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A Bougainville Interim Government perspective on early peace efforts

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Martin Miriori gives a Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) perspective on the conflict and peace process, from early peace efforts to the successful Burnham talks of 1997.

Martin Miriori gives a Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) perspective on the conflict and peace process, describing early peace efforts by the PNG government and the Catholic Church, the first ceasefire and the business-led Arawa Country Club Private Citizens Forum in 1990. Initiatives by New Zealand and the Solomon Islands followed the BIG's declaration of independence, and the BIG's establishment of an office in the Solomon Islands played an important role in making their subsequent participation in peace talks possible. Miriori gives an account of the Honiara talks and Arawa Peace Conference (1994), the Cairns Talks (1995) and the more successful Burnham talks of 1997. He concludes with the shortcomings of peace efforts prior to 1997 and the reasons for success of the Burnham process.

Origins of the Bougainville conflict

In August 1988, Bougainville conducted its provincial government elections. For the first time since 1975, a young landowner from the Panguna mining area, Joseph Kabui, was elected into office as Premier, winning the contest with a landslide victory over other veteran candidates from north and south Bougainville.

In September 1988, after the mining company had refused to meet their compensation demands for environmental damage and social disturbances, the first road block by the Panguna landowners was set up at the BCL tunnel (Kabaronau village) in the Kawerong Valley. Ironically, the nearest village to the roadblock was the home of Joseph Kabui and his elder brother Martin Miriori. Kabui and Miriori had been actively involved in Panguna landowner issues against the mining giant since 1982. In fact, Kabui had entered politics primarily to represent the interests of people directly harmed by the operation of the mine.

In an attempt to justify its refusal to pay compensation, the mining company held a meeting with the landowners in the Provincial Government Office in Arawa in October of that year. They presented a report prepared by a New Zealand Consultancy firm. PNG Government representatives were also at this meeting. The report denied the landowner's claims of serious environmental damage from the mining operation. Led by Francis Ona, the landowners refused to accept the findings of the report, accusing both the mining company and the consultants of bribery and corruption. They stormed of out the meeting, taking some explosives from mine stores along the way. Using these explosives, the landowners launched a campaign to destroy all mining company property and power pylons.

The mining company responded to this by asking the PNG government to send in the police riot squads to apprehend the landowner militants and at the same time protect the company property and personnel. The police began raiding the villages close to mine, destroying properties, burning down houses and terrorising the local population in an attempt to force the people to hand over the militants. This had the effect of increasing local support for the militants. The militants themselves retaliated using 'hit and run' guerrilla tactics which the police had difficulty countering. As fighting intensified, there were mounting casualties on both sides. The militants by this time had formed a group called 'Rambos'. Frustrated and unable to succeed with their operation, the police targeted the Bougainvillean civilian population. Support from the people to the militants increased. Police brutality helped to re-ignite old secessionist sentiments and hatred towards the non-Bougainvilleans, particularly the 'highlanders' from mainland PNG. The militants targeted everyone who was a 'red-skin', destroying their squatter settlements and forcing them to flee. As the fighting escalated, there was a mass exodus of non-Bougainvilleans, including expatriates.

Unable to contain the situation, the government ordered its troops to fight against those whom they claimed were their own people. The PNG military were as brutal as the police riot squads and violence escalated. The militants responded and hit back harder. Civilians were frequently caught in the cross-fire.

The authorities, including the churches, began to look for ways in which the fighting could be brought under control and stopped. At this point, a prominent international expert, Professor Peter Wallenstein, was engaged to work with the provincial government in seeking a solution. The initiative failed in a climate of escalating violence. The population from the villages close to the mine was forced into care-centres in Arawa. The objective was that the villages would be freed up so that the army could go into the bush and flush out the militants. But the strategy backfired. Instead, the militants became more determined to mount an effective guerrilla campaign against the government security forces. Frustrated and infuriated, the government offered a price-tag of US$2 million each for the capture – dead or alive - of militant leaders Francis Ona and Sam Kauona (a former PNG military officer and an expert with explosives). The authorities approached the Catholic Church to intervene and negotiate with the militants in order to stop the violence. The Church then called upon the services of one its conflict resolution experts, Father Liebert, to assist. The PNG government engaged the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Chris Haiveta to assist Fr Liebert in these efforts.

First peace efforts by the PNG government

Meanwhile in mainland PNG, there was a change of political leadership which saw Sir Rabbie Namaliu elected as Prime Minister. One of his first actions as Prime Minister was to travel to Bougainville and offer the Bougainville landowners an interim peace package of US$250 million over five years for economic development. The package represented a counter offer to the landowners' demand for US$10 billion compensation from the mining company. The PNG government had 20% equity in the venture that it was determined to protect. A peace ceremony was arranged in Arawa during which the government put forward its proposal. However the militants, led by Ona, rejected the proposal as insufficient. The peace ceremony was still allowed to proceed despite Ona's rejection of the peace package.

Whilst Prime Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu officiated at the peace ceremony, news came through of the PNG army's first casualties at Orami village in the hills near Panguna. Militants had ambushed a small army patrol and three soldiers were killed. This incident instantly put an end to the first government peace initiative.

Soon after, the militants formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

Declaration of the first ceasefire

Both the Catholic Church and the government, through their special emissaries Fr Liebert and Chris Haiveta, were still engaged in talks with the BRA in the bush, in the hope that they might agree to some kind of ceasefire arrangement with the PNG army. By this stage the situation had become very volatile indeed, and civilians at the care centre were now easy targets for the PNG military, either as payback for their fallen comrades or in order to force BRA to surrender. Fr Liebert dealt directly with the BRA military Commander, General Sam Kauona. There was increasing pressure from church and community leaders as well as the international community calling for an immediate ceasefire. Finally in March 1990, PNG military forces and BRA agreed to the signing of the first ceasefire agreement between PNGDF Col. Leo Nuia and BRA General Sam Kauona. The agreement called for an immediate and complete withdrawal of all government security forces from Bougainville. However, as the government security forces pulled out, all services and government authority in Bougainville were also completely withdrawn. This also led to the subsequent closure of all businesses on the island. Bougainville was now effectively under the control of the BRA.

Arawa Country Club Private Citizens Forum

The first forum immediately after the ceasefire in March 1990 was organised and held at the Arawa Country Club. It was attended by businessmen, public servants, traditional chiefs and landowner representatives who were given the opportunity to express their views as the situation unfolded. The meeting concentrated on the concerns of the business community about the chaos that threatened to destroy the economy. The Forum explored possible measures to protect people's lives and properties. The meeting was facilitated and co-chaired by Martin Miriori and John Jaintong, a prominent PNG businessman from the mainland married to Theresa Jaintong, a prominent Bougainvillean woman of the Arawa Municipal Authority.

Formation of the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) and declaration of independence

The withdrawal of PNG authority meant that there was now a serious power vacuum in Bougainville. In April 1990, the militants established the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) as the legitimate authority on the island. Francis Ona was appointed President with former Premier Kabui as Chairman. At this point, BIG drew broad support from throughout the island, including former provincial government members, heads of the three main churches in Bougainville, traditional chiefs, women and youth. On 17 May 1990, BIG announced the declaration of Bougainville independence from PNG. The government response was swift. They imposed a total economic blockade on the island, severing all forms of contact with the outside world including PNG. All services were stopped and even the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations were banned. As time passed, the entire population started to feel the full effects of the embargo.

New Zealand Endeavour talks at Kieta Harbour, Bougainville

The BIG/BRA demanded that if there was to be any future opportunity for negotiations between the PNG government and the people of Bougainville, then the talks must be held on neutral ground and facilitated by neutral observers. The statement was issued in view of some pressure on PNG from the international community urging the Government to consider opening up dialogue with the leadership of Bougainville under BIG. In mid-1990, amid growing international pressure for a settlement, New Zealand offered to facilitate the talks on board the naval ship Endeavour that was to be anchored off Kieta Harbour. Representatives from Great Britain, Canada and Vanuatu were invited to observe the talks. There was also limited media coverage of the talks by ABC PNG-based representative Sean Dorney. The Moral Re-Armament group was also at the talks, which focused on terms for the resumption of PNG government services to Bougainville. They also considered the resumption of dialogue between the two sides in the future. BIG insisted that if the government were to return to the island, Bougainvillean personnel should carry out restoration services. The Bougainville leaders also wanted overseas NGOs including the International Red Cross to help with this work. The talks resulted in the signing of the Endeavour Accord on 5 August 1990. The Agreement led to the restoration of some limited services, provided for by both the government and NGOs, to help to ease the conditions of the economic blockade. The talks also created the opportunity for both sides to re-establish direct contact for the first time since the March ceasefire agreement.

A few months later, the PNG military used the Agreement as a pretext to return to Bougainville, first through Nissan Island and then landing on Buka Island. It was said that the military had been invited back by the chiefs in Buka. The return of the PNG army to the island led to a new chapter in the war, which saw the formation of the Buka Liberation Front (BLF) fighting alongside the PNGDF against the BRA. This was the beginning of disunity among Bougainvilleans that was to continue for years to come.

Solomon Islands first peace initiative

As the PNG military operations in Buka increased, Bougainvilleans started leaving the island in large numbers. The Solomon Islands government, under the leadership of late Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni, became increasingly concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation of their close cousins in Bougainville. In early January 1991, the government sent two eminent persons across the border for consultations. They were the Minister for Provincial Government Alan Qurusu and Minister for Police and Justice Albert Laore who were both from the immediate border area in Choiseul and Shortland Islands respectively. The Ministers raised the prospect of another round of talks between the parties. Both sides responded positively to this offer, and arrangements were made for talks in the capital, Honiara.

The main issue on the agenda was the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. However, whilst the talks were still in progress, the PNG security forces made another landing on the southern tip of Bougainville in the Siwai/Buin district. When BIG protested, PNG claimed that they were being invited by the chiefs to help restore services in the area. The incident the BIG to push hard with their proposal for the urgent deployment of a neutral peacekeeping force. The PNG government responded positively and offered to approach the Commonwealth Secretariat to discuss the proposal. The talks, which were chaired by the Bishop of the United Church in Solomon Islands, Rev Leslie Boseto, successfully concluded with the signing of the Honiara Declaration on 23 January 1991. The Commonwealth Secretariat was subsequently invited to carry out several visits to central Bougainville as part of a fact-finding mission, and they held talks with the BIG/BRA leadership including Francis Ona, first in Panguna and then Arawa. Both the Endeavour Accord and Honiara Declaration further helped to open up some limited access by overseas NGOs through Solomon Islands for humanitarian purposes.

Two weeks after signing the Honiara Accord, the PNG government held talks with several chiefs from Buka which led to the signing of the Malangan Lodge Memorandum of Understanding. Sam Tulo led the delegation from Buka. The agreement with the Buka leaders allowed the return of the PNG authority to Bougainville for the first time since March 1990. Tulo was later appointed as the Bougainville Administrator of Bougainville, a move that angered the BIG/BRA leadership who felt that the PNG government was deliberately undermining the spirit of both the Endeavour and Honiara accords.

Meanwhile, the PNG Government made inroads into BIG/BRA authority in the south by signing an agreement with a former Member of Parliament for south Bougainville, and one of the unsuccessful contenders against Kabui for the Premiership post in the provincial government elections. The late Anthony Anugu was invited by Sir Michael Somare to go to Port Moresby through Solomon Islands to sign a separate deal with the government. This outlined the establishment of the first so-called South Bougainville Interim Authority (SBIA) in the Siwai district. These two major moves, first in Buka and then in South Bougainville were deliberate attempts by the PNG Government and its army to isolate and squeeze the hardcore BRA supporters in Central Bougainville. Many Bougainvilleans saw these moves as a deliberate 'divide and rule' policy by the government to regain its control of the island. A few days after the SIBA agreement, Anugu and some of his colleagues were killed by the BRA.

BIG lobbies the international human rights community

In April 1991, BIG Secretary Martin Miriori and BIG legal officer, Reuben Siara, set in motion plans to present the worsening Bougainville human rights situation to the United Nations and the international community for the first time. Documentation was lodged through the Swiss Embassy in Canberra. The application gave Bougainville the opportunity to take the first vital step in presenting its case to the Sub-Commission on Indigenous Peoples Working Group. Financial support to send the four-member delegation was obtained mainly from overseas church organisations. The BIG delegation included BIG Chairman Joseph Kabui, Overseas officers Mike Forster and Moses Havini and legal officer Reuben Siara. Accreditation was obtained from the Copenhagen-based International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). The delegation was rewarded with the adoption of a resolution by the Sub-Commission. This historic achievement placed Bougainville on the world map, giving a first taste of victory for its efforts for peace and the promotion of its human rights on the international scene. Following this unprecedented success, BIG was encouraged to step up its active campaign for respect and recognition of human rights for the people of Bougainville.

The PNG government reacted to the news by canceling all BIG Papua New Guinea passports. In this new climate, women leaders began to play a greater role in presenting the case of the Bougainville people internationally. The next important step was for Bougainville to present its case at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Between 1992 and 1994, Solomon Islands, Nigeria and Senegal successfully co-sponsored three resolutions which were adopted by the Commission. The ACP/EU Joint Assembly in Brussels also adopted three separate resolutions on the Bougainville situation. BIG also sent delegations to UN World Conferences in Vienna, Barbados, Beijing and other meetings held in the Asia-Pacific Region. The lobbying and campaigning by BIG would not have been possible without the support of the international network of NGOs and the churches.

BIG opens offices in Solomon Islands

In 1992, BIG appointed Miriori to establish the Bougainville Office in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. Because of the PNG blockade, the office became the main lifeline linking Bougainville with the rest of the world. It coordinated a full range of activities including humanitarian assistance, international human rights lobbying and campaigning, peace advocacy work and media relations. It acted as the official clearinghouse and sole authorising agent for all those who wanted to visit Bougainville. The PNG government put pressure on the Solomon Islands government to close the office and relations between the two Melanesian neighbours suffered.

The office was the only credible means of contacting people in the BIG/BRA controlled areas, which constituted more than eighty percent of the population on the island. It also played an important role in making peace talks possible. Concrete examples of this were the PNG/BIG officials talks on MV Huris at Kieta Harbour in 1992, the all-Bougainvillean talks between BIG overseas officers and the combined Port Moresby-based Kare Bake Group / Bougainville Administrator's representative in Buka James Togel, the 'Tambea Talks' and the 'Honiara Talks' in 1993 and 1994, all of which were held in Solomon Islands; and 'Cairns 1 and II Talks' in September and December 1995.

A two-way frequency radio network was operated in Honiara, Gizo, Munda and Choiseul Bay to maintain daily direct communication with most parts of Bougainville. At least three times a day, this included BIG/BRA's own popular private amateur radio station 'Radio Free Bougainville' (RFB), which broadcast out of central Bougainville. RFB was also well received in Solomon Islands, mainland PNG and Australia, thus becoming one of the main sources of information to a much wider audience about the situation.

In addition to the Solomon Islands office in Honiara, BIG also had offices in Sydney and appointed Honorary Consulates in New Zealand, Geneva, Canada and later in Japan. This was all part of the overall BIG strategy to launch a wider human rights campaign and internationalise the issue with the aim of increasing the pressure on the PNG government to lift the embargo and re-open genuine negotiations towards a lasting political settlement. The Sydney-based Bougainville Freedom Movement (BFM) was active in supporting the BIG efforts to this end. 

BIG efforts to lobby the churches

In August 1991, the Fiji-based Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) and Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) invited BIG church representative Rev Bishop John Zale to address their meeting in Port Vila, Vanuatu and brief the conference about the human rights situation in Bougainville. BIG Chairman Kabui was also invited to assist Bishop Zale in presenting the Bougainville case to the church leaders. The conference adopted a resolution on Bougainville calling for an end to the violence and resumption of negotiations, and urged the PNG government to allow a fact-finding mission of church leaders to visit Bougainville.

In early 1994, the BIG office in Honiara helped to coordinate the first and only visit by the combined WCC/PCC members, led by PCC Chairman Bishop Finau and the Head of the Pacific Desk of WCC, Rev John Doom. The visit was interrupted when the PNG army forced the delegation to return from Wakunai during a special mission to visit central and south Bougainville.

Honiara talks and the Arawa Peace Conference

In early 1994, the Black Action Party, a political party from mainland PNG, tried to broker a peace deal between the PNG government and BIG/BRA. Party leader Joseph Ongulo led a combined Black Action Party/BIG overseas officer's delegation to countries in the region including Australia and New Zealand, lobbying for support for the initiative. Following the trip, there were several meetings held in Honiara both with BIG officers and Solomon Islands government officials. The initiative eventually failed because of lack of support by the Port Moresby government.

The 'Huris Officials Talks' in Kieta, 'All Bougainvillean Talks with the Kare Bake Group', and 'Tambea Talks', held in Honiara were used as preparatory talks in preparation for the main summit between Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan and BRA General Sam Kauona at the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency Headquarters, Honiara in September 1994. Their talks resulted in the signing of the Honiara Accord which primarily agreed on a deployment of a regional peacekeeping force in Arawa for a two-week period for the Arawa peace conference. Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu all contributed troops. However, BIG/BRA felt that the agreement was signed under unacceptable political pressure from both the PNG government and the new Solomon Islands government on General Kauona and his team. The new Solomon Islands government at the time was notably much more sympathetic towards the Port Moresby Government. . The leadership was also convinced that the agreement was unrealistic, as it demanded a 'quick-fix' solution to a very complex situation. The BIG/BRA decided to boycott the meeting.

Following the conference, the PNG government established a rival Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG) for the PNG military-controlled areas, with its office in Buka. The new body was set up using the Mirigini Charter which the PNG government signed in Port Moresby with Theodore Miriung, Francis Ona's former lawyer. Among other things, the Mirigini Charter urged immediate resumption of dialogue with the leadership of BIG/BRA. Miriung was appointed as the BTG Premier. Two years later, he was brutally murdered, allegedly by the PNGDF and elements from the 'Resistance'.

Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan was frustrated and humiliated by the absence of BIG/BRA leadership at the Arawa conference. Shortly afterwards he ordered the military operation 'High Speed 1' which was carried out largely in central Bougainville. The main aim of this operation was to capture the key BIG/BRA leadership. The PNGDF was ordered not to trust any one, especially males aged 13 years and above. But the operation failed and the PNG military were driven back along the coastline by the BRA before they could venture inland. 

The Cairns talks

In June 1995, BIG Secretary Miriori was invited to visit the former US President Jimmy Carter's Peace Center in Atlanta for possible assistance with the mediation efforts. The trip had resulted from an earlier visit to Solomon Islands by one their senior consultants, Mr Bill Spencer, who came to see Miriori about the situation in Bougainville. During this same trip, Miriori also travelled to Geneva and then to The Hague for consultations with the World Council of Churches and the Unrepresented Nations and People's organisation.

In September 1995, Australia offered to facilitate talks between the Bougainville leaders. The first round of the preliminary talks involved the BIG Secretary Miriori and his Officer David Onavui representing BIG/BRA, the four Bougainville parliamentarians John Momis, Michael Ogio, Michael Laimo and Joseph Igilio, as well as BTG Premier Theodore Miriung and legal officer Kapeatu Puaria. The purpose of the meeting was to explore the possibilities of resuming dialogue, firstly at the Bougainvillean level and then with the PNG government.

Prior to the talks in Cairns, the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat had both carried out their own missions to consult with PNG and BIG/BRA through the BIG office in Honiara. The Solomon Islands government was also consulted on a potential rule in future talks.

The Cairns preliminary talks agreed to request that Australia facilitate further talks between all four Bougainvillean representatives in PNG parliament, BTG members and the BIG/BRA leadership. The meeting also agreed to ask the PNG government to invite the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat to mediate and chair the Bougainville Leaders meeting. Australia and PNG, as well as Solomon Islands all willingly agreed to support the proposal.

By December, the arrangements were in place for Australia to host the main round of Bougainville leaders talks at Cairns. BIG/BRA leaders were airlifted from Bougainville on Australian chartered helicopters, first to Choiseul Bay at the Solomon Islands border, and then to Honiara on chartered fixed wing aircrafts. The Bougainville Leaders talks were finally underway by late December 1995, co-chaired by United Nations Director of the Asia Pacific Political Division, Professor Francisc Vendrell, and the Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Dr Kris Srinivasan. The talks were also observed by other representatives including the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ – Australian Division), the Secretary-General of Unrepresented Nations Peoples organisation (UNPO) Dr Michael van Walt van Praag and Alan Weeks of Moral Re-Armament. The outcome of these talks was the signing of the Cairns Agreement.

However immediately after the talks, while the BIG/BRA leaders led by Chairman Kabui were returning home on 3 January 1996, the delegation was attacked at sea at the border between Solomon Islands and Bougainville. The PNG military used boats and a helicopter gunship to ambush the team under the cover of darkness as they reached the Bougainville coastline. Nobody was injured but the incident completely undermined the trust and confidence of BIG/BRA in the PNG government and its military and shattered any further hopes for future negotiations.

A month later, the BIG Office and house of Miriori and his family in Honiara was fire-bombed in the middle of the night by PNG agents and their supporters. Nobody was injured but the house was completely burned to the ground. Following this series of incidents, the BRA went on the offensive. They decided to take the fight to Buka Island, right to the heart of the Government security forces. They launched their attack on the PNG military both at sea and on the ground. The operation was successful.

The PNGDF was now on the receiving end with mounting casualties. The government authorised its security forces to launch another operation – 'High Speed II' in parts of central and south Bougainville. The operation once again failed. For example at Kangu Beach in Buin, BRA forces killed 13 PNG soldiers in one single operation. The government forces were also driven out of their bases at Koromira Catholic Mission station and Aropa airport. PNG security forces decided to take revenge on innocent civilians, especially in the PNGDF/Resistance controlled care-centres. One such incident occurred at Malabita village in the Buin district of south Bougainville. The PNGDF launched seven rounds of mortar bomb at the civilians while they prayed inside the church in early morning on 1 December 1996. More than nine people were killed and about 20 others injured in the bomb blast.

UNHCR evacuates BIG Secretary and his family to The Netherlands

As fighting on the ground escalated and tensions increased, the Solomon Islands government became increasingly concerned over the personal safety of Miriori and his family. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through their Office in Canberra worked hard to find a third country to relocate the family. Finally, on 30 April 1996, the family was evacuated to Brisbane using an Australian military aircraft, and from there to Amsterdam on a commercial flight. The operation was carried out under the cover of darkness with the support of Solomon Islands security personnel. Now that Solomon Islands was no longer harbouring Miriori, their relations with Port Moresby started to improve. Miriori's relocation from the region also meant more freedom and opportunity for BIG to step up its international campaign to lobby and spread awareness about the deteriorating human rights situation on the ground.

The PNG government hires mercenaries

In the face of military defeat and decreasing support from a new Liberal government in Australia, the PNG government looked for other methods of winning the war. Officials secretly engaged in negotiations with the private military company, Executive Outcomes, through their affiliated company Sandline International in London. When this came to light, governments throughout the region voiced their strong opposition to the deployment of mercenaries. Australia in particular opposed the idea, viewing it as a new and dangerous development in the region, with the potential for high civilian casualties. The decision to hire mercenaries to kill fellow Melanesians was also unpopular at home, both among the people of Papua New Guinea and the country's own army. The military felt that by deploying the foreign army in Bougainville, the government was directly undermining their capability. The Sandline Affair, as it became known, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Chan and the ministers involved. The mercenaries were rounded up and deported. Chan subsequently lost the next election and a new Prime Minister, Bill Skate, assumed office in July 1997, stating his commitment to solving the Bougainville crisis. To many people he may have represented an unknown quantity, but not to the BIG Secretary Miriori. Many years earlier in 1982, Miriori as Chief Executive of a company in Port Moresby had given Skate his first job as an Accountant, when he was a homeless father of two. Both men had known each other from university days in PNG. Skate had told Miriori that one day he would become Prime Minister of PNG. He had not forgotten this and Miriori's kindness 15 years earlier was about to yield an extraordinary dividend for the people of Bougainville. For the first time a Prime Minister of PNG showed total commitment to securing peace on the island. Miriori's secret relationship with the Prime Minister enabled him to convince the BIG/BRA leaders that Skate was a man they could trust and do business with.

The road to Burnham

The New Zealand delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in March/April 1997 was led by Rene Wilson, a former colleague of Miriori on the South Pacific Forum. The New Zealand Government had specifically instructed Wilson to take the opportunity to consult with Miriori on the situation in Bougainville, in particular regarding prospects for the resumption peace negotiations and potential role for New Zealand. It was to this end that he met with BIG Secretary Miriori and BIG member Jonathan Ngati who were also in Geneva attending the Human Rights Commission. Then on April 19, the New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon contacted Miriori and conveyed New Zealand's proposal for renewed peace efforts in Bougainville.

While the confidential discussions were going on between the new Government and BIG Secretary in April and May 1997, the people of Bougainville began increasing pressure on BIG/BRA leadership to reach a negotiated peace settlement. The BIG/BRA leadership held a special emergency meeting at Oune School near Panguna. Francis Ona was also at the meeting. The meeting agreed to send a delegation to Solomon Islands under the leadership of the Chairman Kabui and General Sam Kaiun. The delegation was given three tasks: to ask the Solomon Islands government to facilitate internal peace talks between Bougainvilleans; to request that Solomon Islands make all possible diplomatic efforts to persuade the international community to pressurise the PNG government abandon its plan to use mercenaries; and thirdly, to make contact with its BIG overseas officers namely Miriori in Europe and Mike Forster and Moses Havini in Sydney.

On 5 June 1997, Miriori also requested Mike Forster to travel to Solomon Islands to meet up with the leaders who were at the time staying in Gizo in the Western Province. On 6 June when Forster arrived, the BIG/BRA held their meeting at the Gizo Hotel. After the meeting they traveled to Honiara on 8 June, and Forster continued onto Sydney the same day.

On 9 June 1997, Foreign Ministry officials in New Zealand had confidential talks with Miriori, other BIG/BRA leaders and BTG Buka leaders. They invited them to New Zealand for preliminary consultations. It was agreed that the trip, which they funded, would be kept confidential. Upon arrival in New Zealand, Miriori asked the Foreign Ministry to invite Mike Forster, Moses Havini and Kapeatu Puaria of BTG in Buka to be part of these consultations. The talks were held with McKinnon and his senior Foreign Ministry officials John Hayes, Bede Corry and Neil Walter at the Novotel Hotel in Auckland from the 15-18 June 1997. At the meeting it was agreed that they would work towards establishing the Burnham Process. New Zealand did exactly as they were asked to do in implementing the plan. Part of the arrangement was for the New Zealand government to take responsibility for looking after the BIG/BRA delegation whilst they waited in Honiara for another two weeks.

By the following month, the Burnham talks were in progress. They were attended by more than 70 Bougainville leaders representing a range of different interest groups on the island. While New Zealand facilitated and observed the meeting, it was co-chaired by the Bougainvilleans themselves through BIG Secretary Miriori and PNG Chief Ombudsman, Commissioner Simon Pentanu, also a Bougainvillean. The talks resulted in the signing of the Burnham Accord which laid the basis for the final peace agreement.

The role of the media in the Bougainville conflict

Despite the blockade, BIG/BRA managed to get media representatives onto the island by the backdoor. The reports by these journalists played an important role in the Bougainville struggle. The first Australian media group that ran the blockade were the SBS Channel in February 1991. They were escorted by overseas BIG officers Mike Forster and Moses Havini. The three-member team held the first interview with Francis Ona in Panguna, and travelled to the very tip of Bougainville so that they could also include some coverage of the newly established PNG military base in Buka, just across the narrow sea passage. The crew spent two weeks and left by the same route. Their work helped to expose the effects of the economic blockade to the Australian public, and also throughout many of the South pacific countries including mainland PNG.

The PNG government lodged strong protests against the Australian and Solomon Islands governments and banned SBS from entering the country again. A few months later, another Australian TV channel, the ABC, sought permission from the PNG government to officially enter the island by the front door through Buka Island. The government agreed, thinking that their coverage was going to counter the negative image painted by SBS, but the ABC report revealed more details and implicated both the PNG government and Australia in serious human right violations. Following this coverage in the international media, BIG/BRA invited other overseas media groups including freelance journalists mainly from Australia and New Zealand to visit the island by the back-door and report on the situation. Others, mainly from Europe, travelled only as far as Solomon Islands and filed reports on the situation from there. BIG used their materials in its international campaigns. Through this work, the PNG government began to feel the pressure of the international community for a negotiated settlement. 

Shortcomings of peace efforts prior to 1997

Although some of the early peace initiatives were arranged with the best of the intentions to stop the further escalation of the conflict, there were nevertheless certain commonalities which contributed to their deficiency and ultimate failure. All parties, including the international community, were finally able to learn from their own mistakes and develop an improved approach. The following have been identified as some of the problems, which contributed towards lack of success in these efforts.

  • Peace was imposed from the top without allowing time for a cooling off period, instead of encouraging the development of an all-inclusive 'bottom-up' peace strategy;

  • All interest groups and major stakeholders were not recognised as being equal partners to support the efforts;

  • PNG government policy was to resolve the conflict internally and they therefore refused to listen to Bougainvillean calls for involvement by the international community, including international mediation and facilitation at a neutral venue;

  • Both the PNG government and the international community were too impatient for a 'quick-fix' solution and wanted to apply short-cuts;

  • Bougainvilleans were forced to be divided by the nature of the PNG policy to resolve the conflict by military means;

  • Australia's heavy involvement in supporting PNG military operations created a lack of trust among Bougainvilleans. Bougainvilleans saw Australia as playing a double game. This was especially true in the case of the previous Labour Government until March 1996;

  • The international community and particularly Australia - which had the key to any peacemaking efforts in the region - did not apply adequate pressure on the PNG government to abandon the military option;

  • The international community lacked a real long-term commitment to support peace efforts;

  • There was a lack of consistancy, flexibility and genuine delegation of authority by Francis Ona;

  • PNG was inconsistent in its policies towards the conflict and lacked a sense of real commitment when it came to implementing the outcome of any talks.

Reasons for the success of the Burnham Process

The main reason for the success of the Burnham Process was that for the first time all parties including the international community were finally able to learn from their past mistakes and allow Bougainvilleans a free hand in designing their own method of resolving the conflict. However, besides learning from the above mistakes and improving the approach, the following factors must be also highlighted as having significantly helped to contribute towards the success.

  • The BIG/BRA leadership moved to disassociate itself and operate independently from Francis Ona under the leadership of Joseph Kabui and General Sam Kauona;

  • The BRA showed goodwill at the Burnham talks by agreeing to release their POWs captured during the Kangu Beach operation;

  • The PNG political leadership changed in July, with Bill Skate assuming power as a result of the Sandline saga;

  • The new government in Australia called for a change in policy in the handling of the Bougainville issue;

  • The diminishing state of the PNG economy and the country's inability to support its small military force, coupled with serious law and order problems, prevented the government from sustaining a drawn-out conflict;

  • There were important personal connections among the various key players on both sides, including the international community;

  • Solomon Islands provided unfailing support in humanitarian and peacemaking efforts since 1991, as well as in helping to internationalise the Bougainville issue;

  • There was unprecedented agreement among Bougainvilleans on the deployment of an unarmed neutral peacekeeping force to observe the declaration of peace;

  • Western and traditional Bougainvillean methods of conflict resolution were blended successfully;

  • BIG engaged in notable international work particularly through its overseas officers Martin Miriori, Moses Havini and Mike Forster, encouraging BRA hardliners to change their attitude and support a negotiated political settlement rather than pursuing the military option;

  • Various efforts by Bougainvilleans both internally and abroad with their reconciliation, lobbying and awareness activities led to better appreciation and understanding of the situation.