By Ben Bohane

BUKA, PNG (Radio Australia, June 27) - On Monday, 30 June, the peacekeepers' mandate expired and in the coming weeks troops and civilians from Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, and Fiji will withdraw.

Their departure is seen as an acid test for the fragile peace, which has reigned since 1997.

"Sometimes we feel like Ronald McDonald going around villages in our bright yellow T-shirts and smiling at everyone," said Fred Smith, "but I think it's fair to say that Bougainvilleans will miss us and we'll certainly miss them".

Smith is the liaison officer with the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG), which for the past six years has been overseeing agreements that ended a bloody 10-year separatist war on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville.

For nearly a decade, beginning in 1988 when rebels calling themselves the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) began fighting to close the giant Panguna copper and gold mine and declare independence from Papua New Guinea, Bougainville was locked in a bitter guerrilla war that claimed 10,000 lives.

It was the bloodiest conflict in the Pacific since World War II and brought untold suffering to its population of 200,000.

The conflict ended when the New Zealand government helped broker a truce signed by all factions in October 1997 at Burnham in New Zealand.

Since then, reconstruction of basic infrastructure and the resumption of government services have seen the island return to some kind of normality.

More than 5,000 unarmed personnel from Pacific nations, mainly Australia, have overseen the ceasefire and weapons disposal program that has largely been successful.

In April this year the last Papua New Guinea Defense Force troops were withdrawn so that the whole island could become a demilitarized zone, according to UN officials.

"We're sad to see the PMG leaving but this does not signal the end of the peace process," said Bougainville Governor John Momis. "Peace will continue but now it will be up to us leaders and ordinary Bougainvilleans to maintain security and work towards establishing an autonomous government," he said.

A former Catholic priest, Governor Momis has watched the trials and tribulations of his island since he was first elected a member of parliament when PNG won its independence from Australia in 1975.

"I pushed for the highest form of autonomy back then to quell the first independence movement on Bougainville, but the autonomy we were given was not meaningful," he said. "This time we have a chance to achieve real autonomy in the run-up to a referendum on independence 10 years from now."

Momis said he's happy with the way the peace process has gone, but is frustrated by the constant withholding of funds from the cash-strapped central government in Port Moresby.

"The government in Port Moresby has a real attitude problem and they are determining the peace process by not paying government salaries," he said. "Local businesses are owed millions of kina by the government and we continue to lose basic services such as power and telecommunications because of government debts."

For many Bougainvilleans, the immediate concern is security amidst fears of a power vacuum once the PMG leaves.

This is compounded because the local police "have no teeth", according to the president of the Bougainville People's Congress, Joe Kabui.

His deputy, James Tanis, agrees and issued a warning in the PNG Post-Courier newspaper this week about unresolved tension between the administration and those in the Mekamui Defence Force (MDF) who are loyal to the original BRA leader, Francis Ona, and who have remained outside the peace process.

"My fear is that our own administration does not have the capacity to do anything to control any situation that may arise," Tanis said. "And Mekamui does not have the capacity either to control their own side so we may end up with an uncontrollable situation. It may even be a new situation none of us have ever dreamed of before".

That division was highlighted several weeks ago in a gun battle at Morgan's Junction between MDF guerrillas and former BRA guerrillas under Commander Ishmael Toroama.

One MDF guerrilla was killed and several were wounded on both sides.

The MDF has maintained a "no-go" area around the destroyed Panguna mine and Guava village since the PMG arrived in 1997.

Despite such setbacks, most locals believe that the peace will hold and any further incidents will be due largely to "raskol" criminal elements operating on the fringe of rival political movements.

So far more than 1,900 weapons have been handed in and UN officials are poised to announce the completion of "Stage 2" of its weapons disposal program.

Apart from the MDF, all sides have also welcomed the announcement that a new Bougainville Transitional Team will continue monitoring the peace process once the PMG withdraws.

July 4, 2003

Radio Australia: www.abc.net.au/ra 

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