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Assessment for Bouganvilleans in Papua New Guinea

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Bouganvilleans in Papua New Guinea, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Papua New Guinea Facts
Area:    461,691 sq. km.
Capital:    Port Moresby
Total Population:    4,600,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The past few years have brought about substantial changes for the Bougainvilleans in Papua New Guinea (PNG). In 2001, a peace agreement was sined between rebels and the government, establishing regional autonomy for Bougainville. Since that time, there has been a virtual cessation of fighting and violence; a program to surrender weapons has been completed under a UN mandate; internally displaced refugees have returned to their homes; and, at the end of 2004, a final draft constitution was agreed upon by the PNG parliament, clearing the way for regional elections in the near future.

Nevertheless, more than 20,000 people have died since the outbreak of the rebellion in December of 1988 and, with factors such as persistent past protest and rebellion; territorial concentration; and high levels of group cohesion, the chance of future rebellion remains. Further, Francis Ona, founder of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and now head of a militant faction of that group, has consistently refused to join the peace process; however, his group has not engaged in any active rebellion of late.

Analytic Summary

Group members have resided on the island of Bougainville in eastern Papua New Guinea for hundreds of years. Papua New Guinea hosts around 1,000 tribes that speak more than 800 languages. There are 19 different language groups represented on Bougainville. The island's residents are Melanesians whose ethnic kin populate the neighboring Solomon Islands. They are darker-skinned peoples in comparison to the lighter-skinned Papuans (RACE = 1).

Bougainville was a part of the Solomon Islands until the 19th century when Germany, Britain, and Australia decided to divide up their colonial possessions. Papua New Guinea ended up under British control but it was later transferred to Australia. Except for the Japanese occupation of the country during the Second World War, Australia governed the territory until independence was achieved in 1975.

Prior to the country's independence, Bougainville announced its intentions to secede; however, shortly afterward it joined the newly sovereign state. The next self-determination effort arose just over a decade later and the impetus was the economic exploitation of the island's natural resources. The major economic enterprise on Bougainville was the Australian mining company CRA Ltd., which controlled the Panguna copper mine. The mine is reported to have contributed up to 40% of the country's export earnings.

Dissatisfaction over the limited benefits group members received from the mine, concern over the resulting environmental degradation, along with a lack of local political control were among the reasons that led to the formation of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in 1987. The BRA, led by Francis Ona, a former mine employee, began to launch limited violent attacks against the Panguna mine. A large-scale three-week armed campaign by the BRA in December of 1988 led to the closure of the mine.

The response of the government was swift and brutal. Along with enacting a state of emergency and engaging in military campaigns against the BRA, in 1990 a military and economic blockade was imposed on Bougainville after the rebels declared the island's independence. Thousands of group members died as a result of economic hardship until the blockade was lifted in 1996. Significant Australian military support helped sustain the government offensive while the rebels were able to obtain various forms of aid, including sanctuary, in the Solomon Islands.

Efforts to reach a negotiated settlement were first undertaken in mid-1990 through the mediation of New Zealand. The Honiara Accord was reached in January 1991, named after the capital of the Solomon Islands where the talks were held, but it failed shortly afterward. Violent conflict continued until mid-1997 when the next major sustained peace effort was launched, again through New Zealand's mediation. Prior to these negotiations, the government had hired mercenaries from the private security firm, Sandline International, to crush the insurgency. The Papua New Guinea armed forces objected to the presence of the mercenaries, which led to the downfall of the government and the subsequent withdrawal of the Sandline soldiers.

Following numerous consultations in New Zealand, and secondarily Australia, in January 1998 the Lincoln Agreement was reached. A ceasefire that has held was negotiated in April of the same year and unarmed peacekeepers from New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu have monitored the peace.

During 1999 and 2000 there were numerous consultations between the national government, the interim Bougainville government, and a faction of the BRA to work out the details of the autonomy agreement. In 2001, a peace agreement was finally reached, which was accepted by the Papua New Guinea Parliament at the end of 2004. Bougainville is to receive broad powers for self-governance and a referendum on independence in the future. A minority faction of the BRA, led by its founder Francis Ona, remains outside of the peace process and is still seeking independence. They are militarily occupying the site of the former Panguna mine; however, they have not engaged in violent activities in recent years.

The Bougainvilleans face demographic stresses that include deteriorating public health conditions and declining caloric intakes, which are due to the effects of the rebellion and adverse weather conditions (DMSICK03 = 2; DMFOOD01 = 2; DMENV01 = 2). Economic discrimination against group members, which is a result of social exclusion by the dominant Papuan community, substantially improved in 1998 after a peace agreement was reached, and remedial policies have begun with agreement on autonomy (ECDIS00 = 3, ECDIS01-03 = 1). However, the infrastructure on the island was destroyed and few educational opportunities were available during the decade-long conflict. Political discrimination is also a result of social exclusion although there are now remedial policies in place along with the agreement on autonomy (POLDIS01-03 = 1).

Most group members favor either independence or widespread autonomy (SEPX = 3). Economic rights are also central to their concerns and include desires for a greater share of public funds and economic opportunities and protection to ensure that land and job opportunities are not given to members of other groups (ECOGR203, ECOGR303, ECOGR503 = 1).

The Bougainvilleans were primarily represented by the militant BRA throughout the early to mid-1990s; however, since the peace agreement, conventional organizations have risen to the forefront (GOJPA03 = 3). These include the local interim government and the Bougainvillean People's Congress, an elected assembly that has been involved in the negotiations. Most group members reportedly support these organizations (COHESX9 = 5). The only known militant organization to remain is BRA faction still led by Francis Ona; the group is called Me'ekamui Defence Force (MDF), which has declared a "Republic of Me'ekamui" with a no-go area.

In recent years there has not been any group rebellion and only very minimal protest, usually concerning the slow progress of the peace agreement (REB0103 = 0; PROT 98 = 1; PROT 99-00 = 0; PROT01-02 = 1; PROT03 = 0). There has been no repressive action by state authorities since the peace agreement. There has, however, been some intra-group violent conflict: in 2001 the Bougainville Resistance Forces blamed the BRA for assassinating some of its senior commanders; and in 2003, gunfire was exchanged between BRA and MDF, although the exact nature of the dispute was not clear.


1. The Europa Yearbook, Far East and Australia 1993.

2. Far Eastern Economic Review, 1990-93.

3. Keesings Record of World Events, 1990-93.

4. Nexis Library Information, 1990-2003.

5. US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (2001-2003): Papua New Guinea.

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