26 January 2014

Do the people of Bougainville want to be re-colonised by Australia and the US?

Getting Into Resource Rich Bougainville

Islands Business

‘Amazingly, no one cares about asking the people of Bougainville about their perception if they need foreign intervention from the likes of Australia and the United States. Quite clearly, Australian fear mongering and painting a picture of a security threat on its doorstep is intended to give it a reason to get into the resource-rich island before anybody else’


The pursuit of riches has existed from the dawn of civilisation. Ancient tribes risked their lives by leaving their homes and hearths in search of riches in distant lands. It is the pursuit of wealth and its concomitant greed that led to expeditions across the world, with the more powerful of explorers subjugating vulnerable locals to increase their wealth through all sorts of means—pillaging, sacking cities, overrunning countries and killing hundreds and thousands of people. This they did with a heady mix of superior weaponry, dubious barter deals, worldly guile—and religion. The new world order post-World War II brought new ideas of equality, human rights and egalitarianism, which effectively put an end to institutionalised colonialism. But colonialism survived the onslaught of the new world order. Only the means changed. Overt became covert, hush money replaced weaponry, dubious aid replaced dubious trade and corruption took the place of good old guile.

Colonialism became a thing of the past, surviving only with a prefix like “post” as in “post-colonial” but its spirit has not only survived but continues to thrive in this so called modern age. Commentators and perceptive people term this new avatar of the old colonialism as “neo-colonialism”. It is still very much the pursuit of wealth but is pursued through new channels that are acceptable to the new world order. Such as aid, trade, investment and ideas like social and economic development, inclusiveness, capacity building and, of course, sustainability.

Though the ideals look wholesomely altruistic, and many of them may be genuinely so, scratch the surface and you are more than likely to find the hidden hand of big money behind these initiatives. Just as big multinational corporate money continues to influence government policies around trade negotiations, it forces the hands of governments around geopolitical decisions as well.

And when it does that, its only guiding principle is the pursuit of wealth—it does not matter what it costs in terms of lives, limbs, property of the people concerned and their environments. The scenario is very much from what hapless people suffered in the days of colonialism. Only the means have changed.

The hand of Big Oil in the decades-long conflicts in the Middle East, and more recently, in the African continent, as well as the ongoing large scale destruction of rainforests and the habitats of countless species of wildlife, flora and not least remote human tribes in Middle and South America, South East Asia and even some Pacific Islands are only a few examples of the devastating impact of big money all over the world.

Corporate big money fuelled neo-colonialism has been a part of the Pacific, as it has been in other parts of the developing world for several decades now. The race for resources and the emergence of new populous countries as growing economic powers has seen it rearing its head in the Pacific Islands region again. This is particularly true of the better resourced part of the region—Melanesia, to be specific.

Australia has always remained a big player in Melanesia because of both geographical proximity and historical reasons and Australian big business has gained much from the country’s long involvement in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and more recently, in Timor Leste. Of these, its involvement in Papua New Guinea and its autonomous region of Bougainville has been of most significance. Its involvement in the Panguna Mine in Bougainville intensified the island’s bitter conflict about two decades ago, where a rebel group was aiming to break away from PNG to form an independent nation. The unrest and conflict caused innumerable deaths and unprecedented destruction. The Australians finally suspended mining operations leaving a huge scar on the pristine island and the people to their own fate.

The island has slowly recovered and restored peace in the years since it was declared an autonomous zone but Port Moresby has not done enough to rehabilitate it and help build its economy, leveraging its many unique natural attributes. More recently, Bougainville is gaining more recognition as an offbeat destination for adventure and nostalgia tourism, given its pristine landscapes and diversity of terrain, not to mention its many onshore and offshore World War II heritage sites. The recent celluloid depiction (Mr. Pip) of an eponymous popular novel authored by a New Zealander has provided a surge of interest in the tourist industry.

Bougainville’s resurgence has apparently rekindled Australia’s old desire to step up its involvement in the substantial island. Last month, it issued warnings that it feared Bougainville may be slipping back into chaos. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has said Bougainville “could” slip back into civil war unless “we” [read Australia and the United States] act now. In the newfound love between the region’s ANZAC nations and the US, there is a tendency to invite the US to be part of every activity in the region, cocking a snook as it were to China. ASPI’s paper reeks of the trappings of classic neo-colonialism.

In its December report, it says there is a need to flood Bougainville with human resources to bulwark the political apparatus and economic infrastructure in preparation for independence. There are suggestions to invite the US to chip in with aid for Bougainville. The calculation is obviously to send a message to China, that the western powers are in first. That’s not all: other experts are making a case for the reopening of the Panguna Mine by its owners, mining giant Rio Tinto.

Amazingly, no one cares about asking the people of Bougainville about their perception if they need foreign intervention from the likes of Australia and the United States. Quite clearly, Australian fear-mongering and painting a picture of a security threat on its doorstep is intended to give it a reason to get into the resource-rich island before anybody else, using the excuse of bringing in aid, investment, creating jobs and, of course, ushering in “sustainable development” while guiding its activists towards achieving their ultimate goal of independence from PNG.

It is up to the pro-independence activists of Bougainville to see Australia’s offers to get involved for what it is worth without falling for the usual trappings of investment and promises of inclusiveness, capacity building, employment and development at the cost of their real natural wealth and economic independence in exchange for any promised help in gaining political independence.