Rio Tinto blamed for Bougainville crisis

National, Normal

The National – Monday, June 27, 2011

AN Australian television network has uncovered claims that the PNG government was acting under instruction from mining giant Rio Tinto, when it killed thousands of people who wanted one of the world’s largest copper mine at Panguna, Bougainville, to shut down in the mid-1980s.
The allegations come from former opposition leader in 2001, and now Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, in court documents obtained by SBS chief correspondent Brian Thomson for the Dateline programme which was shown on SBS Qld last night at 8.30.
In the court documents filed in a US court, Sir Michael said that Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), effectively used its wealth to control the PNG government.
However, BCL chairman Peter Taylor denied the Dateline claim.
Taylor and BCL are currently negotiating with the Bougainville Autonomous Region government to reopen the abandoned mine with the Somare government’s support but amid mixed reaction from Bougainville leaders and ex-combatants.
According to SBS, the affidavit, which was never made public, alleged that Rio Tinto played an active role in military operations that ultimately led to a civil war and blockade of Bougainville in which 15,000 people died between 1989 and 1997.
“Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the government,” Sir Michael’s affidavit stated.
It was lodged as part of an ongoing class action in the United States by the Panguna landowners against Rio Tinto.
The case had bogged down in legal arguments for the past 10 years, preventing Sir Michael’s affidavit and much of the evidence from being made public. In his signed statement, he claimed that without Rio Tinto, there would never have been a war.
“It is my opinion that absent Rio Tinto’s mining activity on Bougainville or its insistence that the Panguna mine be re-opened, the government would not have engaged in hostilities or taken military action on the island.”
Sir Michael was unaware that SBS’s Dateline programme had obtained his signed statement from sealed US court material until his office was contacted last week.
Sir Michael is recovering from double heart surgery in Singapore and his office was unable to say if he still stood by his comments, The Age newspaper reported.
Among the people interviewed last night on the programme were rebel hardliners Ismael Toroana and Sam Kauona, former PNG Defence Force commander Brig-Gen (ret) Jerry Singirok, local chief Philip Miriori and Bougainville President John Momis.
Kauona, rebel leader during the crisis, said: “It didn’t surprise me, all the time we knew.
“We knew that BCL was financing this war on Bougainville because when we were fighting … all the BCL vehicles were being used by the security forces.”
Miriori said Sir Michael’s statement backed his long-standing claims about Rio’s complicity with the PNGDF.
Taylor told Dateline he was aware of the affidavit, but said he was surprised Sir Michael would “make these accusations knowing they’re completely unfounded”.