNG), in South-East Asia. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, it was the scene of uprisings, coups, and civil war. Not unusual in the Third World in that time period.

The reason I’m bringing it up now is because a leak of sealed evidence from that most civilized of events, a class action lawsuit, has allegedly confirmed long-held beliefs about the intersection of corporate greed with the horrific violence and anarchy that characterised Bougainville for so long. Specifically, the ex-Prime Minister of PNG, Sir Michael Somare, has gone on affidavit testifying as to the involvement of mining megacorporation Rio Tinto in setting government policy and supplying helicopter gunships, troop transports, prefab buildings and the like to PNG military forces carrying out operations to secure Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine.

“Why so much fuss about a mine?” you might ask. Well, to say that the violence in Bougainville was caused by a mine is like saying Coca-Cola makes drinks. Panguna was the biggest open-cut mine in the world. Here’s some perspective: the government of Papua New Guinea had a stake of just under 20% in Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), the operator of the copper mine, with Rio Tinto as the majority owner. The dividends on the government stake, plus the tax derived from the mine, were said to comprise 20% of the national budget of Papua New Guinea between 1975 and 1989. Not the budget of Bougainville province. The budget of the entire country. So you can see how that mine was a big deal to the government, and why Rio Tinto mattered more to the government that an entire island of its own people.

The people of Bougainville were less enamoured of Panguna. They complained of harsh working conditions, rampant racial discrimination and segregation between white workers and locals, poisoning of the local environment and water supplies leading to birth defects and animal extinctions, and little or no money from the mine being returned to the local population. Many locals also complained about the government seizing their land for the mine’s use. During 1987 peace talks, the government acknowledged approximately 750 out of approximately 5000 such claims.

The Panguna mine opened in May 1969. By May 1975, the local population had reached boiling point and attempted secession as the independent “Republic of North Solomons”; to the embarrassment of the Solomon Islands, which refused to back the play. The time was not ripe to find regional support for independence, however. PNG’s closest neighbour, Indonesia, was cracking down on rebel provinces of its own. Australia is one half of Rio Tinto’s home base and while it had just seen the enlightened Whitlam government pass laws such as the Racial Discrimination Act, Whitlam’s government was in trouble and replaced by conservatives again in November 1975. The Marcos government was in full sway in the Philippines. In short, not a lot of sympathy for plucky rebels and lots of support for the iron fist. Accordingly, the first Bouganville uprising subsided in early 1976, amid signed promises by the PNG government to grant autonomy to the island within 5 years. The Prime Minister of PNG between 1975 and 1980, who settled the uprising, was Sir Michael Somare. Remember the name?

It’s not going to surprise anyone that autonomy was not granted after 5 years, is it?

In 1987, local leaders led by Perpetua Serero and Francis Ona, who- spoiler alert- would survive the coming carnage long enough to turn loopy and declare himself King of Bougainville in 2004 after peace broke out, re-opened negotiations with the PNG Government to gain better conditions and compensation for the locals. Negotiations didn’t go well. By November 1988, violence recommenced as the locals formed a guerrilla group and started sabotaging the mine. The government responded with the army in a “kill all those who oppose us”-type operation.

It is this operation which the Michael Somare affidavit refers to, evidence which has come as no surprise to the surviving guerrilla leaders. Sam Kaouna, a government special forces soldier who defected to the guerrilla side early in the war, has been quoted as saying ”We knew that BCL was financing this war on Bougainville because when we were fighting … all the BCL vehicles were being used by the security forces.” Indeed, the reason the Somare affidavit exists at all is because the incensed locals of Bougainville are convinced of Rio Tinto’s complicity and are taking advantage of United States class action laws to do something about it.

The mine itself was closed permanently in May 1989 as the government lost control of the area, but fighting continued. After a while, with no police and with no military control over most of the island, the locals began fighting each other as well as the government forces, with each part of the island controlled by whichever local warlord could hold it. The death toll was estimated to be 15,000, close to 10% of the total population of the island, but nobody knows for sure. It’s not as if census collectors could doorknock the place.

Peace was not restored until 1997, after an embarrassing incident where the government of Papua New Guinea offended their own military by attempting to hire mercenaries from Sandline International, resulting in the military forcing the resignation of the then-Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan. While the ceasefire, autonomy for Bougainville and various provisional governments have been shaky, and a promised referendum on Bougainville’s full independence has never been held, the open warfare and anarchy of the previous years is thankfully past.

And Sir Michael Somare? Back as Prime Minister of PNG, 30 years on, and possibly somewhat embarrassed by the leak of his sealed evidence in the class action, seeing as his government has talked about the prospect of re-opening Panguna in 2012.  Somare is in hospital and hasn’t commented on the leak.

Rio Tinto has denied all allegations against it.

(photo: Rio Tinto mine via Flickr)

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