In retrospect, the process beginning in mid-1997 can be divided into four main phases. The focus in the first phase was on process rather than outcomes. While all the major agreements reached in this phase acknowledged the need for a political settlement, there was also tacit acceptance that the main political question dividing the protagonists (the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) and BRA demand for Bougainville's independence) needed to be put to one side, to be addressed once the process was securely established.
The key tasks in this phase included establishing communication between the protagonists and providing for their security. Communication was initially established through a series of meetings, which quickly moved to negotiations on the provision of security to enable ongoing communication. The immediate issues were establishing a truce and a ceasefire, then having a neutral body to monitor the ceasefire, and a body representing the protagonists to which the truce/ceasefire monitors could report. In dealing with these issues, an 'institutional' framework supporting the process was developed quite quickly. The international community was extensively engaged in playing these institutional roles. Four countries from the region participated in the highly successful unarmed truce and ceasefire monitoring forces (New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Vanuatu) and there was a gradually developing role for the United Nations through the United Nations Observer Mission on Bougainville – UNOMB.
Three main sets of negotiations were held in New Zealand in this phase (Burnham I and II in July and October 1997 respectively, and Lincoln in January 1998) and one in Bougainville in April 1998. These meetings led to agreement on a truce, ceasefire, and the establishment of the Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) – subsequently renamed the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG). Two meetings of advisers from the Bougainville groups and Papua New Guinea were also held in Australia: one in Cairns in November 1997 and one in Canberra in March 1998 .
These agreements and their institutional framework rapidly contributed to change in Bougainville. Fighting had all but ceased even before the peace process began, and there was no further violence between the protagonists from late 1997. During 1998, freedom of movement was gradually established. Most people living in refugee camps (approximately 50,000 – almost one third of the population) returned to their villages. Basic government education and health services began to be extended to areas that had been without for eight years. These and associated developments reinforced the already strong community support for peace throughout Bougainville.
But, while most Bougainville groups agreed to join the peace process during this initial phase, some did not. The notable exception was Francis Ona, the original leader of the BRA and President of the BIG. Although he retained some support, including that of sizeable BRA units, with the main BRA leadership supporting the process there was little he could do. He was initially an outspoken critic of the process and a strident voice demanding recognition of Bougainville's independence. This placed considerable pressure on the BIG and BRA leaders supporting the process, which undoubtedly limited their ability to compromise.