From Bougainvillie To Baghdad
by Waratah (Rosemarie Gillespie)
Bougainville 1993: A small van, packed with people fleeing Arawa, trundles along the narrow coast road. The Papua New Guinea Army slipped into Arawa a few days ago under the cover of night. One of the women, who worked at the pharmacy at the Arawa General Hospital, was raped and murdered by soldiers.
Arawa is the capital of Bougainville, an island in the South Pacific covered with tropical rainforest, where many rivers run.
The island of Bougainville lies along a fault line where two of the Earth's tectonic plates are on a collision course. Volcanic activity made this island, which currently has three active volcanoes. Earth tremors are commonplace. Created in the crucible of volcanic activity, Bougainville is rich in minerals, a treasure trove of diamonds, copper, gold, silver and many other minerals, buried under a canopy of thick rainforest.
The British mining company, Rio Tinto, through its subsidiary Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA), bulldozed its way into Bougainville and dug the largest copper mine in the world at the time.(Three times larger than the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea). The Bougainville Copper Mine, operated by a subsidiary of CRA, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), was hailed as "the jewel in the crown" of Rio Tinto by its leading executives. Producing $A one million dollars worth of copper concentrate per day, (in 1998 dollars) it was Rio Tinto's most profitable operation at the time. For the people of Bougainville who lived near or downstream from the mine, it was an environmental disaster.
From the beginning, Bougainvilleans resisted both mining exploration and mine construction. This was brutally put down by police employed by the Australian Administration in 1968 and 1969. At the same time Australian public servants and military personnel were being offered shares in Bougainville Copper Limited and told that these shares were a very good investment.
Bougainville was part of the United Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea administered by Australia at the time. Bougainvilleans were beaten, tear gassed, harassed and jailed for opposing the mining of their land. One man I met had been beaten so badly by police that he had lost all his teeth. He was never the same again.
The local people did not want mining on their land. In Bougainville, land is the basis of the life and culture of the people. Land is the source of life, handed down from mother to daughter since time immemorial.
Bougainville is the first place in the world where an indigenous people closed a mine that was destroying their land and environment, and kept it closed. In late 1988, Bougainvilleans began blowing up power pylons, cutting off the electricity supply to the mine, and bringing mining operations to a halt. The Papua New Guinea police and later the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) were given orders to "Shoot to kill" anyone interfering with the operations of the mine. In Bougainville's Melanesian culture, where "Land is Life", there were many young Bougainvillean men who were willing to pledge their lives to protect the land of their mothers. The mine remains closed to this day.
Desperate efforts by the Papua New Guinea armed forces to quell the growing rebellion on the island resulted in many human rights violations committed by PNGDF soldiers against Bougainvillean civilians.
The Australian government handed over four Iroquois helicopters to Papua New Guinea, which were promptly converted to gunships and used against civilians. Outraged, Bougainvilleans determined to fight for independence, something they had been denied in 1975 when Australia granted formal independence to Papua New Guinea.
Bougainville is geologically and geographically
part of the Solomon Islands, and is located 1000kilometres from the capital
of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, which is on the other side of the Solomon
Sea. The Bougainvilleans still want their independence, and they will get
it some day.
February 1993: As we trundle along the bumpy coast road, one of the Bougainvilleans sees an Iroquois helicopter in the distance. The van dives off the road into the nearest side track. Too late, the helicopter has spotted us. It turns and starts heading towards the van. We are all civilians, and unarmed. One of the passengers is a young woman who gave birth two days ago, holding her newborn baby in her arms.
The van stops under a canopy of cocoa trees. We clamber out of the van and hide in the bushes. We can hear the chopper nearby, looking for us. After a while it goes away, and we breathe a sigh of relief. Many civilians had been shot from these helicopters, which were used in the Valentines Day Massacre (February 14, 1990) when people were taken up and thrown out of helicopters into the sea.
This type of brutality was out of character, given Melanesian culture and custom.
Papua New Guineans, like their Bougainvillean brothers and sisters, are Melanesian. When Papua New Guineans heard what was being done in their name, many of them cried. When the British mercenary company, Sandline, was engaged in 1997 to force the reopening of the mine, ordinary Papua New Guineans put their lives on the line to protest against the use of mercenaries on Bougainville. PNGDF soldiers, with the support and assistance of officers, including the then Commander of the PNGDF, General Jerry Singirok, protected the civilians from the Royal PNG Constabulary, which had tried to break up the protests.
The PNGDF chased the mercenaries out of Papua New Guinea and the General was sacked by the government (which was routed at the next elections!)
In a declaration sworn on November 30th
2001, General Singirok states:
"(F)or all practical purposes, the PNGDF were the corporation's personal security force and were ordered by BCL (Bougainville Copper Limited) to take action to reopen the mine by any means necessary."
"BCL's demand to reopen the mine by any means necessary invoked a well known military command (probably the order to "shoot to kill") to take all force necessary and includes the ordered killing of individuals to achieve the objective."
"In addition to demanding PNGDF involvement, BCL actively participated in the combat efforts to quell the uprising and reopen the mine. For example, BCL provided the infrastructure and bases for the operations, including the command post, battalion headquarters, essential high-speed and mobile communications, and troop barracks. BCL also provided the logistical support to store and issue combat supplies including ammunition and gear. BCL provided food and rations. BCL quartered the troops. BCL provided medical facilities. BCL provided troop transport vehicles for the patrol and combat operations. BCL also provided one helicopter, which was used as a gunship, the heli-pad and a few helicopter pilots to assist in the combat operations, field reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, troop insertion and extraction, and supply of critical supplies (e.g. ammunition) to troops in the fields around Panguna (where the mine is located)".
"BCL is also the reason that the naval blockade around Bougainville Island was instituted". "The blockade was initiated and sustained, just as the other operations were, as a security measure to reopen the mine."
(Over 10,000 people, including thousands of children, died from preventable diseases as a result of the military blockade of Bougainville, which prevented life-saving medicines and other essential supplies from reaching the island)
"I was instructed by the Government of
the day to engage Sandline - a UK based company - to assist in the military
operations. PNG hired Sandline because although the local uprising had
been contained, the mine had not yet been reopened. Again, PNG took this
action because the government and its business partner (BCL) were interested
in reopening the Panguna mine to reap the profits that the mine produced
at the expense of human lives."
The role of the Bougainville Copper company (BCL) in attempting to suppress the popular rebellion against the mining of Bougainvillean land is not unusual. The forthrightness of Jerry Singirok, former general of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force is. Melanesian society is traditionally an open society based on participatory democracy with its own set of customary laws and values, including honesty. Papua New Guinea, Bougainville and the rest of the Solomon Islands are all Melanesian societies.
More often, references to corporate involvement in military or police actions against indigenous people opposing mining or logging or oil extraction from their land are couched in more oblique language. The same is true for strikes and other forms of industrial action in industrialized countries. A recent example is a reference by a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force to the response of corporations operating in Australia when a major strike or other crisis for industry erupts. The affected companies come to us, he said, and ask "What can you do for us?"
Waratah (Rosemarie Gillespie)