Peace by Peaceful Means: Unarmed Australian Personnel on Bougainville 1997-2003
For more than five consecutive years almost 2,500 unarmed Australian military and civilian monitors worked closely with the Bougainvillean people, at times in isolated and remote parts of Buka and Bougainville Islands, to support peacebuilding in a region that had been exposed to almost a decade of violence.
The Bougainville Crisis encompassed several overlapping layers of conflict. The crisis had begun as a dispute over the Panguna copper mine in Central Bougainville between local landowners and the mine’s owners, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL). After repeated instances of sabotage of mine equipment, BCL was forced to close the Panguna mine. Papua New Guinea Defence Force personnel and mobile police units were brought in to control the situation but the crisis quickly escalated, taking on secessionist characteristics as the PNGDF forces clashed with pro-secessionist militia groups, such as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).When the PNGDF withdrew from Bougainville and established a blockade around Bougainville and Buka islands in 1990, the situation devolved further and intra-ethnic violence raged down to a local level.
Australians were part of three multinational peace operations consisting of military personnel from New Zealand, Tonga, Vanuatu and Fiji. Australian involvement included the short-lived South Pacific Peace Keeping Force (SPPKF) in October 1994 that preceded the longer deployments of the Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) and Peace Monitoring Group (PMG). The almost 650 ADF personnel of the armed SPPKF aimed to provide a secure location for peace negotiations between the Papua New Guinean national government and Bougainville’s secessionist leaders. However, the TMG and PMG focused on community engagement with the Bougainvillean population in addition to political negotiations.
The first of the two unarmed international monitoring groups, the New Zealand-led TMG was tasked with overseeing compliance with the Burnham Truce. The truce was signed at the second of two rounds of talks held at the Burnham Military Camp in New Zealand during 1997. The Burnham Truce followed two failed ceasefire agreements and five unsuccessful peace accords. The Burnham Declaration, made at the first round of talks, recognised the need for an international monitoring force to support the success of the truce. The TMG was hastily established in response, deploying in November of 1997, shortly after the completion of the second round of talks at Burnham in October.
The PNGDF blockade of Bougainville had prevented access to essential services, most notably medical care, and resulted in the majority of deaths during the conflict. Key infrastructure had been destroyed across Bougainville and Buka islands, and intra-ethnic violence prevented freedom of movement. The conflict had resulted in almost 70,000 internally displaced Bougainvilleans, forced off kastom lands and living in temporary shelters run by the PNGDF.
Within Bougainville, the TMG’s deployment was contentious. Australia’s pre-existing alliance with the PNGDF had resulted in PNGF personnel trained at Duntroon, Australian personnel loaned to the PNGDF, and the provision of equipment such as four UH-1 Iroquois helicopters and Pacific-class Patrol boats, all subsequently used in the PNGDF blockade of Bougainville. This was largely seen as Australia supporting the PNGDF and operations against Bougainville. Given Australia’s colonial history within the region, as well as ties to the Panguna Mine, Bougainvilleans were distrustful of Australian involvement, including the TMG.
It was clear, even during the somewhat rushed planning for TMG deployment, that monitors could not be armed. Given their history of occupations, the Bougainvillean people associated the military with violence. Furthermore, the perception of Australia’s ties to the PGNDF meant that armed Australian troops landing in Bougainville would be seen solely as PNGDF reinforcements rather than neutral keepers of the peace, which would only make the situation more volatile.
Dispelling this image, the bright yellow shirts, hats and armbands worn by monitors made them easy to spot, and the logo of a white dove carrying an olive branch was effective at wordlessly conveying the aims of TMG.
The decision to send unarmed monitors presented an image of international faith in the peace process and the people of Bougainville, even if there were concerns behind the scenes. It went a long way to dispelling rumours that the TMG aimed to reopen the mine, or silence key secessionist figures. Part of the TMG’s mandate was the investigation of alleged breaches of the ceasefire and the Burnham Truce, requiring monitors to prove they were approachable to the Bougainvillean people in order to fulfil this mandate successfully.
While it was not part of the group’s mandate, medical personnel from the TMG offered treatment to locals. This included providing life-saving treatment to family members of Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) members, which further assisted in contradicting rumours that the TMG aimed to harm BRA leaders. When word began to spread that the TMG was providing medical aid outside their mandate for humanitarian reasons, it went a long way in establishing community and grassroots support. This support proved essential, given that none of the parties to the Burnham talks had yet agreed to disarm.
Sport became a key conduit for strengthening relationships with local communities, especially with young men who might otherwise have been drawn into taking up arms. The TMG played host to the Bougainville games, which helped create confidence in the new freedom of movement within Bougainville.
While this did not replace the need for reconciliation within Bougainvillean communities, it was key to establishing trust in the TMG to monitor subsequent peace processes, as well as bringing opposing groups together for discussions and traditional processes of reconciliation to finally begin.
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