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Australia is heavily involved in supporting its neighbours in both good times and bad. For newly independent countries like Papua New Guinea maintaining internal security can be one of the most important challenges that they face.

In 1989, tensions flared in Bougainville undermining Papua New Guinea’s political and economic security. The ensuing insurgency not only closed the Panguna copper mine, it led to the death and suffering of a large portion of the Bougainville population. From 1997, the Australian Army, as part of a coalition of civil and military personnel from throughout the region, spent five years ensuring the maintenance of the ceasefire and the eventual peace process.

The Australian Army’s Operation BEL ISI was ground breaking for its development of trust between not just the military members of diverse countries, but also between civilians and the military. The initial New Zealand-led Truce Monitoring Group was made up of a coalition of countries—New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu and Fiji—all with very different approaches to the task at hand. And to complicate matters further, in a gesture of trust all soldiers in both the Truce Monitoring Group and the later Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group patrolled unarmed. Over time, as both civilians and soldiers spent more time together and among villagers, trust and empathy deepened between the diverse groups. Bougainville villagers were able to take responsibility for the security of their visitors, building close relationships that enhanced both the peace process and confidence in the later elections.

Although the people of Bougainville initially distrusted Australian motives in the intervention, for both the Australian people and the Australian Army the desire to help was grounded in strong emotional reasons. Many Australians served and died in Papua New Guinea and Bougainville during the Second World War. Some of the hardest fought campaigns against the Japanese took place in Papua New Guinea and the islands of Bougainville were the site of fierce mopping-up operations throughout 1944 and 1945. For Australians, the events that took place here epitomise the heroism of the Anzac legend.

There was one Australian killed during Operation BELISI. Lance Corporal Shawn Lewis of the 145 Signals Squadron drowned in Loloho Bay on 20 May 2000.

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Tensions between Australia, Papua New Guinea and Bougainville go back to the colonial era. Many parts of what is now called Papua New Guinea and Bougainville were German colonies until the end of the First World War and then came under Australian control. During the Second World War they were the site of intense fighting between American and Australian forces, and the Japanese.

Bougainville’s people have suffered greatly from the Second World War onwards. During the war, at least 25 per cent of Bougainville’s population died on the small islands. Add to this over 40,000 Japanese soldiers, 727 Americans and 516 Australian who died and imagine the experiences that Bougainville villagers endured on a daily basis. The violence did not conclude with the war though. Tensions over Bougainville’s status as a part of Papua New Guinea flared into outright insurgency in 1989. It is believed that over 100,000 people died on the islands during the nine years of the insurgency.

After the Second World War, Australia controlled Bougainville until the islands were folded into independent Papua New Guinea in 1975. A deeply matrilineal, clan-based culture, Bougainville has always had strong divisions between its people. Identifying more closely with the people of the Solomon Islands, the discovery of large deposits of copper and gold in 1964 exacerbated already simmering resentment against Papua New Guinea and Australia. The development of the Panguna Mine, owned mostly by Rio Tinto Zinc, brought in many workers from Papua New Guinea straining the already cool relationship between the two cultures. The majority of profits were taken by the Australian parent company and to support the fledgling independent political, economic and social infrastructure in Papua New Guinea. The people of Bougainville felt they were being exploited.

The mine also exacerbated tensions between the clans. Only certain groups of local people profited directly from the mine with agricultural clans feeling they were losing their traditional power. In 1988 a former mine worker, Francis Ona, led a group of dissidents in a series of attacks aimed at disrupting mining operations in an attempt to renegotiate the royalty arrangements. The Papua New Guinea Government sent riot police and then forces to quell the violence. But the violence only escalated with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 islanders killed. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army grew out of this.

Papua New Guinean military and other personnel left the island by March 1990, but the violence continued. The mine remained closed and the island was blockaded. In an attempt to regain control, the Papua New Guinea Government made several attempts to retake the mine and enter into peace negotiations. In 1994, the Australian Army sent peacekeeping forces to Bougainville (Operation LAGOON) with support from Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand, to broker a peace agreement between the Bougainville guerrillas and the Papua New Guinean government. The attempt was unsuccessful.

In 1997, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, attempted to resolve the situation by engaging ‘security consultants’ from the British-based company Sandline International to kill leading members of the insurgency. When this became public knowledge, the international community—including Australia—was shocked. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force deported members of the Sandline training cadre and stopped the entry of military equipment for the Sandline’s operations. With internal security at its most unstable, the situation had to be resolved.

After so much hardship and death, poverty and human rights violations, the people of Bougainville were ready for peace negotiations. The Papua New Guinea Government, under the leadership of newly elected Prime Minister Bill Skate, was equally on board.

For the Australian Army, Operation BEL ISI marked an important moment in peacekeeping operations. It had become clear during the Truce Mentoring Group mission that communication needed to be stronger between civilians and the military. In response Land Headquarters designed a program to support the civilian monitors, train them in military processes, and adjust them to the conditions they would find on the ground.

Beginning with living in barracks in Randwick, staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Defence, AusAID and the Australian Federal Police were then flown to Bamaga on Cape York Peninsula to train with C Company, 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment. The men and women of the civilian monitoring team were subjected to the types of conditions they could expect in Bougainville—they trekked through difficult scrub in extreme weather conditions, engaged with local Indigenous peoples, were introduced to the Tok Pisin language, and were trained in radio operations and military procedures.

Through combined patrolling, civilian and military members of the team began to understand the each other’s way of communicating and reasons for doing things. This enabled them to build on their different strengths and to better support and communicate with Bougainville’s villagers.

Lessons from this operation continue to develop team-building skills between the military and civilians involved in peacekeeping operations. Dialogue between agencies has honed pre-deployment planning and training methods enabling the success of later missions to Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands.

Last updated
10 April 2018


Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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