“Quad must befriend Bougainville, not just Papua New Guinea”

“China may be about to do in PNG what it has already done in the Solomon Islands. Is it really smart for Australia, let alone its diplomatic friends in the Quad, to bet everything on PNG?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit Papua New Guinea (PNG) in early 2023. It will be the first time an Indian Prime Minister has visited the country of 9.3 million people since its independence from Australia in 1975.

The future of the country’s relationship with the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is one of the main issues in PNG. To better understand the situation, in this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines”, we spoke with John D. Kuhns, author of “They call me Ishmael», a novel about the president of Bougainville Ishmael Torooma. He is also Chairman and CEO of NumaNuma Resources, Inc., a company developing infrastructure in Bougainville, where he has lived and worked since 2015.

Q: What is Bougainville?

A: While Bougainville, an archipelago of around 200 islands, is geographically part of the Solomon Islands, it is currently a political unit of PNG. Even though both PNG and Bougainville are part of Melanesia, a culturally distinct region of the Pacific that runs roughly parallel to the northeast coast of Australia, the populations of the two regions show significant differences.

Q: What is “crisis”?

A: The crisis was a series of unrest that escalated into a civil war between Bougainville and PNG over societal and financial disagreements fomented by the Panguna Mine, a gargantuan copper and gold mine developed on the island of Bougainville by the Rio Tinto group and its special purpose subsidiary. , Bougainville Copper Limited.

When PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975, its leaders tricked Australia into allowing it to take nearly two-thirds of the silver from the Panguna mine (at largest and most profitable copper and gold mine in the world), leaving little for the people of Bougainville, even though mainland PNG was more than a thousand miles from Bougainville and its people did not did not suffer from the social and environmental pressures of the mine. As PNG fled with the cow, Bougainville received a handful of beans.

Australia, which oversaw the deal and should have clearly acknowledged its unfairness to Bougainville, did not object. The civil war could not have surprised any of the parties involved. In the ensuing conflagration, including not only ten years of military conflict but also a years-long embargo, 20,000 Bougainvilleas perished. Towns and villages were burnt down; the Panguna mine closed, never to reopen. The economy of the North Solomons Province, as Bougainville was called at the time – the wealthiest of all the provinces in PNG – was totally wiped out; today it is the poorest in PNG.

Q: Who is Ishmael Toroama, the president of Bougainville?

A: Ishmael Toroama is the man who, barely out of childhood, led the Revolutionary Army of Bougainville (BRA) from 1988 to 1998 during the crisis. He led his BRA guerrillas into a confrontation with the PNG Defense Force, a much larger and better equipped armed force – and he did it all alone, receiving no help from any outside source.

Q: What was Australia’s role during the crisis?

A: Rumors abound as to the exact aid Australia provided to the PNG Defense Force, but unsurprisingly the Bougainvilleas are almost unanimous in their condemnation. Australia’s justification? He had a multi-billion dollar investment in PNG and needed to preserve it. It wouldn’t be the last time Australia were willing to overlook fairness in how they treated Bougainville in favor of continuing to spoil an unrepentant PNG.

Q: The crisis ended with the Bougainville peace accord. What’s in the deal?

A: When Ishmael led Bougainville to sign the Bougainville Peace Accord in 2001, he showed that he was not just a capable military leader, but a practical politician. He, like most Bougainvilleas, had long yearned to be free from the yoke of the colonialists – be they Spanish, French, German, Australian, Japanese or even the Melanesian brothers of PNG – but he also realized that freedom could not come only when Bougainville was ready.

Ishmael and the other rulers of Bougainville agreed – for a time – to remain an integral part of PNG, but not as a mere province, rather as an autonomous region of Bougainville with its own constitution, duly elected president and its legislation, its courts and its laws. .

Ishmael was also adept enough to broker a key part of the peace deal allowing, within 20 years, a vote by Bougainvilleans on whether they wanted to stay in PNG or become independent. The idea was that if PNG and Bougainville could get along, they would end up sticking together; otherwise, independence would reign.

In the December 2019 vote, 97.7% of Bougainvilleas voted for independence. This tells you everything you need to know about the Bougainvillea view of PNG. Running on a platform emphasizing independence, Ishmael Toroama was elected president of Bougainville a year later in the fall of 2020.

Q: What is happening now with the independence of Bougainville?

A: According to the peace agreement, the referendum on independence is not binding. In subsequent joint oversight board meetings, a series of quarterly sessions involving negotiations between President Torooma and current PNG Prime Minister James Marape, the two sides worked out their positions.

Unsurprisingly, Ishmael’s position never wavered: his people, who waited politely and followed the rules, spoke. Independence for Bougainville is, in their eyes, finally inevitable.

Meanwhile, in PNG, which has received hundreds of millions from Australia over the years for little tangible results, there seems to be a sense that, perhaps, the problem will just go away. Yes, the Panguna Mine, when inevitably redeveloped, is an asset PNG would hate to lose, but PNG now has dozens of mines.

Q: Following a recent visit to PNG and statements by Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, President Toroomawrote“I assure the governments of PNG and Australia that my government and my people do not appreciate threats and we will never bow down to neo-settlers who seek to usurp the sovereignty of Pacific island nations with their bullying and bullying tactics.” How is Australia reacting to Bougainville’s prospects for independence?

A: No one should be surprised by Minister Marles’ recent gaffe regarding Bougainville’s demand for independence from Papua New Guinea, or President Torooma’s outraged response. The two men articulated what most analysts following events in the South Pacific knew but were reluctant to admit: the Australian government has dithered too long in the bubble of “its backyard”, playing a game of chess the colonial era whose rules are of little importance. compared to current reality.

Moreover, unlike the languid decades after the Second World War, in today’s contest there is a lot at stake, not just for Australia, but for the rest of the world as well.

In Australia, what should have been instructive reverberations emanating from Bougainvillea’s independence vote fell on deaf ears. They have other things to worry about. Although they have lavished largesse on PNG, they have watched with growing concern as China wields more and more influence over their son-in-law.

Given that Bougainville’s departure could theoretically weaken PNG, Defense Minister Marles was clear: Australia supports PNG, implying that it is against Bougainville’s independence – the 97.7% of people who aspire to it (and the risk of triggering another “crisis”) be damned.

Australia’s strategy is nothing short of selfish: since it’s blowing millions there anyway, PNG may be the keystone in controlling its South Pacific “backyard” . Nobody in Australia seems to be able to observe the obvious: PNG may not have the guts to be a linchpin in Australian strategy in the South Pacific, or perhaps in any other diplomatic endeavor.

Yes, PNG’s geographical position is compelling and it is endowed with resources, including dozens of mines and an abundance of oil and gas, but its nine million people remain destitute. PNG has shown little ability to harvest, let alone distribute, its natural wealth.

A major international financial newspaper recently announced that Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, is the third most dangerous city in the world. PNG Power, the national electricity company, is insolvent; its biggest consumer of electricity, the PNG government, hasn’t paid its bill for six years. PNG government departments are being kicked out of their offices for years of non-payment of rent.

Q: What is China’s role?

A: It may be true that if Australia and other Western powers don’t pay more attention to PNG, China will. The PRC has already funded PNG’s APEC 2018 party, its state-owned companies are dominant players in PNG’s precious minerals, oil and gas industries, and fully control other major industries like fishing.

Q: What should the Quad’s response be? Is there a role for India?

A: Indeed, China may be preparing to do in PNG what it has already succeeded in the Solomon Islands. If there is a risk of this happening, is it really smart for Australia, let alone its diplomatic friends in the Quad, including the US, Japan and India, to bet everything on PNG ?

Maybe the Quad should hedge their bets. How about giving PNG and Bougainville a chance to befriend the Quad in the South Pacific? Everyone knows that the best deep-water port in the region is not in the county called the Solomon Islands: it is in Arawa, on the island of Bougainville.

On a per capita basis, Bougainville is as naturally endowed as PNG. The Panguna mine alone has copper and gold worth $100 billion; there are potentially several Panguna mines in Bougainville. The Bougainville fishery is also rich.

It is good that Indian Prime Minister Modi is visiting PNG soon. He seems comfortable sharing difficult truths with other world leaders. An outspoken observer, like India’s Prime Minister Modi, who is expected to visit the region soon, could help provide a fresh perspective. Hopefully he can see PNG up close and assess things for himself. The Quad needs the opinion of each member. His game in the South Pacific could end up being for all marbles, and the sides have a lot to lose.

My bet is on Ishmael.

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