State Terror and The Bougainville Conflict

State Terror and The Bougainville Conflict

Case Study Author

Kristian Lasslett

Kristian sits on the Executive Board of the International State Crime Initiative. Case Study published 2012.

Chapter 1: Papua New Guinea, an Overview

Perched on the north-west tip of the Solomon Islands archipelago, Bougainville forms part of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) easternmost border region. Despite its remote location the development of a major copper deposit in Bougainville’s Crown Prince Ranges made the island one of PNG’s most strategically significant areas. Consequently, when customary landowners used industrial sabotage to close the mine in 1988, this regional dispute soon transformed into a major national crisis.

As the crisis unfolded the national government chose to deploy the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in an effort to reopen the mine and suppress the landowner movement. Extra-judicial killings, forced displacement, the internment of civilians, and the denial of humanitarian aid, were just some of the egregious tactics employed by the military. No one was exempted from the violence. 

Facing severe financial and logistic constraints the national government turned to the mine’s operator, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), and PNG’s principal international benefactor, Australia, to prop up the PNGDF. Both organisations provided considerable assistance. As a result of these joint efforts, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 people were killed on Bougainville.

In the following case study you will be exposed to the calculations, relations, and decisions that led two democratic states and a major multinational mining corporation, to organise a systematic campaign of state violence that terrorised the residents of Bougainville for almost a decade.

Chapter 2: The Landowners’ Campaign of Civil Disobedience

In PNG the state owns sub-surface minerals. However, it is clans who own the land which mining companies must access to extract the minerals and build essential facilities. In order to press home this customary power, clan groups in the Bougainville mine area organised themselves through the Panguna Landowners Association (PLA). Between 1980 and 1987 the PLA helped landowners to increase their share of the benefits being generated by the mine (see Okole 1990). However, in August 1987, a new PLA executive was elected. Led by Francis Ona and Perpetua Serero, this executive had a radical political agenda.

Concerned by growing inequality, foreign exploitation, intra-community friction, environmental harm and poverty, the new PLA embarked upon a campaign of civil disobedience. The executive’s aim was to level the social hierarchy that had formed on Bougainville, by expropriating both the mining company and the local elite who had monopolised land, compensation payments, and business opportunities. Following a large protest in April 1988, the PLA’s leaders handed BCL a letter which outlined their demands.

At this stage in the dispute BCL feared that the PLA was intending to alter the legal arrangements which governed the mining operation, using threats and emotive rhetoric. Consequently, BCL refused to meet the PLA’s demands, and instead affirmed their commitment to meeting the company’s existing obligations as set out under the Bougainville Copper Agreement. The PLA was advised that a legislated seven yearly review of the agreement (due that year) would be the most appropriate forum for voicing any concerns over the operation. Unsatisfied with BCL’s legalistic approach, the PLA set up a road-block on 16 May 1988, which prevented the mine from operating for several hours. Following this event BCL’s Chairman, Don Carruthers, petitioned the Prime Minister, Paias Wingti, to begin the seven year review in order to diffuse tensions on the island.

The Wingti government, however, was toppled by a vote of no confidence in July 1988 before any progress could be made. The new Prime Minister, Rabbie Namaliu, ordered an independent inquiry into the mining operation during August. The PLA’s executive believed that this inquiry would vindicate the landowners. Much to the PLA’s disbelief, the inquiry concluded that “BCL has done good work” (BCL 1988). In response, the PLA decided to escalate their anti-mine activities. At 3:30pm on 22 November 1988, three hooded men armed with axes and knives forced their way into the BCL explosives magazine, and removed a considerable quantity of boosters, detonating cords, delays, and detonators. Aware that something significant was being planned, BCL’s Managing Director, Robert Cornelius, relayed his concerns to the company’s Chairman, ahead of a meeting with the PNG government.

On November 25, BCL’s Managing Director met with PNG’s Mining Minister and Minister for Provincial Affairs in Port Moresby. Expecting a sympathetic ear, Cornelius was shocked to discover that the government in fact blamed BCL for the recent disturbances on Bougainville. Indeed the Ministers told Cornelius, more needed to be done for local communities. The meeting ended on a sour note. That night BCL’s Managing Director was awoken by a phone call from the company’s General Manager for Commercial, Ken Perry. Perry informed Cornelius that at around 12:30am militants had initiated a campaign of arson, which had damaged BCL’s accounting office, executive guest house, and engineering drawing office (over the coming days the attacks became more focused on paralysing the mine’s power supply). BCL’s Managing Director immediately phoned key Ministers and organised an emergency meeting for the following morning.

Having been briefed on BCL’s views, the national government looked for a middle road. Indeed, PNG’s Cabinet was sensitive to the fact that a heavy handed approach might not be socially feasible in a country where tradition, kinship, and customary landownership remain pervasive forces. Moreover, a number of influential Ministers genuinely believed that the campaign of sabotage was a cry for help by landowners. As a result, while police mobile squads were dispatched and placed on security detail, the Prime Minister also elected to send a peace delegation to Bougainville in an effort to forge a mediated settlement to the crisis. BCL’s reaction to this proposal is documented in a memorandum penned by the company’s Chairman.

Chapter 3: Civil Disorder and PNG’s Response

Following peace negotiations with PLA activists, the national government announced that in return for the executive’s cooperation in recovering stolen explosives, the government would initiate a review of the Bougainville Copper Agreement. BCL was profoundly disappointed with this decision. They believed this would set a destructive precedent, illustrating that force could produce results. These sentiments were shared by PNG’s Police Commissioner. Without the Prime Minister’s consent, the Police Commissioner ordered the mobile squads to arrest PLA leaders, a move which violated an amnesty that had been granted to landowners by the national government. Mobile squads raided four landowner villages, landowners were assaulted, their property seized, and their homes damaged. In response Francis Ona and his supporters fled into the jungle and formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

During early 1989 unrest on Bougainville grew as militants began to attack the property of local businessman. Meanwhile heightening tensions between Bougainvilleans and mainland PNG migrants led to riots in several towns. As a result, in late March the mobile squads were instructed by the national government to restore order, with assistance from the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). According to a former District Commander of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC): “Basically the mobile squad people are semi-military, they are aggressive, they don’t do what normal policeman do, they go in there and they beat a few heads in. I am talking frankly, they will knock a few heads in, burn a few houses down, shoot a few pigs, shoot at cars … The mobile squads operated with a modus operandi of frightening people” (Personal Communication, 2006).

Fearing negative exposure, the national government banned the media from entering Bougainville. During this ‘law and order operation’ hundreds of homes were burnt to the ground by security forces, along with crops. Additionally landowners and politicians were assaulted, a prominent landowner’s wife was raped, and those left homeless by the destruction were placed in internment camps (called ‘care centres’ by the PNG government) where they were denied access to any outside visitors.

Believing that the law and order operation had demonstrated the government’s capacity to impose its authority, a meeting was called with moderate landowners opposed to Francis Ona. The government offered the moderates a generous peace settlement if they could persuade villagers to withdraw their support for the more radical PLA executive. The BRA responded to the government’s divide and conquer tactics, by formally adding secession to their political agenda. On the 28 April 1989, Francis Ona (1990: 7-8) declared: “Our only option now is … to break away from PNG. Only then we will be able to save the lives of our people in Bougainville … Please be united and walk side by side. Forget about your differences and struggle for only one goal: to save the lives of our future generations”.

Chapter 4: A Counterinsurgency Campaign Begins

In an effort to press the independence question the BRA stepped up its attacks on the mine during May 1989, forcing its closure. With revenues from the mine grinding to a halt, and PNG’s international investment reputation at risk, two new Ministers entered cabinet with a strategy for resolving the situation. Ted Diro, the Minister of State, and Ben Sabumei, the Minister for Defence, persuaded their cabinet colleagues that a state of emergency must be declared, and the BRA neutralised using military force. The government’s new strategy was related to BCL by the new Minister of State.

Aware that the national government was preparing to resolve the crisis using “brutal firepower”, the BRA’s leader, Francis Ona, sends a hand written letter to the Prime Minister.

Despite Francis Ona’s warning a declaration of emergency was issued by the government on 26 June 1989. PNG’s Defence Minister informed parliament on 11 July: “Because of the existence of the BRA, the Government recognised that it was no longer a law and order problem to be handled by the Police Force. It was no longer a land compensation issue nor a tribal conflict. Mr Speaker, it had become a military problem requiring a military solution … The Government has accepted the inevitable reality that many lives will be lost and injured on both sides” (National Parliament of PNG, Record of Proceedings, 11 July, 1989).

Following the declaration of emergency the PNGDF initiated a series of counterinsurgency operations which were designed to clear the mine area of civilians, thus undermining the BRA’s ability to operate in the mine vicinity. This they hoped would allow the mine to be repaired, while the BRA was gradually neutralised. However, the PNGDF lacked the operational capacity to undertake this extensive military campaign alone. A senior PNGDF officer recalls: “We were not trained, we were not prepared, both in training and in our modus operandi. We didn’t have the logistics to go in, but when you have a call out, and the national government wants you to go, what do you do? You have to go” (Personal Communication, 2006). To meet the shortfall, the PNGDF turned to BCL and Australia for assistance. BCL responded favourably.

For the Australian government, the Bougainville crisis raised a number of concerns (see Lasslett 2012). However, Australia’s greatest fear was that the uprising would cause PNG’s fragile state apparatus to crack. In which case the safety of expatriates and the security of Australian investments (which stood at around $A1.8 billion), would be put in peril. While more broadly, the collapse of the PNG state would seriously damage Australia’s regional leadership aspirations, and provoke uncomfortable questions from important allies (principally the United States and Indonesia). 

Using the defence aid supplied by Australia and BCL the PNGDF conducted a series of offensive operations during July and August 1989. Australian supplied helicopters – which arrived in July – were immediately put to use, “offensive fire was regularly directed from the helicopters at suspected targets, including villages. Soldiers fired machine guns attached by rope, and grenades from grenade launchers or simply dropped grenades into villages” (Rogers 2002: 233). PNGDF soldiers also began to experiment with the use of mortars on civilian areas, including white phosphorous rounds. PNG’s Defence Minister boasted, “we have shown the military destruction that can be caused, if ever they decided to start again. I am sure that that lesson is being learnt by the Bougainvilleans” (National Parliament of PNG, Record of Proceedings, 11 July, 1989).

Chapter 5: Operation Footloose

By August 1989 BCL was satisfied that the rebels were on the back-foot, consequently they agreed to begin repairing the mine. Meanwhile, the peace package which had been developed during April 1989 was rushed to fruition by a national government desperate to restore normality on the island. Despite lack of local support for the moderate landowner faction cobbled together earlier in the year, the agreement was scheduled to be signed on 11 September 1989, several days after the mine’s official re-opening. However, the BRA successfully shut the mine down just hours after its re-opening, while the peace agreement signing was stayed when a Provincial Minister involved in its construction was assassinated.

Nevertheless, community leaders on Bougainville continued to negotiate with the BRA in an effort to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, the BRA’s leadership was adamant, any permanent solution to the conflict would require: 1) The withdrawal of the government’s security forces from Bougainville; 2) The permanent closure of the mine; and 3) The holding of a referendum to decide the question of independence. These conditions were unacceptable to the national government. As a result, they instructed a PNGDF officer, Leo Nuia, to prepare the PNGDF for a decisive assault on BRA strongholds. According to Rogers (2002: 238) Colonel Nuia “was a hardliner with little sympathy for the secessionists”.

Having marshalled 500 PNGDF troops, 300 RPNGC mobile squad officers, and 100 Correctional Service officers, Colonel Nuia implements a major military offensive in January 1990 in a last ditch effort to nuetralise the rebels and reopen the mine (by this stage BCL’s cash reserves were seriously depleted). Operation Footloose, as it was known, aimed to fracture the BRA command using extreme force. This it was hoped would split the rebels into disparate groups, thus allowing the PNGDF to pick them off one by one. Once again, the military used its entire arsenal – which included 81 mm mortars, M16s, M203s, M79s, and four Iroquois helicopters rigged with M60s – to bombard villages. The Police Minister later boasted to parliament “bones rattled on the island” (National Parliament of PNG, Record of Proceedings, 14 March, 1990).

Chapter 6: Letting Bougainville Rot

During Operation Footloose the BRA staged a significant counter-attack that surprised PNG’s security forces. BCL’s Chairman was particularly alarmed at the deteriorating situation on the island. Consequently during February 1990 BCL hastily abandoned Bougainville. In late March the overwhelmed security forces retreated also, after having suffered a number of serious losses. In an effort to bring the rebels to heal, the PNG government, with encouragement from Australia and BCL, placed a military blockade around Bougainville during May 1990. Spriggs (1992: 13) observes the military blockade “was total, including a blockade on any medical supplies, and was therefore tighter than that placed around Saddam Hussein’s Iraq”.

Completely isolated from the outside world, the BRA and their political arm, the Bougainville Interim Government, were unable to normalise social conditions on the island during 1990. Moreover, internal ruptures began to appear as people grew tired of deprivation and a growing law and order problem (an under-resourced BRA failed to provide any systematic policing service). The PNGDF, with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, instrumentalised these tensions – their plan was to exacerbate the growing divisions on Bougainville by continuing the blockade, and by engaging in psychological operations. It was hoped that by doing so communities would begin to turn against the BRA, thus bringing about the ingredients for a civil war on Bougainville. In the latter event, the BRA’s opposition could be militarised and used as an ‘indigenous’ pro-government paramilitary (i.e. loyalist) force.

As internal tensions grew during 1990, the national government was able to activate its plan. Loyalist paramilitaries on Bougainvilleans were supplied with weapons and money by the national government. According to Regan (1996), the BRA began countering emerging loyalist sentiment through arrests, interrogation, torture and executions. This paved the way for the PNGDF to return to the island during September 1990. Despite having the support of loyalist paramilitaries, the state security forces continued to employ the same violent tactics witnessed during 1989-1990. The loyalist paramilitaries were arguably even more brutal than their state allies. A loyalist leader, Thomas Anis, claimed “we are fighting a civil war which involves arms, violence and psychological struggle for power – a warfare in which only the fittest will survive” (Post-Courier, 07/01/1991). 

Chapter 7: Conclusion

An anti-war movement evolved on Bougainville during the mid-1990s, spearheaded by womens’ groups, NGOs, and the church. Assisted by moderate leaders on all sides, Bougainville’s burgeoning civil society was able to slowly develop a framework for peace. This framework received a major boost when the military revolted against the national government’s plan to employ the private military company, Sandline International, during early 1997. As a result, in April 1998 a permanent ceasefire was signed, while in 2001 the Bougainville Peace Agreement was endorsed. Under this agreement the rebels permitted the North Solomons to resume its constitutional status as a province of PNG in return for greater autonomy, and an option for a referendum to be held over independence within ten to fifteen years.

Sadly, no one has ever been charged or tried for the war crimes committed on Bougainville. Indeed, many of the senior political figures who permitted and even applauded the atrocities, retained public office following the conflict. Both Rabbie Namaliu (Prime Minister 1988-1992) and Michael Somare (Foreign Minister 1988-1992), for example, maintained senior roles in government, despite their support for the blockade and their failure to stop or even acknowledge the PNGDF’s war crimes (indeed Rabbie Namaliu is currently on BCL's Board of Directors). Similarly, Australia’s Foreign Minister, who presided over one of the least known but nonetheless egregious periods in Australia’s foreign policy history, went on to become the head of the International Crisis Group, a major international NGO committed to conflict prevention and resolution. He is also the Chancellor of the Australian National University.

While a class-action has been taken against BCL by the landowners, the company nonetheless remains hopeful of returning to the island. With many radical PLA activists now dead, the company may get its way. That said, a new generation of activists in Bougainville are beginning to resist the mine’s reopening, though they face stiff opposition from the Autonomous Bougainville Government and pro-mining landowners.

Further Reading

The Bougainville Conflict

Amnesty International. (1997). Bougainville: The Forgotten Human Rights Tragedy, report: available online

Bernstein, H. (2000) ‘“The Peasantry” in Global Capitalism: Who, Where and Why?’, in Panitch, L. and Leys, C. (eds.) Socialist Register 2000: Working Classes Global Realities, London: Merlin.

Braithwaite, J., Charlesworth, H., Reddy, R., and Dunn, L. (2010). Reconciliation and Architectures of Commitment: Sequencing Peace in Bougainville. Canberra: ANU E Press. Available online

Bougainville Copper Limited (1988), Meeting Minutes, 18 November.

Denoon, D., and Spriggs, M. (eds.) (1992). The Bougainville Crisis: 1991 Update. Bathurst: Crawford House Press.

Gillespie, R. (1996). ‘Ecocide, Industrial Chemical Contamination and the Corporate Profit Imperative: The Case of Bougainville’, Social Justice, 23(4), 109–125.

Griffin, J. (1990) ‘Bougainville is a Special Case’, in May, R. J. and Spriggs, M. (eds.) The Bougainville Crisis, Bathurst: Crawford House Press.

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro. (2000). Class Action Complaint for the Violations of the Alien Tort Claims Act. Available online

Hawksley, C. (2006). ‘Papua New Guinea at Thirty: Late Decolonisation and the Political Economy of Nation-Building’, Third World Quarterly, 27(1), 161–173.

Hilson, C. J. (2006). ‘Mining and Civil Conflict: Revisiting Grievance at Bougainville, Minerals’, Minerals & Energy - Raw Materials Report, 21(2), 23–35.

Lasslett, K. (2009). ‘Winning Hearts and Mines: The Bougainville Crisis, 1988-90’, in Jackson, R., Murphy, E., and Poynting, S. (ed.), Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

Lasslett, K. (2012). 'State Crime by Proxy: Australia and the Bougainville Conflict', British Journal of Criminology, 52(4), 705-723.

May, R. J., and Spriggs, M. (eds.) (1990). The Bougainville Crisis. Bathurst: Crawford House Press.

May, R. J. (2004) State and Society in Papua New Guinea: The First Twenty-Five Years, Canberra: ANU E Press. Available online

Miriori, M. (2002). ‘A Bougainville Interim Government: Perspective on Early Peace Efforts’, in Carl, A., and Garasu, L. (eds.), Weaving Consensus: The Papua New Guinea-Bougainville Peace Process. Available online

Ogan, E. (1990). ‘Perspectives on a Crisis (5)’, in Polomka, P. (ed.) Bougainville Perspectives on a Crisis, Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Okole, H. (1990). ‘The Politics of the Panguna Landowners’ Association’, in May, R. J. and Spriggs, M. (eds.) The Bougainville Crisis, Bathurst: Crawford House Press.

Ona, F. (1990) ‘Declaration of Independence – Republic of Bougainville’, in Polomka, P. (ed.) Bougainville: Perspectives on a Crisis, Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Polomka, P. (ed.) (1990). Bougainville: Perspectives on a Crisis. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Regan, A. J. (1996). The Bougainville Conflict: Origins and Development, Main “Actors”, and Strategies for its Resolution, Port Moresby: University of Papua New Guinea Faculty of Law.

Regan, A. J., and Griffin, H. M. (eds.) (2005). Bougainville: Before the Conflict. Canberra: Pandanus Books.

Rogers, T. A. (2002). The Papua New Guinea Defence Force: Vanuatu (1980) to Bougainville (1990), Unpublished PhD, Canberra: Australian National University.

Sharp, N. (1997). Bougainville – Blood on our Hands: Australia’s Role in PNG’s War. Sydney: AID/WATCH.

Standish, B. (2007), ‘The Dynamics of Papua New Guinea’s Democracy: An Essay’, Pacific Economic Bulletin, 22/1: 135–157.

Tanis, J. (2002). ‘In Between: Personal Experiences In the 9-Year Long War on Bougainville’. Available online

Resource Conflicts

Arnson, C. J. and Zartman, I. W. (2005) Rethinking the Economics of War: The Intersection of Need, Creed and Greed, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Ballentine, K. and Sherman, J. (eds.) (2003) The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed and Grievance. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Berdal, M. and Malone, D. M. (eds.) (2000) Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, Boulder: Lynne Reinner.

Brunnschweiler, C., and Bulte E. H. (2008) 'The resource curse revisited and revised: a tale of paradoxes and red herrings', Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 55(3), 248-264.

Collier, P., and Hoeffler, A. (2000) Greed and Grievance in Civil War, Washington, DC: World Bank.

Cramer, C. (2006), Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing. Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries, London: Hurst & Company, 

Le Billon, P. (2005) 'Fuelling War: Natural Resources and Armed Conflict'. Political Geography, 20, 561-584.

State Corporate Crime

Green, P. and Ward, T. (2004) State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption, London: Pluto Press.

Kramer, R. C., Michalowski, R. J. and Kauzlarich, D. (2002) ‘The Origins and Development of the Concept and Theory of State-Corporate Crime’, Crime & Delinquency, 48(2), 263–282.

Kramer, R. C., and Michalowski, R. J. (2006) State-Corporate Crime: Wrongdoing at the Intersection of Business and Government, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutdgers University Press.

Lasslett, K. (2010) A Critical Introduction to State-Corporate Crime, International State Crime Initiative, Available online

Tombs (forthcoming), 'State-Corporate Symbiosis in the Production of Crime and Harm', State Crime, 1(2).


The International State Crime Initiative would like to thank the following contributors:

  • Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini of Frontyard Films who provided excerpts from their documentary film, 'An Evergreen Island'.
  • Dom Rotheroe who provided excerpts from his documentary film, 'A Coconut Revolution'.
  • Alex Smailes for images used in the background for chapters 4-6 and the contributors/title sections. 
  • Clive Parabou for images used in the background for chapters 1, 2, 3 and 7, in addition to the title and further readings sections.