Unreconciled: reopening wounds in Bougainville

The backlash against Taylor Swift’s 2015 music video ‘Wildest Dreams’ threw into the pop-culture limelight the cruel realities of modern-day colonialism. The music video is the love story of two actors on set of a 1950s era Hollywood film set in South Africa and Botswana. The dreamlike images of Taylor Swift smouldering at her equally-white love interest on a back-drop of grassy landscapes and roaming lions are a gross romanticisation of the true realities of a colonial past. Nevertheless, such an understanding of colonialism remains a reality for many white Australians – something that now only lives in Joseph Conrad stories and in tents in front of Old Parliament House to be ignored and forgotten. The fact of the matter is European colonialism didn’t end with Rudd’s 2008 Sorry speech and its implications are not only restricted to Indigenous Australians.

‘Wildest Dreams’ by Taylor Swift

Like a sack of potatoes, the pacific island of Bougainville has been passed around between colonial nations for over 130 years, coming under Australian mandate in 1920. The island’s claim to fame is its civil war spanning 1988-1998, the largest conflict in Oceania since World War Two. The primary catalyst to the war was the Panguna mine, a mine run by Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), in turn owned by Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. After opening in 1972, 20% of the mine’s revenues went to the Papua New Guinea government, under the mandate of which Bougainville had been since PNG independence, whereas the Bougainvilleans received merely 1%. Landowners were paid $2 for each hectare of land by Australia and even in this case, many landowners were not properly registered by Australia and PNG who did not understand that Bougainville was a matrilineal culture.  Riots against this overt exploitation and the migration of so-called “red skins” (PNG workers) into Bougainville escalated into open conflict between PNG and the newly found Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

‘Solomon Islands archipelago’ modified version of Solomon Islands (Political) 1989 from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection: Solomon Islands Maps.

Peace was officially reached in 2001 but Australia did not leave the war without some blood on its hands. Australia had been supplying both light and heavy weaponry as well as military advisors posted in Bougainville. The Australian government made some efforts to prevent the use of the equipment in combat, for example giving PNG Defence Force non-armed helicopters, but to which PNGDF simply attached machine guns. The mine itself, not only having exploited its workers, had encouraged divisions amongst the Bougainvilleans themselves who now perceived each other as fierce business competitors rather than fellow clan members. Albeit indirectly, Australia was just as responsible for the continuation of the Bougainville conflict as PNG and the BRA. A reality that is hardly as rosy as a Taylor Swift music video.

More than a decade later, Bougainville is scheduled to have a vote on independence before 2020 and discussions around reopening the Panguna mine are back in action. It has hardly surprising that these talks are re-opening wounds that have barely had time to heal. Traditional landowners are marching in protest – the same women that acted as peacemakers during the civil war – and former members of the BRA have no intention in seeing the mine re-open. However, in order to secure its independence, Bougainville needs to build-up its economy, and the wealth of copper within the Panguna mine would ensure such economic growth. Current President of Bougainville, John Momis, believes he can attain a good deal with the mining company and PNG over shares. After all, the Bougainville Mining Act declares that 51% of the mine must be locally owned.  Negotiations over the mine’s re-opening have been happening between two companies – BCL, which is no longer owned by Rio Tinto, and RTG, an Australian mining company.

The landowners have every right to be infuriated. Those who were displaced when the mine was first built and moved into settlements, still live in those settlements. Rivers are poisoned due to deposits from the mine over twenty years ago. The conflict itself and the human rights atrocities that came with it are still recent memory, and the mine is the largest symbol of the bloodshed.

The colonial past that Swift so blatantly ignores in her music video is a stark reality faced by Bougainvilleans today. Australia haplessly believes that it is the white-clad hero of the story yet still has much to answer for and needs to reconcile itself with its colonial atrocities, both at home and abroad. Australia is about to assume an uncontested seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council – a prospect which is concerning to say the least. Maybe I’ll write a song about it.

Photo Credit by Robert Owen Wrinkler (Bougainville Panguna mine shovel)