Introducing the Bougainville Crisis within its Global Context
The Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which includes the islands of Bougainville, Buka, and an array of smaller atolls, is located in Oceania just east of mainland Papua New Guinea, from which it is not yet fully independent. Geographically, Bougainville is a part of the Solomon Islands and Bougainvilleans share more cultural and linguistic traits with the Solomon Islanders than they do with the people of Papua New Guinea.
Despite these facts, through colonization Papua New Guinea and Bougainville were administered together under the same colonial territory. So when Papua New Guinea gained its independence in 1975, Bougainville continued to remain politically connected to the country.
Home to an estimated 200,000 inhabitants, the island’s population is far from being culturally homogenous. Similar to mainland Papua New Guinea, Bougainville is host to an impressive array of distinct languages (about 25, in fact), traditions, and cultural identities—all within the 9,438 square kilometers of the island.
Amidst such high levels of diversity, some common traits among Bougainvilleans include their skin color, which is darker than that of most mainland Papua New Guineans, and a generally strong Christian faith, which has blended with indigenous spirituality as a result of interaction with Catholic missionaries.
The igniting point that led many Bougainvilleans to come together to fight for independence from Papua New Guinea came from collective dissatisfaction with the management of the Panguna mine on the island (at one point the world’s largest open-cut mine), which created many significant costs for Bougainvilleans while providing very few benefits. The Bougainville crisis began in 1988.
The Bougainville crisis was the most severe and chronic case of violence that had occurred in the Pacific since World War II. A decade of guerilla warfare, political struggles over identity, famine, and insecurity plagued the people of Bougainville from 1988 until 1997. Beyond the hundreds of soldiers who lost their lives, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians died either by direct fighting, disease, or deprivation of basic needs.
One false perception of the Bougainville crisis is that it was a case of warfare between the secessionists of Bougainville and the state of Papua New Guinea. This would lead observers to believe that the Bougainville crisis was a form of conventionally-understood civil war; however, the reality was that the violence was much more complex, as many intra-Bougainvillean conflicts commenced at the same time as the Bougainville-Papua New Guinea violence.
In terms of addressing violent conflict in the world today, the state and its formal judicial process (retributive forms of justice) is generally legitimized as the main provider of conflict prevention, management, and resolution (CPMR). That is because violent conflict and warfare have traditionally been understood by policymakers and state-leaders as an activity that takes place between two or more state entities, pitting their militaries against each other in order to achieve some form of political gain and/or increased power.
Unlike the conventional model for understanding warfare, the actors involved in the Bougainville hybrid conflict were not limited to states’ militaries; non-state private military companies, indigenous groups, and multinational corporations were also involved. In these forms of warfare, the presence of violent non-state actors (VNSAs), including terrorist groups, traffickers, and warlords, complicates our understanding of conflict since they are borderless threats.
In Bougainville, familial ties rather than political ideologies united groups together to compete for their own security. It is this form of violent conflict that is now considered to be the largest security concern in the agendas of the world’s leading countries. Some would consider these “new wars” as a sort of reversion in conflict—where violence breaks out over historically consistent issues such as access to resources, recognition of identity, and the assurance of basic needs. The reality is that violent conflict in the world today has taken a hybrid form: blending state and non-state issues and actors together and combining both old (the conventionally understood) and new characteristics of warfare.
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