Young men on a truck in Bougainville

The signing of the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) ended a decade-long conflict on Bougainville, which had caused the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of many more. The conflict (locally known as the ‘crisis’) shifted from a local dispute over land ownership, related to the massive Rio Tinto Panguna mine, to a fight for independence, and then to a civil conflict within Bougainville.

Bougainville scenery

Bougainville: the conflict in focus

From 1988 to 1998 the most violent conflict in the Pacific region since the Second World War erupted on the island of Bougainville, now an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea.

Out of a long dialogue and negotiation process, firstly among Bougainvilleans themselves and then directly with the national Papua New Guinea government, the BPA was crafted. The agreement led to the setting up of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville with its Autonomous Bougainville Government. The agreement also mandated that a referendum, including an option for independence, would take place within fifteen years of the creation of this autonomous region, by 2020.

Although the referendum may appear to serve as the final political act in the Bougainville peace process, the BPA states that the ‘final decision-making body’ on the outcome of the referendum is the Papua New Guinea parliament. This compromise within the BPA could provide challenges for the peace process going forward, if for example, the Bougainville people’s choice is not agreed to by the Papua New Guinea parliament – an outcome that could re-awaken tension and even conflict in Bougainville.

With such challenges in mind, both the national government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government have engaged in a year-long dialogue and post-referendum planning process throughout 2019 – confirmation of the mutual determination of both governments to plan for future difficulties. This determination is also coupled with a desire to learn from the experiences of other nations, including South Sudan. The ‘post-referendum ministerial planning taskforce’ has analysed and raised awareness of the challenges ahead while creating conflict mitigation initiatives such as a Bougainville leaders’ dialogue process. It also developed detailed plans for the post-referendum period, which include a framework for a post-referendum dialogue process. 

Beyond the political process, Bougainvilleans over many years have been responding to immense post-conflict challenges. These include lingering divisions, community trauma, missing loved-ones and the need for ex-combatant transition. Organisations such as the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation, individual Bougainvilleans and the Autonomous Bougainville Government itself have been working tirelessly to resolve and transform such challenges. But, as with any post-conflict situation, these difficulties remain and will remain for some time to come.

Whatever the result of the referendum, and in concert with the thinking of peacebuilders and leaders in Bougainville, it is important for us to view this week’s referendum as part of a much longer-term and wider peace process. It is another step along the way. The referendum is part of a process of dealing with the past, healing wounds and forging a new relationship with the rest of Papua New Guinea, either as a separate state or with greater autonomy.

Conciliation Resources works with the Bougainville NGO, the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation, supporting their work in strengthening the peacebuilding skills of community and veteran leaders. We also work with individuals and the Autonomous Bougainville Government to support their peacebuilding work including providing comparative learning opportunities from places such as South Sudan and Northern Ireland. Throughout 2019, Conciliation Resources in partnership with the United Nations, has provided technical and facilitation support to the ‘post-referendum ministerial planning taskforce’.

Our work in Papua New Guinea is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the European Union, Misereor, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.