State Crime and Resistance in the South Pacific: Uncovering a Denied History

Kristian Lasslett gives a detailed overview of some of the issues discussed in his new book, State Crime on the Margins of Empire, recently published by Pluto.

Lasslett SCDuring a fiery Senate Estimates hearing in Australia earlier this year, a senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was asked by Senator Lee Rhiannon if she was aware of significant evidence on Australian state criminality published in the British Journal of Criminology.

The journal article cited by Rhiannon recounts Australia’s role in the perpetration of war crimes in neighbouring Papua New Guinea (PNG) during the bloody Bougainville conflict (1988-1997) – a war triggered by a large copper mine owned by Anglo-Australian giant, Rio Tinto.

George Brandis, Australian Attorney-General, interjected launching a broadside at Senator Rhiannon for even posing the question. This he claimed was a ‘scandalous allegation’. Brandis continued by demanding to know if the source was credible.

The journal article at the centre of this particularly hostile exchange, was the initial intervention, of which State Crime on the Margins of Empire is the final expression. To echo the words of the Attorney-General, the allegations are indeed ‘scandalous’ and, what is more, they are highly credible too.

Those interviewed for the book include the then Australian Foreign Minister; successive High Commissioners to PNG; senior Australian Defence Force officers (stationed in PNG); key officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Defence, and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; their counterparts within the PNG state, and the senior executive team responsible for the Rio Tinto subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited.

Rarely is a state crime researcher fortunate enough to obtain such an unadulterated historical view into the engine room of state-corporate power as it organised an episode of extreme military violence.

The violence – propelled by Australian supplied 81mm mortars, AR15s, SLRs, M60s, M203/M79 grenade launchers, helicopter gunships, pacific class patrol boats, and a range of aircraft (the latter two policed a military blockade which denied civilians even basic medicines) – was of the most disproportionate variety, directed largely at civilians.

Their crime was opposition to the Rio Tinto copper mine. Mine-affected communities argued the operation had decimated their environment and seriously disrupted customary relations.

Following a long campaign of protest, in November 1988 traditional landowners operationalised their critique through a campaign of industrial sabotage in a bid to close the mine. This triggered a heavy military response.

The findings with respect to Australia’s involvement are clear. In contrast to the many public statements issued by the Australian government, which denied any official involvement or support, Australia was, put simply, deeply enmeshed in the Bougainville conflict. Indeed, it would not be overstating matters to suggest that but for the Australian government’s role, the war would not have occurred, or at the very least it would not have reached the bloody crescendo it did, where between 10,000 and 20,000 people died.

The corroborated evidence, in this respect, is damning.

When customary landowners employed industrial sabotage to close the mine, and then began organising into guerrilla bands – prompted by punitive paramilitary operations by police mobile squad units – Australia placed its considerable weight on the PNG government to implement an expansive counterinsurgency operation.

A senior diplomat in the Australian High Commission recalls, ‘we were certainly pushing them … to get more troops over there and that sort of thing. Ben Sabumei was the [PNG Defence] Minister, and I used to see him all the time saying, “get your people over there”’.

Australia wanted to demonstrate to its allies, particularly the US, that it could underwrite stability in the South Pacific region and ward off trouble on its patch. Critically, this strategic role was being leveraged by Australian officials to buttress a range of international objectives, like US backing for regional trade forums.

However, to complicate matters, Papua New Guinea’s defence force (PNGDF) was unprepared for a major contingency – the burden fell on Australia to underwrite the offensive operation.

The assistance provided was expansive. A senior Australian Defence Force (ADF) officer stationed in PNG recalls, ‘I mean the logistic support that we supplied to the PNGDF during that time was very large and significant, without our support they couldn’t have done what they did’.

He continues, ‘we’d be training them at training camps, we’d be supplying them with weapons, we’d be supplying them with uniforms, everything. And then we’d say these companies are now fit to be used, let’s send them now to Bougainville. We’d even fly them to Bougainville for god’s sake, so we would facilitate everything’.

When PNG’s military struggled to counteract the growing strength of the rebel contingent, ADF officers became directly involved in planning offensive operations: ‘I don’t think it is stretching the point too much to say that XXXX [ADF Officer on loan to the PNGDF] and a few others, and we were included in this [ADF staff at the Australian High Commission], started to devise an operation to win back Bougainville. Which was to start by getting back Buka, getting Buka, and then working to expand your bases, thereby winning it [Bougainville] back in a military sense, when it was in total darkness, the case was totally hopeless’.

Back in Canberra Australia’s Foreign Minister denied involvement and underlined his government’s inability to verify allegations of PNGDF war crimes.

For those directly involved, there was no confusion, ‘the ADF, we had people in positions in both the constabulary and the PNGDF, so we knew very well what was going on. Let’s not be too cute or naive about it, that’s the reality about life. So we had good knowledge about what was going on’.

For twenty years now the Bougainville conflict has been known as PNG’s war. It was also Australia’s war. But it was a covert war waged behind a veil of secrecy and innuendo.

And, as a direct result of Australia’s involvement, thousands of innocent people died under horrendous conditions – executed by death squads, raped by masked paramilitaries, homes torched, children mortared, women disembowelled. This was occurring on Australia’s doorstep with the support and connivance of the Commonwealth government.

Of course, officials involved in the organisation of these covert operations were concerned Australia’s involvement would become public – a fact which would have generated enormous domestic difficulties – so, extensive efforts were made to both restrict the supply of information, monitor human rights activists, and discredit allegations emanating from Bougainville.

On occasions there were slips. Like when the PNGDF Colonel, Leo Nuia, admitted to the Australian Broadcasting Commission that his ‘boys’ had executed six civilians and then dumped their bodies out of an Australian helicopter (indeed PNG’s air operations was, at the time, headed by an ADF officer, such was the integration of the forces).

The Australian government was incensed by the public admission, recalls one PNG Minister, ‘I got dirty phone calls from the Australian government. I don’t know why he had to tell the ABC, he didn’t have to tell them. I mean I thought it was a good media relations exercise, I approved them to go. I guess I didn’t pull aside Nuia and say listen these are the things you don’t say’.

Bougainville still suffers the lingering effects of these crimes. Every day is a struggle for the war’s survivors, who bear the mental and physical scars and must face, daily, the looming void of lost loved ones.

But Bougainville’s proud and courageous people are slowly rebuilding their island. Many, however, still yearn for a basic dignity owed to them – the right to truth and justice.

Local efforts to uncover the full-role played by powerful international actors have been suppressed. For instance, Bougainvillean litigants launched a class action against Rio Tinto in the United States, employing the Alien Tort Statute.

Both the Australian and British government lobbied the court to drop the action. And in 2013 it was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

If it had gone to trial the case would have revealed another hidden dimension of the conflict, the role Rio Tinto, played, via its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), priming the military violence.

Indeed, when PNG’s Prime Minister initially attempted to defuse the crisis through negotiation with the alleged saboteurs, BCL’s Chairman threatened to withdraw Rio Tinto’s considerable investment from the country.

Then when a combined police-military contingent was finally deployed, BCL supplied them with a significant package of logistic support, which included trucks, fuel, communications equipment, accommodation, storage space, messing facilities, and administrative blocks.

This assistance afforded BCL access to PNGDF commanders, and the Prime Minister. During these conversations, BCL’s Managing Director declared his support for the offensive operations – even after evidence emerged of PNGDF atrocities – and went so far as to suggest targets who needed to be ‘apprehended’.

Incredibly, to this day, BCL denies its involvement; incredibly because its own executive team from the period have admitted complicity.

Though no one on the media circuit interviewing BCL’s current Chairman has had the decency to point this out (despite this author’s vocal reminders); instead his denials are aired in the Australian media, uncorrected.

It is in this light that State Crime on the Margins of Empire, attempts to deliver some truth on a conflict still obscured by denial and disinformation.

But truth without meaning is truth diminished.

Accordingly, this volume is also an attempt to make sense of the complex triggers that lead state-corporate actors to employ criminal violence.

To do this, State Crime on the Margins of Empire examines how capital and state-power dialectically enmeshed in a social setting that departs significantly in character from classic European archetypes.

However, despite these differences, it is nonetheless argued that this process remains pregnant with the inherent contradictions of capitalist social relations, which cultivates moments of rupture, conflict and crisis. However, the form crisis takes – in this case, a landowner crisis – is conditioned in significant ways by the Melanesian context.

State-corporate violence enters as the most formidable tool (albeit ineffective) for eviscerating crisis and reinstating the conditions necessary for the social reproduction of capitalist relations.

However, when theorising these dynamics, the aim is not to manufacture a sterile set of abstract causes – which, for instance, punctuates the greed or grievance debate. Rather, the intention is to build more luminous understandings of the concatenation of forces that produce moments of crisis and state criminality, not so they can simply be witnessed, but most critically, effectively challenged from below.

Kristian Lasslett
is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster and sits on the International State Crime Initiative’s executive board. He is editor of the State Crime Testimony Project and joint editor-in-chief of State Crime.

State Crime on the Margins of Empire is available now.

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