April 28, 2000

After a decade of civil war, Papua New Guinea's island province of Bougainville has been granted autonomy from Port Moresby.

A new interim government was sworn in last month, but there will be no immediate referendum on independence. Negotiations with the Port Moresby government were steered to a successful conclusion by Sir Michael Somare, who has ministerial responsibility for Bougainville.

Sir Michael had to contend with secessionist threats when he became prime minister at independence in 1975, but rebellions against outside authority on Bougainville can be traced back as far as the Hahalis movement 40 years ago.

"Whether all sides in Bougainville will be satisfied with autonomy remains to be seen," says Philip Cass, lecturer in journalism at Teesside University and a specialist in the history of the Oceanic region. "Under the agreement, a referendum on autonomy will be deferred until after the interim government has been in place long enough for people to judge whether it is working satisfactorily."

Francis Ona, once head of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, declared Bougainville to be the independent republic of Mekamui soon after the civil war started. Ona, a former army officer, began the war with attacks on the Panguna copper mine in 1989.

Now head of a splinter group called the Mekamui Defence Force, Ona is in hiding with his supporters in central Bougainville and refusing to negotiate with the PNG government.

The mine is still closed and its owner, CRA, has said it may sell it. The loss of the mine badly damaged PNG's economy. Mr Cass said: "Reopening Panguna would help revitalise PNG's finances, but the government would have to consider the latent hostility to the mine on Bougainville and the anger caused by the environmental impact of foreign-owned mines elsewhere in PNG."

Rebuilding Bougainville will be costly and protracted. "There is virtually no infrastructure left. Schools, hospitals and government offices have been burned down in the fighting or reclaimed by the bush," said Mr Cass.

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