The Gangs of Bougainville: Seven Men, Guns and a Copper Mine

It will be difficult to dispute that the international media determines which conflicts the world follows. Certain armed conflicts (mainly those which involve US or European interests), in the opinion of the international media, merit sustained attention throughout their duration while others barely merit a mention. The Bougainville conflict (often known as ‘the Bougainville Crisis’) belongs in the latter category. While having received reasonably significant coverage from the Australian and New Zealand news media, it developed, reached its peak and transformed unnoticed by the rest of the world.

BY STAN STARYGIN | August 05, 2013


The Bougainville Crisis started out as a series of terrorist acts[1] staged by a certain segment of the traditional owners of the land which housed one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines, the Panguna mine. The terrorism was aimed at first at the property of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), – the British company Rio Tinto’s Australian subsidiary -which operated the mine, and  thensecondly at the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (‘PNGDF’) that was deployed to quell the unrest. These terrorist acts had the effect of shutting down the mine. The fight against the Papua New Guinea Defense Force quickly escalated to the reigniting of Bougainville’s struggle for independence from PNG[2] based upon a well-entrenched belief that “Bougainville would be better off being independent”[3] and to “broaden the support base” for the escalating fight.[4]

While theories on the causes of the Bougainville Crisis abound,[5] there is no credible way of believing that a conflict of that scale and intensity would have happened without the Panguna mine.[6] There is equally no plausible argument to be made that a claim of monetary compensation of 10 billion kinas (“at the time approximately $US 10 billion”)[7] and its rejection by the BCL formed at least the initial grievance the satisfaction of which the landowners sought through the violence.[8] The man who led the group that claimed this compensation, Francis Ona, stood to personally benefit from the satisfaction of the claim through which he sought to compensate himself and his family for otherwise “ little entitlement to [mining lease] land […] and […]  scant rent and compensation”[9] they received.[10]

The first acts of terrorism led to the establishment of a small terror group which called itself the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (‘BRA’). The use of the name was quickly expanded to become a rallying call to which “[t]he strongest support came from frustrated young men with few economic opportunities for whom membership of the BRA gave power and status”[11] and who were not “direct beneficiaries of the mine”;[12] a number of these men were engaged in criminal activity prior the beginning of the Crisis and the inception of the BRA. Despite the ring of its name the BRA was never a cohesive force, with the central command often having trouble imposing its will on the smaller local groups that comprised the BRA.[13] The constituent groups were of great diversity and ranged from “disciplined and highly motivated” to those that were “little more than criminal gangs”.[14]

Disagreements on how to proceed within the central command of the BRA eventually led to a schism, which divided those who went on to join the peace process (led by Ishmael Toroama) which culminated in a peace agreement (Bougainville Peace Agreement) in 2001, from those who categorically refused any involvement in the peace agreement (led by Ona).[15] Following the signing of the BPA, Bougainville’s autonomy within the Papua New Guinean state it established gave rise to the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (‘ABG’). Many of those who joined the peace process ended up in the ABG reaping the financial benefits of PNG and international donor funding;[16] those who did not continued on with what one observer aptly called “Rambo-style leadership”[17] bringing the conflict down to the level of jockeying for position of control over strategic locales. Observers of the peace process anticipated a threat to the peace contained in the latter,more specifically in Ona and his followers,[18] and so it has come to pass with the “Rambos” continuing to engage in armed violence and continuing to control access to the Panguna mine[19] and other resource sites. The United Nations and Pacific countries-sponsored effort at disarming these individuals experienced an eventual failure, after initial success,[20] with scores of contained weapons having made their way back to the gangs by 2006 and remain in their possession today.


*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 3 | No. 1
© Copyright 2013 by CESRAN
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