Australian peacekeepers in Bougainville from 1994 to 2003
Australian peacekeepers played a key role in brokering peace in the long-running conflict in Bougainville, an island province of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The almost decade-long civil war between separatist groups and the Papua New Guinea Government was one of the most significant and violent conflicts in the region since World War II. An estimated 15,000 people died and up to 70,000 people were displaced.
Australia and New Zealand led 3 regional peacekeeping missions to Bougainville between 1993 and 2003. The aim of these missions was to monitor the truce and ceasefire, prevent further major outbreaks of violence and bring stability to the region.
A fight for independence
A province of PNG in the South Pacific region, the island of Bougainville was in a state of civil war from 1989 to 1998. This was known as the Bougainville Crisis.
The war was fought between the PNG Government and separatist groups seeking independence from PNG, primarily the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). With deep-seated distrust on both sides, inflamed by ethnic differences, community-level tensions evolved into an armed struggle that spanned almost a decade.
The catalyst for the long-running conflict was the development of a copper mine on the island by Australian company Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA – now Rio Tinto Limited).
The Panguna mine
After the discovery of copper and gold in Bougainville in the 1960s, CRA established an open-cut mine at Panguna. At the time, it was the world's largest copper and gold mine. It was also the biggest mining project ever undertaken by an Australian company. However, the mine sparked major conflict in Bougainville, stirring up historical and ethnic issues that eventually led to a civil war.
Building the mine, along with an airfield, ports and a power station, meant acquiring land from local landowners and resettling local Nasioi people. It also brought thousands of workers to Bougainville, mostly European and Australian expatriates and PNG mainlanders. This influx of outsiders caused further tensions in the community. Their cultural and social behaviours clashed with the ethnic and cultural sensitivities of the local and mostly Catholic Bougainvilleans. The outsiders were also benefiting from the island's rich resources in a way that many of the local people and landholders were not.
The mine began operating in April 1972 under the management of Bougainville Copper Ltd, with the PNG Government as a 20% shareholder. But as time went on, opposition to the mine grew. The local villagers were distressed about the disastrous environmental damage caused by the mine, with local rivers and crops poisoned, whole species wiped out and congenital disorders found in children. They opposed losing their land and wanted a greater share of the mine's revenue in return, a demand the PNG Government refused.
In late 1988 and early 1989, disgruntled landowners began sabotaging the mine's infrastructure. There were violent clashes and protests. The PNG Government sent in riot police to restore order, followed by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). The violence quickly escalated, and the mine was forced to close in May 1989.
The crisis becomes a war
Over the next 10 years, Bougainville descended into a violent civil war. Separatist groups emerged, seeking autonomy or demanding independence from PNG.
Throughout 1992, PNGDF commanders on the island armed hundreds of Bougainvillean men who were opposed to the BRA. They led the men on operations and called them the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF).
The BRA had declared the independence of Bougainville from PNG in 1990. The BRF was opposed to an independent Bougainville dominated by the BRA, which was largely composed of members of the Nasioi ethnic group.
With little success, multiple attempts were made to broker peace between the warring groups.
The drawn-out conflict resulted in the deaths of hundreds of PNGDF soldiers and resistance fighters, and an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians. Up to 70,000 people were also displaced. After the PNG Government withdrew its security forces in 1990, it cut off services to the island, impacting the supply of essential goods, including medicine. This was devastating to the island's economy and resulted in many civilian deaths due to disease and deprivation. PNG forces later returned to areas of Bougainville where they had local support.
A multinational mission
A multinational peacekeeping effort – led first by New Zealand, then by Australia – eventually helped set Bougainville on the path to peace. The PNG Government invited New Zealand to lead the way initially, due to its neutrality in the region and lack of involvement in Bougainville.
In July 1990, New Zealand agreed to provide a secure venue for peacekeeping talks with separatist leaders. On 29 July, New Zealand carried out Operation Big Talk aboard the HMNZS Endeavour with international observers from Canada, Vanuatu and New Zealand. The delegates all signed the Endeavour Accord on 5 August, which called for government services to be restored. However, there was no progress made toward a political solution.
Australia, by comparison, had a more complex history in the region. PNG, including Bougainville, was an Australian colony from 1919 to 1949. It was then an Australian-administered United Nations trust territory until its independence in 1975. Australia's official policy in the early years of the Bougainville Crisis was to support the PNG Government and oppose Bougainville gaining independence. The PNGDF was also using Australian-donated helicopters and patrol boats to enforce its blockade of Bougainville.
While there were doubts initially about Australia's ability to be impartial, Australia played a crucial role in facilitating the peace process in Bougainville across 3 separate peacekeeping missions:
- South Pacific Peacekeeping Force (SPPKF), 1994
- Truce Monitoring Group (TMG), 1997–1998
- Peace Monitoring Group (PMG), 1998–2003.
The aim of the SPPKF was to provide security for peace talks. The role of the monitoring groups was to:
- monitor the ceasefire and report on the compliance of both sides
- bring news and updates of the peace process
- help build confidence and popular opinion.
The groups carried out patrols of isolated villages in 4WD vehicles and helicopters, or on difficult treks through thick jungle. Group members spent time with local villagers, held meetings and listened to complaints.
Between 1994 and 2003, around 3,000 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel served on Bougainville across the 3 missions.
South Pacific Peacekeeping Force (SPPKF) 1994
Hopes for a peaceful settlement were raised in late 1994 with the creation of the South Pacific Peacekeeping Force (SPPKF). The PNG Government approached Australia about assembling and leading a regional peacekeeping force to provide security for the Bougainville Peace Conference at Arawa. Named Operation Lagoon, it was the first combined South Pacific region peacekeeping operation commanded by the ADF.
The Australian-led regional armed force of Australian, Fijian, Tongan and Vanuatuan military personnel deployed on Operation Lagoon between 4 and 21 October 1994. A total of 648 Australian personnel served in SPPKF. However, the BRA was suspicious of the relationship between the peacekeeping force and the PNGDF, and refused to attend the peace conference. Without the BRA, the peace talks failed and the SPPKF was withdrawn after only 3 weeks.
Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) 1997 to 1998
After several failed peace accords and ceasefire agreements, peace talks resumed in 1997 at the Burnham military camp in New Zealand. This led to the Burnham Declaration in July of that year, which called for a ceasefire in Bougainville and demilitarisation of the island. It also called for a neutral regional peacekeeping force to monitor the terms of the truce.
Organised by the militaries of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Vanuatu, the New Zealand-led Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) served in Bougainville from 1997 to 1998. The Australian operation was codenamed Operation Bel-Isi, with 'Bel Isi' Pijin for 'quiet heart', 'calm' or 'peace'. The TMG force was around 2,400 personnel in total, including 230 Australians, and first deployed to Bougainville on 6 December 1997. Around 120 Australian personnel served on Bougainville at any one time.
Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) 1998 to 2003
The signing of the Lincoln Agreement on 23 January 1998 at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand was the next important step toward peace in Bougainville. It extended the truce until the start of a permanent ceasefire at midnight on 30 April 1998. It also outlined a transition from the current TMG to a Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) to monitor the ceasefire.
On 30 April 1998, all parties signed the Ceasefire Agreement in Arawa, Bougainville, including the PNG Government and the BRA. The agreement also signified the shift from a New Zealand-led peacekeeping operation to an Australian-led operation, codenamed Operation Bel-Isi II. The PMG was made up of a mix of military and civilian personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Vanuatu. It deployed the day after the ceasefire agreement, on 1 May 1998. Approximately 2,100 Australian personnel served in the PMG, with around 230 personnel on Bougainville at any 1 time.
Following the PMG deployment, life on Bougainville gradually returned to normal. Schools reopened, some services were restored, market days resumed and people began to move about more freely. These encouraging signs of progress helped to build faith in the peace process.
Signing the Peace Agreement
A series of peace talks led to the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement by the PNG Government and Bougainville separatist leaders on 30 August 2001 in Arawa. This landmark agreement, to which Australia was a signatory witness, granted Bougainville autonomous status and established the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG). It also provided a plan for peace and political stability in Bougainville.
In February 2003, Australia announced that it would cease operations in Bougainville on 30 June and withdraw shortly afterwards. New Zealand made a similar announcement. On 30 June, the PMG held a ceremony to mark the end of operations and to hand over to the Bougainville Transition Team, a small team of 17 unarmed civilians that continued to operate until the end of the year. The final contingent of the Australian-led PMG withdrew from Bougainville on HMAS Tobruk on 23 August 2003.
Experiences of Australians
After enlisting in the Australian Army as a direct-entry officer and qualified nurse, Lieutenant Lynda White deployed to Bougainville as part of the PMG on 1 June 1998. Her 4-month assignment involved running the operating theatre at the PMG's tent hospital at Loloho Wharf. Lynda worked closely with locals as a midwife, as well as treating gunshot wounds and draining abscesses.
As one of only 2 staff running the operating theatre, White was on constant call and rarely able to leave the compound. In appreciation for her efforts, she received a homemade medal crafted by locals from a Papua New Guinea coin. White returned to Australia on 9 October 1998.
Sergeant Penelope 'Poppy' Searle (formerly Poppy Wenham) was deployed as a signaller with the PMG in March 2000 for 5 months. A reservist in the Australian Army, Searle was keen to experience service in a real peacekeeping operation. The Army Reserves were called on to serve in Bougainville as the Australian Army was focused on peacekeeping in East Timor (now Timor-Leste).
When we went to Bougainville to keep the peace there had been 15 years of fighting on the island. During that time the schools were closed and lots of things like hospitals were destroyed. One of the first things that happened when the peace was made was that schools reopened. I was amazed to see young adults of 16 or 17 sitting in primary school classes with 5 and 6 year olds because they had missed out on all their schooling but they knew it was important to learn to read and write.
Patrick Anthony Foley deployed as a civilian peace monitor with the PMG on Bougainville in 2000. In a postcard to his colleagues in Australia, he described his first impressions of the island during the first 4 weeks of his deployment:
Dear John and team, I note with amazement that I have been on the island for almost 4 weeks. I don’t want to even think about the 10 days I spent with the Army in Bamagh. (I can only describe it as a sort of waking nightmare, a blur of field-packs, marching, hutchies and heat). Things in Bougainville are either completely dull or amazingly surprising (sometimes in the same day). I have flown in choppers, crossed swollen streams, helped treat someone who had been chopped with an axe etc. It certainly is a long way from my little desk. All my very best wishes to all. Yours, Patrick Foley
Lance Corporal Shawn Lewis died on 20 May 2000 while serving with the PMG in Bougainville. His name is recorded with other members of the Australian armed forces on the national Roll of Honour.
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It’s a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
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