Bougainville’s population in 2016 is approximately 300,000 (less than 4 per cent of PNG’s total population). Its 9,438 square kilometres is roughly 2 per cent of PNG’s total land area. Pre-colonial Bougainvilleans were organised mainly around tiny stateless societies involving great diversity in language, culture, and identities. Despite major social and economic changes since colonial ‘rule’ began in the late nineteenth century, the most significant social groups today continue to be nuclear and extended families, the localised clan-based landowning lineages to which those families belong (typically containing 50–150 members), and flexible groupings of such lineages.
While under nominal German colonial control from 1884 to 1915, the first administrative centre was only established in 1905, and Australia took control from 1914 to 1975. Under colonialism, interactions with people from elsewhere in PNG contributed to a pan-Bougainvillean identity, with the dark skin colour of most Bougainvilleans as the primary marker. Identity politicisation occurred after World War II, when:
because of the natural affluence of their village life and the coverage of the [Bougainville] district by Christian missions (mainly Catholic and non-Australian), the administration neglected to play a conspicuous role in development almost until copper was discovered. Bougainville was known as the ‘Cinderella’ district not because it was poor but because it was ostensibly neglected (Griffin et al. 1979: 150).
Identity politicisation was intensified by resentment of colonial racism and by development of the mine, which was seen as something imposed to benefit the rest of PNG with little regard to detrimental impacts on Bougainville itself.
A major manifestation of change since 1905 has been the expanding range of groups or organisations to which Bougainvilleans belong or relate (churches, women’s groups, local governments, economic enterprises, political parties, etc.). Nevertheless, the autonomy long enjoyed by local lineages and other pre-colonial social groupings remains the default position for Bougainvillean understandings of how to relate to these new social phenomena. This expectation of autonomy helps to explain the extent to which the diverse groups involved in the origins of the conflict expected autonomy from one another, as do groups involved in contemporary debates on the future of mining.
For most rural Bougainvilleans, PNG remains remote. This was even more so in 1963, when PNG-wide politics first developed around the election of TPNG’s first representative legislature, which included just one Bougainvillean representative. Concerns about national representation of Bougainville probably had little effect on voters in the 1963 and 1968 elections. However, rapid changes associated with development of the mine led to much wider understanding of such matters in the 1972 elections, contributing to the election of a young Catholic priest from Buin, John Momis, a critic of the mine and the administration, who continues to be a key political figure in Bougainville.
Growing agitation for a special political and financial status saw an interim Bougainville Provincial Government established in 1974, and disputes over its mine revenue share precipitated Bougainville’s attempted secession from PNG on 1 September 1975, just before PNG’s Independence Day. The crisis was resolved in mid-1976, when the PNG Government agreed to constitutional provision for provincial government and guaranteed that the new North Solomons Provincial Government (NSPG) would receive all of the royalties from the mine aside from the 5 per cent already payable to some of the Panguna mine lease landowners. Many Bougainvilleans concluded that only intense confrontation with PNG brought results, and that the little understood process of secession and status of independence would remedy many problems.
Following the 1976 agreement to end attempted secession, Bougainvilleans had high expectations of the NSPG. In 1977, John Momis became the PNG minister responsible for the new provincial government system established under the agreement. Strong support for autonomy of the NSPG was now expected from the centre, and these expectations were reinforced by establishment of the Momis-led Melanesian Alliance (MA) party in 1980. The MA soon dominated both NSPG politics (especially from 1984) and Bougainville’s four seats in the PNG Parliament. But neither Momis nor his party had a significant impact on PNG policy towards Bougainville. By the mid-1980s, the NSPG’s lack of expected powers over areas of growing concern, such as mining, land and internal migration, was a source of widespread disappointment. For many, the failure to pursue secession appeared to have been a mistake.