Bougainville: 1990 - 2003

Operation Bel Isi in Bougainville was no ordinary peace mission.

New Zealand’s truce and peace monitors went unarmed to an island where, only weeks before their arrival, a bitter war had been fought. The monitors originally faced deep suspicion from the locals, but used their negotiation skills, their knowledge of the Pacific way of life, and their military professionalism to get alongside the various factions and persuade them to make peace.

“Being unarmed was a risk, but was seen as being one of the key factors in why Operation Bel Isi was so successful. As one officer put it, “Carrying guns would show a lack of trust, and would defeat the purpose of monitors being in Bougainville.” ‒ Major Ged Shirley

Bougainville, just east of Papua New Guinea, was ravaged by a bitter 10-year war in which as many as 15,000 may have died. The crisis began in 1989, and at the core of the conflict was the huge Panguna copper mine, and Panguna landowners.

Although Bougainville is an island of Papua New Guinea, many Bougainvillians are ethnically different from Papua New Guineans, and much of the conflict arose out of a sense of ethnic difference. Land owners felt alienated from their land, and wanted a share in mine profits, and greater environmental protection for their land.

Violence erupted in January 1989 between the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). A resistance movement was later to form when hundreds of BRA combatants broke away and aligned themselves to the PNGDF.

The New Zealand Defence Force’s role in the peacekeeping process in Bougainville began with the signing of the Endeavour Peace Accord on board HMNZS Endeavour off the island’s coast in 1990, as HMNZ ships Waikato and Wellington waited nearby.

It was a fragile peace however, and the bloodshed and displacement of people continued. Statistics paint a dismal picture of a community that once enjoyed among the best health and education systems in the south pacific, and a relatively high standard of living.

It is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 people may have died in the skirmishes or as a result of disease which became rampant as the island’s infrastructure disintegrated. Up to 40,000 were displaced as whole villages were razed, including schools, hospitals and health clinics.

In 1997 the Burnham Peace Talks were held in Christchurch, where the Burnham Truce was signed. In October 1997 the New Zealand-led Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) deployed to Bougainville. It consisted of NZDF personnel, Australian defence and civilian personnel, and military personnel from Fiji and Vanuatu.

The TMA was led by a Senior New Zealand Army Officer, Including Brigadier Roger Mortlock, and Brigadier Jerry Mateparae.

The TMG was eventually replaced by an Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group. A weapons containment plan began, and by June 2003 the second stage of the plan was ready for verification by the United Nations, leaving the way clear for elections to be held for an autonomous Bougainville government.

This page was last amended on 18 March 2015