On July 5, the first round of Burnham talks began. They were attended by more than 70 Bougainville leaders representing different interest groups on the island, but without the direct involvement of the PNG government. There were delegates from the BRA and the BIG, the BTG and the Resistance force, women's groups, the Churches and local chiefs.
The delegations were welcomed in a Maori ceremony, involving a hongi or shaking hands, touching noses and exchanging the breath of life. People who had been 'enemies' for almost 10 years arrived in a neutral environment, participated in the ceremony and only afterwards realised they had connected.
In his opening speech, the then BTG Premier, Mr Gerard Sinato described New Zealand as the 'fertile ground to sow the seed of peace so that a tree of peace can find root and grow quickly.'
The talks were structured in such a way that there were 'all Bougainville' sessions which they called the 'taraoting', literally translated from the Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin) as 'vomiting session'. This is when all the participants met together and held public debates. Before substantive discussions could begin, there were long speeches by each of the senior delegates or village elders in which they outlined where they saw the process moving. Then there were the separate factions' sessions.
While New Zealand facilitated and observed the meeting, it was co-chaired by the Bougainvilleans themselves through BIG Secretary Martin Miriori and PNG Chief Ombudsman, a Bougainvillean Simon Pentanu. Participants themselves arranged meetings within the process. New Zealand supplied transport to a secure venue, accommodation and meals and occasionally set up interventions to let things cool down or create space for small groups to brainstorm around issues. The President of the BIG and supreme commander of the BRA, Francis Ona, did not attend the discussions.
In the words of BIG leader Miriori: 'The delegations firstly and foremost recognised the fact that the war had divided them. And without a commitment to each other and entering into a process of reconciliation and unity at all levels of the community; there could be possibly no hope of ever achieving peace with Papua New Guinea...'
The resultant Burnham Declaration of 18 July 1997 called for leaders to bring about a ceasefire and for an international peacekeeping force to be established in Bougainville. It also called for the ultimate withdrawal of the PNGDF and recognised the right of Bougainvilleans to determine their own political future.
As a gesture to the national government for allowing the Burnham meeting to happen, the BRA agreed to release the five PNGDF soldiers from captivity in south Bougainville. In response, the PNGDF allowed safe passage for those returning from Burnham and brought Prime Minister Skate into the process early in his term.