BY BOB AIKEN
SYDNEY, Australia -The Australian government has more than doubled its military presence on the Pacific island of Bougainville in recent weeks. Expanding from around 100 troops to around 250, its forces now include at least three helicopters.
These so-called unarmed peacekeepers are being deployed as the government in Canberra seeks to reestablish its neocolonial domination over the island after a nine-year war for independence led by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). Canberra, the former colonial power in both Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville, has been the PNG government's chief backer as it sought to defeat the independence movement on the mineral-rich island.
With the signing of a "permanent cease-fire" April 30 in Arawa, the capital of Bougainville, the Australian regime has taken command from the New Zealand government of the imperialist-led military intervention force on the island. Wellington provided the bulk of a "Truce Monitoring Group" of up to 320 soldiers present on Bougainville since November 1997. The new Australian-commanded "Peace Monitoring Group" includes only 30 soldiers from New Zealand, with 15 each from Fiji and Vanuatu.
The cease-fire between the Papua New Guinea government and the majority of fighters for Bougainville independence is part of a so-called peace process brokered by the New Zealand government in Wellington over the past year. Its intervention followed the battlefield defeat of the PNG army in late 1996, and an army mutiny, backed by mass protests, which brought down the PNG government of Julius Chan in March 1997.
Canberra resented the New Zealand government's role of "neutral peacemaker" in Bougainville. Australian defense minister Ian McLachlan declared November 6 of last year that "only Australia... has the resources, personnel, and equipment to make a large, possibly long-term, commitment to support peace on Bougainville." Canberra has promised $A100 million (US$637) in aid over the next five years, including to reestablish a police force.
Francis Ona, the central leader of the BRA, who did not participate in the peace talks leading to the cease-fire, denounced the contingent of Australian troops as "an invasion." He declared May 1 that the "Australia, New Zealand and PNG soldiers' presence on Bougainville is a continuous threat, an act of aggression and provocation."
"Should any foreign soldiers enter" the areas under his forces' control, "they will be committing acts of provocation" and will be "shot on sight," the pro- independence leader warned.
Ona has been demonized in the Australian big-business press as a violent "fanatic" for this statement. His May 2 message of solidarity to Maritime Union of Australia members sacked by Patrick Stevedores, however, received no publicity.
Most other BRA leaders have opposed Ona's stand. Canberra and Wellington have organized large contingents from both the BRA and the PNG-appointed Bougainville Transitional Government to take part in three rounds of talks in New Zealand. Many have also taken part in a series of "reconciliation" meetings, observed by the Truce Monitoring Group, involving BRA fighters and members of the PNG-organized Resistance militia.
At the ceremony marking the signing of the cease-fire, Sam Kauona, the BRA's military commander, declared, "Today marks the end of the war on Bougainville. I am happy that we have achieved peace. We will not give anyone a chance to spoil it."
Joseph Kabui, until now the vice president of the pro- independence Bougainville Interim Government (BIG), of which Ona has been the designated president, added, as he signed the cease-fire, "Francis Ona must hear the cry of our women and follow suit."
The differences within the BRA leadership came to a head publicly in the leadup to the cease-fire ceremony. Ona called a conference that was held April 15-17 at Pakia, his base village near the giant Australian-owned Panguna copper and gold mine, which has been shut down since 1988 by the rebellion. As 300 supporters declared they did not want to put down their guns, Ona called for an indefinite postponement of the cease-fire and a referendum on independence. Under the cease-fire agreement negotiated in New Zealand in January 1998, a "reconciliation government" is due to be voted in later this year.
Ona's meeting was boycotted by Kabui and other BRA-BIG leaders, who issued a statement April 23 "to assure ... that the cease-fire document to officially end fighting" would be signed as scheduled. "All parties to the war," Kabui said, "have endured so much blood and tears that the fruitless results of a war can no longer be entertained."
The night before the cease-fire ceremony a delegation of BRA- BIG leaders, led by Kabui, held talks with PNG government negotiator John Kaputin on the Australian warship Tobruk, anchored in Arawa harbor. They sought agreement for the demilitarization of Arawa, the closing of the main PNG army base at Loloho, and the rescinding of the PNG army deployment order. Kaputin flatly refused to consider the demand over Loloho. His proposal to pass the other two demands on to the central PNG government, within a week, was accepted.
The cease-fire ceremony was attended by PNG prime minister Bill Skate, along with Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, New Zealand foreign minister Donald McKinnon, and three United Nations officials. One thousand people from across Bougainville also took part.
Responding to statements by Ona that Canberra's chief concern was the reopening of the Panguna mine, Downer said, as he arrived in PNG April 29, "We have a far greater interest in there being peace in the region." McKinnon added later, in response to the same question, that "some day the mine may open but it will probably be a decade away. Everyone knows it will cost US$500 million to reopen."
However, writing in the May 9-10 Weekend Australian, Brian Woodley reflected contrasting views of the Australian rulers when he alleged that many BRA fighters "are desperate to return to work ... preferably in newborn copper, gold, oil and gas projects," and are prepared to "strike against" Ona "to secure the peace."
Skate declared on the Australian SBS "Dateline" program March 28 that Bougainville is "an integral part of Papua New Guinea," and that "independence is nonnegotiable." He also rejected the withdrawal of the PNG army from Bougainville, which is part of the cease-fire agreement.
"To withdraw the force completely," he declared, would be "a defeat for the national government. Our presence and authority must be felt on the ground."
Meanwhile, the scale of the social and economic crisis unfolding in Papua New Guinea has been registered by the crash of the PNG currency, the kina, in recent months in face of a "defunct" export sector.
Bob Aiken is a member of the Australian Manufacturing
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