In April 1988 the New Panguna Landowners Association (NPLA) demanded K10 billion compensation from the Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) mining project on Bougainville island in North Solomons Province. This unrealistic claim was not met. In November 1988 the rebel Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), the armed wing of the NPLA, led by Francis Ona, began a campaign of terrorism and sabotage of the mine. In March 1989 the national government sent troops to guard BCL installations and in April offered the landowners an increase in their share of royalties from 5 percent to 20 percent and considerable autonomy for the provincial government. The BRA refused to negotiate and disrupted attempts by moderates within the provincial government to resolve the issue.
In May BRA attacks forced the closure of the mine. In June the government declared a state of emergency and sent in a 2,000-strong force of soldiers and armed riot police. In December BCL announced that 2,000 of the remaining 2,300 staff would be made redundant in January 1990. The remaining 300 staff were evacuated in February 1990. Commercial activity came to a halt as public servants, private business managers, plantation managers and laborers also left. Fighting between the security forces and the BRA escalated and reliable reports indicate that atrocities were committed by both sides. The national government did not have complete control of the behavior and movements of its armed forces in the province. In March 1990 the government withdrew its forces and imposed an economic and communications blockade. In May 1990 the BRA announced that North Solomons Province had seceded from PNG and unilaterally declared an independent Republic of Meekamui (Sacred Island) with Francis Ona as interim President. The PNG government declared this action to be unconstitutional.
Negotiations in July and August 1990 failed. In September 1990 PNGDF troops returned to Buka, an island between Bougainville and New Britain and the largest island in the North Solomons apart from Bougainville. Negotiations between a BRA leader Joseph Kabui and PNG Foreign Minister Michael Somare in January 1991 collapsed. In April 1991 PNG troops made an unauthorized landing in north Bougainville. Talks scheduled for July were cancelled. During 1991 and 1992 the PNGDF gradually regained control over parts of the island. In April 1993 the BRA offered to meet government representatives on neutral ground. The talks did not eventuate. In October 1993 the government claimed that the PNGDF had advanced into the rebels’ remaining stronghold – the area immediately around the Panguna mine. By January 1994 the PNGDF had still not recaptured the mine but the PNG government claimed to control almost all of the island. During 1993 the government restored health, education, and transport services to many parts of the province under the auspices of “interim authorities”. In extending its control the government took responsibility for an estimated 30,000 refugees who moved from BRA areas into government care centers.
There has been a very considerable loss of revenue to the people of the North Solomons, and to the PNG government, resulting from the closure of the Panguna mine, and from loss of export income from cash crops (the North Solomons produced 45 percent of cocoa exports and 17 percent of copra exports). In addition, the North Solomons people have suffered from damage to food gardens. The number of people who have died in fighting or from lack of medical supplies is not known.
The Australian government has taken the position that the PNG government is the legitimate constitutional authority in North Solomons Province, that a satisfactory solution cannot be achieved by military means, and that a political settlement must be reached by the PNGans themselves. The BRA has a small but active group of supporters in Australia which has gained publicity by accusing the Australian government of supporting the PNGDF and the blockade which, it claims, is causing civilian deaths.
In September 1993 the PNG Foreign Minister, John Kaputin, announced that the government would allow independent observers into Bougainville, arrange for Red Cross representatives to return to the island and organize a conference of leaders of all parties to the conflict. This announcement was welcomed by Australia and Solomon Islands. An Amnesty International report released in November 1993 accused both the PNGDF and the BRA of human rights violations. The PNG government assured the Australian government that these allegations would be investigated.