Forgotten Conflicts part VI: Conflict renewed

Image credit: Madlemurs (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Conflicts rarely end when the fighting stops. The opposing sides remain adversaries even after they lay down their arms. Reaching a resolution to the catalysing source of conflict that is acceptable to both sides is essential to preventing further fighting. This is often the most difficult part of a conflict; if it was not, fighting could have been avoided in the first place. Yet the complex and drawn-out negotiations that occur after wars often lead them to be forgotten by the international community. When this occurs, conflicts can resume with devastating consequences.

There have been numerous examples of ‘forgotten’ post-conflict resolutions in recent years. In Libya, deep-seated national divisions underscored the civil war that saw the overthrow of Gaddafi, but failure to address these problems has left the country fractured between east and west. South Sudan’s civil war, which abated after the 2014 ceasefire, has resumed with near-genocidal ferocity. Syria will face a similar situation. Though Bashar al-Assad’s regime seems poised for victory, the civil war echoes the 1982 uprising against Assad’s father. If the regime does not accede to some of the rebels’ demands, renewed conflict is inevitable, whether it be in three months or three decades.

The listed examples provide a stark warning for Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the island of Bougainville. In 1972, the world’s largest open cut copper mine began operation in Bougainville. Controlled by Australia-based Rio Tinto but part owned by the PNG government, the Panguna copper mine provided 45% of PNG’s national export revenue. However, mining activity led to widespread environmental problems, resentment by Bougainvilleans who did not see profits from the mine, and tension between locals and migrant miners.

In 1988, sabotage attacks on the mine by local landowners escalated into confrontations with the PNG police and defence forces (PNGDF). The conflict worsened into a separatist insurgency headed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), which forced the closure of the mine. Human rights abuses proliferated and the founder of the BRA Francis Ona declared Bougainville’s independence under the Bougainville Interim Government with himself at its head. PNG forces eventually withdrew and imposed a blockade of the island.

Bougainville descended into civil war, largely divided along clan lines. Attempts to broker peace failed and the PNGDF returned to the island. They recaptured the capital and the mine site but suffered sustained losses in the island’s hinterland. The conflict came to a head in 1997 when Prime Minister Julius Chan sought to hire mercenaries from Sandline International to end the fighting. An army mutiny forced Chan’s resignation and his successor entered into peace talks. Between ten and twenty thousand died during the decade of fighting.

On 30 April 1998, an irrevocable ceasefire was implemented under the Lincoln Agreement. However, it took until August 2001 to broker a peace treaty. The Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) provided for a weapons disposal plan, the election of an Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and a referendum on Bougainvillean autonomy 10 to 15 years after the election of the ABG. Despite this accord, many of the fundamental issues that sparked the conflict, including the mine’s future, remained unresolved.

The ABG held its first election in mid-2005. This leaves the PNG government with just three and a half years to hold a referendum on Bougainvillean autonomy as stipulated in the BPA. Current PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and ABG President John Momis have set 15 June 2019 as the target date. However, the vote can only occur if certain criteria are met, including the disposal of weapons—but many Bougainvilleans have retained their arms in case the PNG government does not deliver on the referendum. Failure to resolve this conundrum could see the referendum delayed and see peace threatened by the very people who are attempting to uphold it.

A more likely cause for renewed conflict will come from the referendum itself. Currently, Bougainvilleans are expected to vote for independence. This will be received badly in Port Moresby, as the success of an independence movement will threaten the diverse nation’s unity. The PNG government may even refuse to ratify the results and, with many Bougainvilleans in support of autonomy rather than independence, this could restart of the conflict.

Few in PNG stand to benefit from renewed fighting. Senior leaders in Bougainville and the PNGDF personally experienced the pain of war and have little interest in refreshing those memories. However, perceived provocation and miscalculation could easily bring the two sides into conflict again.

The Bougainville war has been largely forgotten in the two-decades since fighting ended. There is now a risk that the conflict resolution mechanisms—and accompanying peace—will fail. The international community will need to pay close attention to Bougainville in the coming years if it wishes to avert a return to war.

William Baulch was the July-December 2016 International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.