Fifty years in the making: how USyd students supported Bougainville’s independence movement

Why listening to the voice of Bougainvillean's is important

Bougainville Independence Referendum, November 22. Image by Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

In December 2019, the people of Bougainville, a small island province of Papua New Guinea, voted in an independence referendum. The result, though not binding, was unequivocal – 98.31 per cent of participants voted in favour of independence. 

For many, the name ‘Bougainville’ might evoke images of a flower rather than a small island in Melanesia with nearly 250,000 inhabitants. But both the flower and the island are namesakes of the same person – Louis-Antoin de Bougainville, a French explorer who circumnavigated the globe and visited the island in the late 18th century. 

Apart from the name of the island itself, there are other place names in the Pacific that are reminders of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) colonial subjugation. The Bismarck Sea (named after German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck) and Empress Augusta Bay both harken back to the time the area spent under the control of the German Empire. The islands of New Britain and New Ireland also demonstrate how unimaginative colonists were when it came to names.


Photograph of Empress Auguste Viktoria, unknown photographer, German Federal Archives,1913.

Portrait of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Jean-Pierre Franquel, unknown date.

Photograph of Otto von Bismarck, Jacques Pilartz, 1890. 

While the referendum result was a resounding success for those who fought for independence, it simultaneously serves as a sobering reminder of what Bougainville has endured throughout its history.

Tensions on the island began to flare in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At this point in time the island was under Australia’s dominion as part of the territory of Papua and New Guinea. In 1969, Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA), an Australian subsidiary of Rio Tinto-Zinc Corporation, began the construction of the massive Panguna copper mine. Bougainvilleans, well aware of the environmental and social damage that could result from the project, began to protest. One demonstration that captured the attention of the Australian media was a protest in the Rorovana village, where female landowners resisted the acquisition of their land for the construction of a port.

A woman resisting the construction project in Rorovana. Source: Sydney Sun 1969

Bougainvilleans were not alone in their fight against CRA. On 6 August 1969, the communist newspaper Tribune reported that several USyd students were protesting at CRA’s Sydney offices. The protest was organised by the ‘Students for a Democratic Society Racial Action Committee’. Students presented letters of protests to directors at CRA and distributed leaflets to the public. 

Just a day later on 7 August, a lengthy article about Bougainville was published in Honi. An anonymous correspondent lamented the lack of democracy in the territory, explaining that Indigenous Bougainvilleans felt that they were only being consulted on matters relating to the mine on a post hoc basis. Unlike other protestors, the author opined that independence was not necessary. Instead, they suggested that a beneficial partnership between Australia and the island could be formed as long as Australia stopped making ‘paternalistic’ decisions.

An illustration in the 7 August 1969 edition of Honi Soit.

Two weeks later, the Tribune reported on another protest for the rights of Bougainvilleans. The article mentioned that students from ‘Sydney’s three universities’ distributed a petition to 50 foreign embassies in Canberra (in 1969 the three universities in Sydney were USyd, UNSW and a fledgling Macquarie University). The petition was simple – it pleaded with the international community to uphold the rights of Bougainvillean landowners.

Later that year, Honi reported that students from USyd and the University of Newcastle were protesting at Sulphide Corporation’s Sydney offices, a subsidiary of CRA. Several students held a sit-in at the offices and were then arrested. The article mentions the possibility of students paying fines and court costs, though it is unclear whether this eventuated.

By 1972, mining had commenced on the island despite extensive opposition. The Australian government was able to quell tensions on the island by performing an act typical of colonial administrations who feel their grip on their subjects slipping – it increased the island’s autonomy. However the Australian government soon lost control of PNG entirely, with the territory becoming an independent nation in 1975. 

A fortnight before PNG became independent, Bougainville declared its independence as the Republic of the North Solomons. This attempt at sovereignty was short lived – the island was reintegrated into PNG in 1976 again with the condition of greater autonomy. After this point, references to the island in student newspapers seem to dwindle.

But autonomy was only a band-aid solution to longstanding tensions on the island, which continued to simmer into the late 1980s. These tensions boiled over in 1988 when the Panguna Landowners Association (PLA) demanded compensation from CRA

One major issue was that the mine was exacerbating wealth disparities, as government compensation schemes for the acquisition of land were highly flawed. A 1999 inquiry into Bougainville conducted by the Australian House of Representatives noted that land compensation schemes contradicted traditional clan-based ownership. For example, CRA frequently provided compensation to the primary claimants of land, ignoring complex forms of land ownership whereby there could be many subsidiary landowners. As a result, monetary compensation for land acquisitions was concentrated in a small number of individuals, leaving many landowners feeling short-changed. 

Another issue which caused ire among Bougainvilleans was the environmental impact of the mine, which they had correctly anticipated well before its construction. During the operation of the mine, its tailings (the remaining waste after valuables are extracted from ore) were deposited in rivers. It was expected that these tailings would eventually flow into the ocean, whereupon they would mostly be harmful to the sea floor. However this failed to eventuate – most of the tailings never made it to the ocean and instead remained dormant in rivers, causing significant damage.

After the rejection of their demands by CRA, members of the PLA began to hinder operations at the Panguna mine. The association soon morphed into the Bougainvillean Revolutionary Army, the Panguna mine was shuttered, and a civil war had begun. 

USyd students continued their involvement in protests during the civil war. In March 1994, an article in Tharunka detailed a rainy, late night protest at USyd’s Holme building. A trade union dinner was being held inside the building, attended by the then Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans, who had disavowed secession movements in PNG. Over 300 people attended the event. Many attendants were students, as the demonstration was supported by USyd’s SRC. 

The civil war concluded in 1998 with the Bougainville Peace Agreement. One condition of the agreement was that PNG would facilitate an independence referendum on the island within 15-20 years. Bougainvilleans initially lobbied for the referendum to be binding but acquiesced in the face of opposition from PNG, hoping instead that a clear result in favour of independence would force PNG to respect the outcome. 

Despite the uncertainty that has prevailed in the months since the result was announced, the fight for Bougainvillean sovereignty reveals how vital perseverance is in order for an activist movement to succeed. Bougainville’s fight for self-rule has been intergenerational, enduring for over 50 years. This was the case not only in Bougainville itself, but also on campus. 

In the span of those fifty years, 10,000 to 15,000 Bougainvillean civilians lost their lives in a pointless civil war. The unnecessary human and environmental costs of conflict on the island remain the fault of those who refused to heed the prescient voices of Bougainvilleans. After 20 years of peace, hopefully this time the emphatic desire for sovereignty expressed by Bougainvilleans will be respected.