Ethnic Strife and Cultural Solidarity in Melanesia

In trying to separate from Papua New Guinea, the people of Bougainville have sought full independence rather than union with Solomon Islands,* the country that encompasses the rest of the archipelago in which their island is located. The sentiment is not difficult to understand; Solomon Islands is a poor and unstable state beset with ethnic conflict.

Solomon Islands’ troubles intensified in the late 1990s, when feuding between the indigenous inhabitants of Guadalcanal and immigrants from the neighboring island of Malaita brought it to the edge of state failure. In 2003, the Honiara government requested international security assistance; Australia, New Guinea, and 20 other Pacific basin countries responded by sending a sizable peace-keeping mission, dubbed Operation Helpen Fren (Pidgin for “help a friend”). While reestablishing basic security, it did not generate stability. In 2006, rioters in Honiara torched the Chinese commercial establishment after rumor spread of Chinese businesspeople bribing members of parliament; the PRC had to send in chartered aircraft to airlift hundreds of its citizens to safety. Additional troops were deployed from Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, but the Solomon Islands government fell, and its economy plummeted.

The turmoil of Solomon Islands is not unusual in its locale. Ethnic strife, governmental instability, and general insecurity characterize much of its immediate neighborhood. As a result, Australian commentators have deemed the area an “arc of instability.” This politically fraught region extends from eastern Indonesia through Melanesia to western Polynesia (see map). But while “arc of instability” is an evocative phrase, it is ambiguous; other authors have deployed it elsewhere (including Central Asia and the vast swath of the planet extending from the Caribbean Basin to Southeast Asia).

Although much of Melanesia is beset with local discord, one Melanesian government has set its sights on what it sees as a more fundamental ethno-political conflict: that occasioned by Indonesian’s annexation of Western New Guinea. On June 21, 2010, the parliament of Vanuatu unanimously requested an international investigation into Indonesia’s acquisition of, and continuing rule over, the territory. The conflict is often framed in religious and regional—or metageographical—terms. As reported by Radio Australia, Vanuatu’s Parliamentary motion asks “the UN General Assembly to direct the International Court [of Justice] to look into the manner in which the mainly Melanesian and Christian western half of New Guinea island was incorporated into the Asian and Islamic country of Indonesia.”

Vanuatu’s leaders expressed confidence that other Melanesian governments will follow their lead – with one notable exception: Papua New Guinea (PNG), the giant of the Melanesian world. On June 23, 2010, a Vanuatuan member of parliament chastised PNG for “being out of step with Melanesian opinion on the legality of Indonesia’s Papua province.” But Papua New Guinea’s reluctance is not difficult to understand, as it would be highly vulnerable to potential Indonesian reprisals. In its case, both military and economic considerations tend to outweigh the desire for pan-Melanesian cultural and geopolitical solidarity.

In next Monday’s post, we will explore what “Melanesia” means.

* The country’s official name is “Solomon Islands,” without the use of the definite article (“the”).

Election Controversies and Ethnic Complexities on the Not-So-Tiny Island of Bougainville

In June 2010, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) voted out three quarters of its parliamentary representatives along with its president. Whereas the outgoing leader was a former revolutionary committed to independence, the newly elected chief executive favors continuing ties with PNG. Most sources, however, do not see a loss of interest in sovereignty. The election focused on governmental competence, which the voters of Bougainville evidently found wanting in the former administration. Another divisive issue was the future of the shuttered Panguna mine. While most candidates supported reopening, they disagreed over who should carry it out. Some favored returning control to the former operator, a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto; others argued for turning to Chinese investors.

Security formed another electoral concern. Interethnic strife remains deadly, although the body count has diminished in recent years. Violence is concentrated in southern Bougainville where, according to The Economist (June 10, 2010, page 47), “some 14 armed militia groups still openly carry arms.” During the election campaign, the successful challenger accused the incumbent of condoning the warlords who hold sway over much of the south.

Ethnic tension in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is linked to pronounced cultural fragmentation. Roughly two dozen languages in three families are spoken by the region’s 175,000 inhabitants. Two of these families, North Bougainville and South Bougainville, may be unique to the island. They were formerly classified within the Papuan family, but linguists no longer think that the “Papuan languages” constitute a genuine group, descended from a common ancestral tongue. Other forms of cultural distinctiveness further divide the peoples of Bougainville. According to the delightfully discursive Wikipedia article, among the northern peoples of Bougainville, “Cheerful friendliness is the prevalent norm. Austronesian Bougainvilleans and especially Bukas value outgoing openness, chattiness, a generally friendly mien.” South Bougainvilleans, in contrast, are said to “value privacy, discretion, quiet. Just listen to the silence of their markets and religious and political gatherings. When they are contemptuous of ‘redskins’ and ‘mastas’ (i.e. white people) it’s not that they are vulgar racists as to the colour of your skin. It’s that they find noisiness and intemperate speech shocking and impolite.”

On an unrelated issue, Bougainville also offers a lesson on human perceptions of spatial scale. The otherwise excellent article on the island’s problems in The Economist magazine begins as follows: “The tiny troubled island of Bougainville has a new president …” Tiny? Bougainville is the 79th largest of the world’s roughly 100,000 inhabited islands. It covers more territory than such substantial islands as Cyprus, Crete, or Corsica. Bougainville is almost as large as Hawaii, which is called “the big island” in reference to the fact that it is seven times the size of Oahu, the state of Hawaii’s demographic, economic, and political center. Yet even Oahu, which covers almost 600 square miles, is almost never described as “tiny,” a term best reserved for islands like Australia’s Norfolk (13.3 square miles).

My point is not so much to chide the normally astute Economist for an uncharacteristic slip as to illustrate a common problem in geographical perception. Unfamiliar places far from one’s homeland tend to diminish in apparent size, as illustrated by Saul Steinberg’s famous “view of the world” New Yorker cover. A tendency to mentally shrink exotic places seems to be a natural human disposition. We should be vigilant against it if we want to remain geographically accurate.

Oil Theft and Insurgency on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea

On June 18, 2010, Australian news announced that the government of Papua New Guinea had just seized a sizable tanker filled with allegedly stolen oil. Registered in the Marshall Islands, the Singapore-bound ship was carrying crude worth an estimated $A16.3 million ($14 million US). Its 20 crewmembers were arrested and charged with various offenses, including possession of pornography.

The most intriguing aspect of the story was the source of the purloined oil: it had evidently been siphoned out of rusty tanks at the derelict Panguna copper mine on Papua New Guinea’s island of Bougainville. That the Panguna site, shuttered since 1989, still held millions of dollars worth of oil indicates its size; when closed due to civil unrest, it was the largest open-pit mine in the world. When the mine began operating in the early 1970s, Papua New Guinea gained the financial resources considered necessary for independence from Australia. If the peace-making deal made in the late 1990s between the government of Papua New Guinea and the insurgents of Bougainville is to be honored, this story could soon be repeated: a reopened Panguna could provide the economic base for Bougainville to secede from Papua New Guinea as a sovereign state within the coming decade.

Bougainville is physically part of the Solomon archipelago, which otherwise forms its own country. It owes its geopolitical position to late nineteenth century European colonial competition. As German traders and imperialists pushed south from northeastern New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, the British consolidated their power in the southern Solomon Islands. In 1900, Germany transferred all of its holdings in the archipelago except Bougainville and associated islets to Britain in exchange for a British withdrawal from Samoa. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, German New Guinea, including Bougainville, passed to Australia as a League of Nations Mandate. Australia joined these lands to its own previously acquired holdings in southeastern New Guinea (technically under British sovereignty), forming the territory that became Papua New Guinea in 1975.

Bougainville erupted into insurgency soon after the opening of the Panguna mine. Local residents complained that Panguna benefited the central government and outsiders who worked and manage the mine, while they suffered the associated environmental and social disruptions. In 1975, rebel leaders declared the independence of the Republic of the North Solomons, which functioned as an insurgent state for about six months. New Guinea forces gained the upper hand, but the rebellion simmered. In 1988, the new Bougainville Revolutionary Army effectively targeted the mine and its power supply, forcing a suspension of operations in 1989. In 1990, the Port Moresby government placed Bougainville under blockade, prompting rebel leaders to once again proclaim their sovereignty. But rather than cooperating to build a working state, the island’s various armed camps and ethnic groups quarreled, resulting in civil war.

Civil strife in Bougainville allowed the Papuan army to advance on the island, but not to regain full control. New Guinea requested assistance from Australia and New Zealand, but to no avail. In 1996, it turned to Sandline International, a British-based private military force with South African connections. The employment of a mercenary force, however, provoked scandal in Papua New Guinea, bringing down its prime minister. A new government opted for negotiations, with New Zealand brokering. A 2000 peace treaty established the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, promising its people that they could vote on full independence sometime between 2015 and 2020.

Although most residents of Bougainville apparently viewed the Panguna mine as an environmental disaster when it was operational, the current consensus seems to be that independence would require its reopening. But mine revenues alone would not form an adequate foundation for successful sovereignty; for that, competent governmental institutions and civil concord are also necessary. Bougainville’s record on these issues, as the next Geocurrents posting will explore, remains mixed.