Volume 15 Number 6
What Can Bougainville Teach the Peacemakers?
01 December 2002

Alan Weeks, an Australian worker with Initiatives of Change, points up lessons from the peace process that ended the nine-year conflict on the South Pacific island of Bougainville.
Bougainville, an island province of Papua New Guinea, had all the classic ingredients of conflict: a colonial border, differences of colour and culture, and a potential 'gold mine' in the shape of a huge copper deposit. Many different strands led to the civil war which began in 1989 and resulted in the deaths of almost a sixth of the islanders

In August 2001 a comprehensive peace agreement was signed, the culmination of negotiations which began in 1997.

My involvement in the peace building process started in 1989 when I made a phone call out of concern for one of my closest Papua New Guinea friends, Bernard Narokobi, then Minister for Justice. He invited three of us from Initiatives of Change to be his 'spiritual advisors' during the first round of peace talks in 1990 on board the New Zealand navy supply ship, Endeavour.

What have I personally learned through my involvement?

Peace building is a calling. Once called, even if there is no visible end point, there can be no turning back. At a specific point I knew that I had such a calling and that to follow it meant deciding to listen daily in silence to my 'inner voice' or, as some would have it, the voice of God. Not only to listen, but to obey the thoughts that came, even when they seemed unreasonable - taking due account of how easy it is to be misled by ambition, self-interest or similarly false motivation.

You need dogged determination or 'stickability'. The road to peace has its ups and downs. The signing of the Endeavour Accord was a miraculous breakthrough. However it was never applied. As I anguished over this in quiet times of reflection I realized the failure lay, in part, at my own door. I had not used my neutrality to help non-participants in the talks understand how the agreement had been reached so that they, too, could embrace it.

When working amongst entrenched positions and hurting, angry people on both sides, there is no room for peace builders to allow themselves self-pity or personal pride.

On one occasion I tried to be helpful but my intervention was misconstrued and consequently misunderstood. As a result I found myself on the receiving end of a furious public outburst from one of the protagonists. He accused me of deliberately trying to wreck the peace process. His accusations were totally misplaced and I was deeply disturbed and hurt. I could have simply walked away and left him to it. But I realized that what he felt was genuine to him even if it was inaccurate, and that I had something to put right with him. So I apologized. A few hours later he asked me to convey a highly confidential message to the rebels - a message which if disclosed, could have cost him his life.

Winning the confidence and trust of both sides can be a valuable asset.
Listening to that inner voice can sometimes quite unexpectedly allow you to have a part in removing an obstacle to the peace process that you did not even know existed. I had an impelling thought early one morning to phone one of the senior rebel negotiators. He included me in a problem he was facing. It became clear that one vital piece of information was not reaching the other side as intended. Two more calls and three fax messages later, the obstacle was removed.

The detachment of peace builders can allow them to explore options that may appear to be unacceptable to one or other of the parties in conflict. There is always a next step.

In August 1995 the peace process had stalled. My colleagues and I offered the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Melbourne as a neutral venue for preliminary talks between pro-government and rebel Bougainvilleans. That offer was not accepted by the Papua New Guinea Government but it led directly to an alternative venue being provided in Cairns, Australia.

Teamwork with others who carry the same concerns can be most helpful. It may be necessary to seek the help of a neutral third-party nation.

In January 1997, there was another impasse. In talking the situation over with experienced friends and colleagues, we had the thought to explore the possibility of New Zealand having a further part. On ascertaining a degree of viability from a contact in New Zealand I passed the thought on to a contact in the PNG Government. A few weeks later a window of opportunity opened and PNG asked for New Zealand's assistance. On arrival in Papua New Guinea, the envoy from New Zealand consulted us and consequently offered to facilitate a totally inclusive peace process. That facilitation led to the successful outcome that we see today.

It is important to be ready to step back and allow others, who are better equipped, to carry the process forward.

That, for me, has meant maintaining as close a contact as possible with the network of friends that had been established over the years, but acknowledging that skills and resources beyond us were now called for.

The bottom line, in my experience, is that anyone can choose to become a listener to the inner voice and be used as a peace builder.

Beyond the purely personal I believe that Bougainville points to some general principles, that may apply to any peace process. Some have highlighted the 1997 intervention of New Zealand as the start of the peace process. But in truth the process was more gradual. The civil war had been running for nine years before all the lessons learned from failed experiences were applied and changes in attitude came about on both sides, resulting in an agreement.

There needs to be a significant majority of people on both sides who are in support of a peace process.

Accord published a series of papers entitled, 'Weaving consensus: the Papua New Guinea–Bougainville peace process'. It quotes James Tanis, Vice-President of the Bougainville Peoples' Congress and a former commander in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA): 'By 1995 the conflict had lasted eight years. The leaders knew that if the war continued beyond the year 2000 it would involve the next generation. Our tradition compelled us to make peace or run the risk of permanent warfare.'

Tanis told me that the BRA believed they could achieve their objectives militarily but recognized that independence gained in that way would always be threatened by a desire for Papua New Guinea to regain control by force at a later time. As they were meeting in a village clearing to consider their options, a group of villagers - women, children and older men - walked past them carrying gardening tools. They took this as a clear sign that the people wanted peace and an end to the violence.

In 1997 there was a dramatic development on the other side. The Papua New Guinea Government's intention of using foreign mercenaries was exposed. The reaction of the people was such that the Prime Minister had to stand down. This presented the opportunity for New Zealand to be invited to help facilitate the peace process.

There needs to be inclusivity and transparency for the peace process to work most effectively.

Key stakeholders were not included in the talks leading to both the Endeavour Accord and the subsequent Honiara Declaration, which failed. In the same way, when the Government arranged the Arawa Pan Bougainville Peace Talks in October 1994, the rebel leadership had no confidence in the security arrangements and failed to take part. Whenever key personalities or groups were not included in negotiations, obstacles were placed in the way of further progress.

In the peace building process the ultimate outcome is more important than a timetable.

Another reason for the failure of the early peace attempts was the time constraints placed on such negotiations. For example, at the Arawa Peace talks the Government allowed only five days to reach a conclusion. As New Zealand took on the role of facilitator no restrictions were placed on those who could attend subsequent talks, nor on the time required to reach agreement. This unpressured approach has been a key element in all the subsequent negotiations.

Agreements need to be built up from small beginnings and not from non-negotiable positions.

Even in 1997, when the New Zealand facilitated talks began, the extreme rebel elements were saying that the only acceptable outcome was independence for Bougainville. At the same time the Papua New Guinea Government was adamant that any consideration of independence was out of the question. Amongst other factors there was the fear that Bougainville independence could result in the disintegration of Papua New Guinea as a nation. So a tacit, unspoken agreement was reached that the ultimate political outcome would only be discussed at a later date. Between 1997 and 2001 session after session of negotiations took place. Step by step agreement was reached on which areas the Bougainville provincial government would be responsible for.

The bridge of trust must be strong enough to bear the burden of truth being placed upon it.

As the different rounds of negotiations proceeded from 1990 to 2001 the individuals involved in the talks came to know each other as people and the level of trust between them developed. Towards the conclusion of negotiations trust had been established to the point that even the non-negotiable issue of independence was addressed to the satisfaction of both sides.

All the parties must be working towards a common primary outcome.

In the edition of Accord already referred to, Sir Moi Avei, as Minister for Bougainville Affairs, wrote, 'The most important goal in the Bougainville peace process has always been peace. The point may seem obvious, but it is surprising how often participants in other similar peace processes have allowed themselves to be diverted by other concerns - from the desire to make or avoid constitutional precedents, through political point scoring, to the interests or reputations of particular persons or groups.'

On 30 August 2001 a peace agreement was signed between the people of Bougainville and the Papua New Guinea Government. It recognized Bougainville as an autonomous province of PNG and made provision for a referendum on its ultimate status in 10 to 15 years. Today both parties face a challenge. The pro-independence Bougainville faction will have to show why Bougainville would be better off as an independent state. And the Papua New Guinea Government needs to use the next 10–15 years to show the people of Bougainville that an autonomous provincial government can cater fully for their aspirations.
Alan Weeks

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