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By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY, Australia (April 4, 2002 – Asia Times Online)---Guerrilla leader Sam Kauona Sirivi complained bitterly last year that Bougainvilleans felt like "pigs tied to a pole" in their impotent efforts to influence the course of autonomy talks with Papua New Guinea. "We are essentially asking an institution, the Papua New Guinea (PNG) parliament, Bougainville's No 1 enemy, to give Bougainvilleans their freedom. We are already negotiating on an unequal platform," he said.

Twelve months on, it is the detached and generally disinterested politicians in Port Moresby who have given the renegade province its first real sniff of freedom. Legislators unanimously approved two landmark bills that will elevate Bougainville to limited self-governing status and allow it to call a referendum on full independence within 10-15 years.

The catch is that this deal still has to be ratified by United Nations weapons inspectors, whose efforts to ease background tribal tensions could well determine the success of the peace initiative. More than 500 weapons have been handed in, or about two-thirds of those that were suspected to be in the hands of Sirivi's Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and other independence fighters when a ceasefire was declared in April 1998. It will be for the peacekeepers to decide whether a stable environment exists for the next phase of disengagement from Port Moresby and the setting-up of a separate administrative framework.

The rule of law almost broke down during the four-year conflict, which claimed more than 20,000 lives from hunger, disease and the clash between guerrillas and PNG defense units. Still to be resolved is the prickly issue of what to do with the hundreds of tribesmen who fought for independence - or among themselves - and refuse to hand in their arms for fear of prosecution. As the law stands, anyone carrying a weapon in Papua New Guinea without authorization is liable to be arrested and handed a stiff jail term. PNG's defense force opposes demands by the BRA for a blanket amnesty.

For the next decade at least the island will be governed by PNG laws and the national constitution, which will test the ability of Bougainville to practice self-reliance without interference from Port Moresby. Islanders will gain their own civil service, police force and judicial system and will be given responsibility for resources, economic management, education and social services.

The referendum will succeed or fail on Bougainville's economic platform, as villagers will be impatient for quick results after the upheaval of the past decade, which destroyed the vital resources base.

Panguna copper and gold mine closed in May 1989 after a concerted campaign of disruption by landowners who had been refused royalty payments and compensation for alleged damage to the environment. Owned by Anglo-Australian Conzinc Rio Tinto, the mine had been nurtured as PNG's economic lifeline after the country gained independence from Australia in 1975, but it gave relatively little back to the local economy. With landowners intent on pursuing their claims through the courts, it is unlikely the mine will be able to reopen for some years to come, if at all. In the latest round of their legal battle, a California court refused to rule on demands that Conzinc Rio Tinto held responsible for environmental damage and human-rights abuses, but left the way open for the case to be heard in PNG courts. Port Moresby and the U.S. State Department succeeded in blocking the US$ 2.2 billion lawsuit on the grounds that it would interfere with the Bougainville peace process and might strain relations between the two countries.

Without its copper revenues, Bougainville faces a grim struggle to achieve economic self-sufficiency, though it will be helped by the survival mechanisms that were set up during a seven-year blockade of the island by PNG defense forces. Port Moresby has little to contribute in terms of funding. Economic activity picked up moderately in the first quarter of the year, but public revenues are barely adequate for existing programs - let alone the redevelopment of Bougainville. About all Papua New Guinea has promised so far is to grant the island fiscal autonomy, which is a little like expecting fishermen to feed their families from stagnant waters.

Provincial leaders will be looking to Canberra for help, noting that it backed Papua New Guinea in the war. Australia also contributed to the ill-fated decision to prevent Bougainville from rejoining the rest of the Solomons group in 1975. Forced instead into an unnatural union with PNG, the Melanesians of Bougainville have been tied too long to the pig pole while others decide their fate.

There could be more to come. Opposition leaders, generally opposed to Bougainville's secession, are favored to win Papua New Guinea's general election in June and may try to review the autonomy pact. They are unlikely to succeed, faced with what Sirivi terms "our determination to vigorously stop corrupt governments from selling Bougainville away." Said Sirivi: "If they can't win in 10 years, they never will."

For additional reports from the Asia Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Asia Times Online: Oceania.

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