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Mediating Across DifferenceOceanic and Asian Approaches to Conflict Resolution$

Morgan Brigg and Roland Bleiker

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780824834593

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824834593.001.0001

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A Source of Inspiration for Conflict Resolution

(p.163) Chapter 8 Bougainville
Mediating Across Difference

Volker Boege

Lorraine Garasu

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter illustrates what can be learned from Bougainville, one of the few recent successful cases of postconflict state-building. It clarifies and elaborates on a ‘road to sustainable peace’: a mode of reconciliation that carefully involves emotion and incorporates everyone, including ancestral spirits. This process must resist instrumental and short-term temptations, developing instead a sustainable long-term, step-by-step engagement with different layers of problems. Time is crucial in this approach, which revolves around finding out when exactly which people are ready for which step in the reconciliation process. Reconciliation on Bougainville is thus seen as an ongoing process that involves entwined relationships and contains spiritual and ritual dimensions. The latter are, in fact, an integral and indispensable element of conflict resolution, rather than simply aspects of ceremonial functions.

Keywords:   postconflict state-building, Bougainville, sustainable peace, reconciliation, ancestral spirits, rituals

AFTER ALMOST A decade of war (1989–1998) and the bloodiest violent conflict in the South Pacific since the end of the Second World War, Bougainville has gone through a comprehensive peacebuilding process. This process is a rare success story in contemporary postconflict peacebuilding. Because the conflict occurred during a time of statelessness in Bougainville, space was opened for a renaissance of nonstate customary institutions and processes. In the absence of state institutions, local practices resumed their central role in the life of the communities. In many places elders and chiefs, assisted particularly by women and local church people, became responsible for the organisation of political and social order and the regulation of conflicts. In doing so, they very much referred to customary norms and methods, often to the satisfaction of the members of their communities. The application of local processes by committed individuals managed to create and sustain ‘islands of peace’ within the ocean of violence that had consumed Bougainville.

In this chapter we posit that peacebuilding on Bougainville was successful mainly because of the extensive application of Indigenous customary institutions, methods, and instruments of conflict resolution and reconciliation. In the transition from war to peace in the late 1990s, elders and chiefs were entrusted with important roles in settling violent conflicts at the local level. Because the fighting parties were closely tied into customary life, they were willing to accept the authority of traditional leaders and customary ways of dispute settlement. Traditional authorities also participated in ‘high-level’ political approaches to finding solutions to the Bougainville crisis. Principles and methods rooted in (p.164) Indigenous custom supported constructive conflict resolution in the context of broader political negotiations and agreements.

The main characteristics of conflict resolution and peacebuilding that were emphasised on Bougainville were reconciliation, process orientation, participation, inclusiveness, and long time frames. The aim is the restoration of social harmony within the community and of relationships between former adversaries.

(p.165) This restoration proceeds on the basis of principles of restorative justice and is ratified by rituals that include both a spiritual dimension and an exchange of material gifts. Many peace processes and ceremonies have taken place at the local level over the last decade. Conflicts have been resolved within and between extended families, clans, villages, and ethnolinguistic groups. These processes decisively contributed to the stabilisation of the postconflict situation. Customary ways were successfully used for postconflict peacebuilding and are used today for a new type of state-building and for managing and resolving conflicts that emerge in everyday community life.

This chapter commences by discussing the place of reciprocity and violence in Bougainvillean society. Traditional patterns of violence and reciprocity have been substantially transformed through outside impacts—particularly the assimilation of Christianity—but both continue to influence contemporary Bougainvillean society. Reciprocal systems of exchange, in particular, continue to influence Bougainvillean reconciliation processes. The chapter’s second section provides an overview of reconciliation, discussing topics ranging from the importance of relationship to the role of ritual and ceremony. The third section considers elements of Bougainvillean conflict resolution in more detail. We discuss the place of spirituality and emotion, the importance of taking time, restorative justice principles, gift exchange through ceremony, and the need for both trusted leadership and full community participation. In the final two sections of the chapter we address some problematic aspects of customary conflict resolution and highlight the importance of constructive interaction between Indigenous customary and introduced Western conflict resolution approaches. A number of boxes present, through Sister Lorraine Garasu’s personal experiences, a mini case study regarding conflict and conflict resolution in Bougainville during the time of war and postconflict peacebuilding.

Reciprocity and Violence

Reciprocity was the guiding principle of social relations in traditional Bougainvillean societies. The exchange system created mutually binding obligations to give, and these obligations tied people together in reciprocal relationships, providing social order and harmony. If obligations were not met, conflict arose and could lead to violence. Insulting behaviour, swearing, and various forms of sorcery were considered violence alongside physical fighting and warfare. Violence necessitated a violent response, yet violence was not necessarily perceived as contradicting order. Violence could contribute to restoring order—if it was pursued according to the rules of reciprocity as another form of exchange. The legitimacy of the recourse to violence and the capacity to use violence were vested in every single community. Communities were forced and (p.166) entitled to help themselves by violent means when they perceived their rights were challenged. This violent self-help was legitimised and regulated by customary law. One may thus speak of ‘orderly’ violence—violence that aimed at restoring order and was highly ritualised, following very strict customary rules of fighting.

Nevertheless, vicious circles of violence could also evolve as violence followed the logic of retribution—or ‘payback’. So it “would be a mistake to believe that the traditional village was an earthly paradise”, as Pat Howley has observed.1 Violent conflict was ended by a return to peaceful exchange. The exchange of gifts substituted the exchange of violence, upholding the principle of reciprocity while also transforming it.

After the establishment of colonial and later state rule, violent self-help was legally forbidden and negatively sanctioned—ironically, by the use of violence through colonial administrators, the police, and the prisons. Furthermore, missionaries preached the Gospel and taught people that the Christian faith is a nonviolent religion, delegitimising the use of violence on ethical grounds. As most Bougainvilleans turned to Christianity, they adopted this repulsion toward violence. Of course, violent intergroup conflict did not stop altogether after colonial pacification.2 However, people began to see violence as morally unacceptable. This attitudinal change was not an entirely new perspective on violence. Although violence had been an integral part of traditional life, it had been perceived as an unwelcome disturbance of relationships within and between communities, since the very survival of communities depended on peaceful order and a functioning exchange system.

Reconciliation: The Restoration of Relationships

The ultimate aim of Bougainvillean conflict resolution is to restore peaceful relationships through processes of reconciliation geared toward the future. Although ‘reconciliation’ is a term rooted in the Christian faith, it also describes the customary Melanesian approach to conflict resolution wherein relationship- based peacebuilding and reconciliation were very much part of community life. Contemporary reconciliation has integrated both Christian and customary elements.3 In this long-term and multifaceted process, past wrongs are acknowledged, responsibility for them is shared and accepted, and the basis for a common future is created.

The conflict parties striving for reconciliation usually invite a third party to intervene. Parties are typically self-motivated in some way, but they also can be encouraged and cajoled into reconciliation processes by their relatives and communities. Traditional Melanesian notions play an important role here, including encouraging self-analysis and reflection. In the Halia language that is spoken on (p.167) Buka Island and the northern tip of Bougainville, for instance, there is a peace-related word—‘Hamaraha’. This term is a reminder to stabilise, keep calm, and retrace your steps, to look around you. Why are the waters around you rough and disturbed? Calm down, think, and act accordingly and responsibly.

Individual commitment is crucial, but so are broader communal relations. While conflicts affect particular relationships between family and clan members, they also resonate throughout clan networks, sometimes involving entire communities. Conflicts can be very complicated as a result, with an original very simple incident spreading concern among many people and (potentially) escalating into violence and armed combat. Conflicts often also affect the spirit world through the spirits of ancestors. When there is a conflict between parties and someone is hurt, people can be heard to say that the spirits of the dead are unhappy because of what has happened. So when a conflict emerges, it no longer remains the issue of particular individuals; it involves the whole community, including the dead.

The reconciliation process is run by community leaders—typically chiefs, ‘big men’ or elders whose authority is derived socially rather than by descent. These authorities take up the roles of mediators, facilitators, negotiators, and peacemakers. They are highly esteemed for their knowledge of custom, the history of the communities and the relationships of the parties in conflict, kinship ties, and social circumstances prevailing in the conflict setting. Their rich experience in conflict regulation, their skills in setting and interpreting signs of reconciliation, and their abilities as orators as well as their social capital as leaders of the community or communities empower them to negotiate a resolution to the conflict that is acceptable to all. Their knowledge of stories and skills in storytelling are crucial in Bougainville’s oral culture. They set the conditions for a peace agreement and determine the form and amount of gifts necessary to restore relationships.

In the reconciliation process a common understanding of the causes and the history of the conflict has to be developed. Parties have to negotiate a consensus about how to interpret history that takes into account events and the spirits of the dead. This is often very time-consuming. Facts have to be established, and truth has to be revealed. Only then can reconciliation take its course. Perpetrators are helped to see their roles in the conflict more clearly, retrace their steps, acknowledge that they have created disharmony and violence, and realise that they are no longer trusted by the community. This is the foundation for apologising to the ones they wronged and for asking forgiveness. Victims must develop a willingness to accept apologies, forgive, and reconcile. Parties thus can overcome hate and mistrust, achieve reconciliation, and heal relationships. Finally, peace can be built on a shared perception of what is just.



Participation in the process and the approval of results is voluntary. Negotiators have few if any sanctions at their disposal that would allow the enforcement of a settlement. Sanctions are confined to the social realm (shaming, stigmatising) and the supernatural (cursing, sorcery). Spirits of the dead play an important role: they will be called on to remove any illness and bring back healing to the sick and the broader community. Parties can reject any settlement that they are not happy with, so conflict resolution is based on voluntary consensus and agreement.

Once solutions are found, they are ratified in highly ritual forms. The whole community usually participates. Ceremonies that encompass customary rituals are significant as a means of conflict transformation in their own right, but in contemporary peacebuilding they are often combined with Christian prayers for reconciliation and healing. James Tanis notes that “Christian principles of reconciliation have conveniently found their place in the culture and have, indeed, added a great deal to the process, through the incorporation of prayers and public acknowledgments by priests and church ministers”.4 Ceremony is an important vehicle for cleansing and purification. It creates an environment for the parties to build trust, and signals that the conflict has ended and harmony has been restored. Usually there are a series of ceremonies loaded with spiritual meaning according to the progress of the stages of reconciliation. Gifts are exchanged, breaking the cycle of payback. These symbolic activities express commitment and trust and are more important and more powerful than mere spoken or written words.

Ingredients of Bougainvillean Conflict Resolution

To extend our discussion, we now examine elements of Bougainvillean conflict resolution in more detail. We consider the spiritual and emotional nature of (p.170) Bougainvillean ways of dealing with conflict, the importance of taking as much time as necessary, the restorative approach to justice, and the need to exchange gifts through ceremony. Finally we touch on the need for both trusted leadership and full community inclusiveness.

Conflict resolution on Bougainville is a deeply emotional and spiritual experience. Emotion is both a powerful obstacle to and vehicle for resolution. Imagine in a tight-knit community a mother whose beloved son was killed by a youth from a neighbouring village. Imagine the pain she is feeling and the shame the perpetrator is feeling. Imagine how difficult it is for him to ask for forgiveness, and for the mother to forgive. Imagine the shame of the relatives of the perpetrator, and their difficulties to set in motion a process of reconciliation. Imagine the anger of the relatives of the mother and her son, and their difficulties to join in a process of reconciliation. This was the situation in many communities in Bougainville after the war. The parties at war with each other were not anonymous armies but rather small units whose members often were related or knew each other.

Shame, in particular, is crucial to Bougainvillean conflict resolution. Shame is felt much more powerfully than in Western understandings and is the primary sanction for achieving individual conformity to social expectations.5 Shame can be more painful than physical violence. Howley notes that people “experience shame when they fail in their obligation or behave in a way which reduces the quality of life for others or is contrary to the established customs and traditions of the ancients”.6 Shame is not an individual issue. Rather, when one member of a group behaves in a shameful way, the other group members (p.171) share the disgrace. As Howley explains, “In repairing the damage, they feel obliged to take the shame on themselves and recompense the victim”.7

Reconciliation, then, is about deeply felt guilt, shame, and a desire for forgiveness. It is about restoring harmony so that people can live in peace with each other. Harmony is achieved only when people feel no anger against one another, trust each other, and live together happily. Reconciliation is “not a matter of forgive and forget”, Howley points out. “We cannot forget and it would be wrong to do so but each time that we remember, we must renew our forgiveness”.8 The Christian value of forgiveness combines with and adds legitimacy to customary Bougainville ways of conflict resolution. God is present in reconciliation, and one cannot experience the presence of God rationally. It is impossible to reconcile, to resolve conflicts, and to build peace without including the spiritual dimension. The dead have to be included too, which is why burying the dead properly is of utmost importance for reconciliation.

Attending to emotional and spiritual dimensions of conflict resolution on Bougainville can take significant time. Indeed, ‘Melanesian time’ differs from European time regimes and is a powerful influence within Bougainvillean reconciliation processes. Even if there is an urgent desire to reconcile, the concept of urgency itself does not aid reconciliation. Only in a protracted process can people nurture the desire for reconciliation and peace. The process is as important as the outcome, and in the traditional context any ‘results’ achieved are only of a temporary nature. They are subject to repeated renegotiations and revisions. Although people have the desire to settle conflicts ‘once and for ever’, this is rarely possible.

Slowness, breaks, and ‘time-outs’ are deliberately built into conflict resolution processes to give parties time to calm down, assess the state of the process so far, reformulate their position, and prepare themselves spiritually and emotionally for a resolution. Reconciliation processes take years rather than weeks. (p.172) Today, more than a decade after the official end of the war on Bougainville, many groups have not completed their reconciliation processes.

With reconciliation at the heart of conflict resolution and peacebuilding on Bougainville, justice is “restorative” rather than punitive. This modern term, and the accompanying restorative justice movement, mirrors the approaches to justice that were and are an integral part of Bougainville customary conflict resolution. As one chief states: “Restorative justice is not a new method in our societies. It is what our ancestors used for thousands of years to resolve minor and major disputes, up until colonial times”.9

The restoration of social harmony within and between communities and the restoration of relationships between the communities of offenders and victims are seen as the main aims of reconciliation. Punitive justice destroys relationships by focusing on individual perpetrators. Bougainvilleans, however, perceive people as embedded in, and bound through, (kin) relations. These relations extend not only to other members of their community but also to other living things, to spirits, and not least to God. In taking into account these complex relationships, conflict resolution is not so much about addressing individuals and their interests as about dealing with individuals as members of communities.

According to custom, an offender was dealt with as a member of his or her clan. Compensation was payable by the clan from which the offender came. This meant that clan members had to work together to supply the resources needed for the compensation payment. A Bougainville Constitutional Commission report notes, “In doing so, the clan members created obligations owed to them by the ‘offender’. S/he became responsible to them. The clan members then had their own interests in making sure that the ‘offender’ did not get into trouble again in the future and so was brought under a form of social control enforced by the clan chief and elders”.10 This way of dealing with antisocial or ‘criminal’ behaviour reintegrates perpetrators and is an effective means of social control. The commonplace Western practice of imprisonment is problematic, Howley states, “because it marks the offender as a criminal and when he returns to the community, he is not healed or forgiven and is bigger trouble than before”.11 Howley adds that the most important quality of restorative justice is “that the offenders are forgiven and returned to the community where they have the chance to re-establish themselves as healthy contributing members”.12

In the context of restorative justice and reconciliation, the exchange of gifts plays an important role. Gifts to compensate for damage done and wrongs committed serve to cement reconciliation. Traditionally those gifts were items held precious by the communities such as shell money, pigs, and food. Nowadays cash and modern goods are also exchanged. Gifts are a symbol of the restoration of relationships between once-feuding communities, and of the re-establishment (p.173) of social harmony. The exchange is an outward sign of reconciliation. It is not ‘compensation’ in the sense of ‘blood money’. An elder explains: “When we make peace, it is not the food and it is not the pigs and it is not the speeches. It is the people saying ‘I forgive you. You forgive me. Let us get on with our lives’. All the rest … are just the outward signs of our peace making”.13

Nowadays there is a tendency to distort the customary meaning of compensation. Some people try to use compensation for making quick, easy money. This is not what compensation is about, and such a misperception can lead to new conflicts. Bougainvilleans who value traditional forms of peacemaking are highly critical of phony ‘reconciliation’, which is superficial, hollow tokenism, a way to make money, and not binding. Such an act could mean “nothing because the organizers used government money and the preparation and the discussion essential to any genuine reconciliation did not take place”, Howley points out. “There was no giving of self and no reconciliation”.14 This outcome itself can cause conflict if people “are angry because the value of the traditional form has been debased by people in high places” who use government money and thus make reconciliation a sham.15

The exchange of gifts takes place in the context of peace ceremonies that mark the culminating point of the whole conflict resolution process. On Bougainville, ritual is an essential part of everyday life. In the case of conflict resolution, the rituals may vary across areas, but generally adversaries feast together, eating, drinking, dancing together, shaking hands, chewing betel nut, symbolically breaking spears and arrows, and exchanging gifts. Reconciliation ceremonies bring together the people, the past and the present and the future, the ancestors, and God for the sealing of the conflict resolution process.

Finally, trusted leadership and comprehensive community participation are essential in successful conflict resolution processes. Although traditional leaders were to a certain extent sidelined in the process of colonial rule and later modern state structures, they continued to play an important role in village life. They remained responsible for settling disputes throughout the colonial and early postcolonial period and became even more important during the war and its aftermath. State institutions and representatives almost entirely withdrew from Bougainville during the war, making space for a renaissance of customary leadership. Traditional leaders took control in many parts of the island. Building on their traditional authority and legitimacy, they frequently referred to customary ways when regulating conflicts and organising community life. Strong chiefs often managed to keep their villages neutral in the war, saving them from the fighting.

It comes as no surprise, then, that elders and chiefs were vital contributors in the transition to peace. “In many areas the dispute settlement role of the (p.174) chiefs was of great importance to the peace process. … Some played major parts in initiating reconciliation between groups in conflict”.16 These traditional authorities were much closer to their people than were politicians, bureaucrats, or external mediators. This also holds true for women representatives and church people who often displayed leadership in conflict resolution as well.

The strong societal status of women in the mostly matrilineal societies of Bougainville means that they are in a position to negotiate peace in their communities and use their influence as go-betweens with warring factions to initiate and maintain dialogue.17 As Roselyne Kenneth points out, “The traditional position of women, although rarely exposed in public, included the power to exercise authority, especially in matters concerning land and other inherited rights. Thus, if women remain silent during public meetings, it does not mean that they lack the power to exercise authority in certain matters”.18

(p.175) There are customary limits to the public appearance of women. In violent conflict women are not exposed to the other side. Often they act behind the scenes, with their male kin speaking for them in public. Although the role of the leaders is important, they do not and cannot impose peace outcomes. It is also the case that conflict affects everyone rather than representative leaders or combatants. As fighters engaged in violent conflict act on behalf of their group and are perceived as members of it, the whole group is accountable for their deeds. Because every member of a social group can become a legitimate target of retribution, the whole group is the victim of conflict. For these reasons, customary conflict resolution has to encompass all of the group members. This is a major challenge. Often it is difficult to persuade everybody to join in the peace process, or people have moved and cannot be contacted. It can be difficult and time-consuming to bring everybody on board. But this is required if a stable settlement is to be achieved. Often certain members of the group go ahead in the process and others follow only hesitantly, but in the end an all-encompassing consensus has to be built. Although this might be a very costly approach in terms of effort and time, the outcomes are robust and reliable. The resulting agreements do not have to be enforced by sanctions or pressure because they rest on the consensus reached by the previously conflicting groups.

Ending War through Customary Conflict Resolution

The war on Bougainville was not only a secessionist war between the government of Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army but also a complex mix of ‘mini wars’ in local contexts. It was therefore impossible to end the war solely by political negotiations. It was also necessary to terminate the local conflicts and build peace in the villages. This could be done only by drawing on customary conflict resolution, a process that occurred throughout Bougainville in the years after the war’s end and continues today. Anthony Regan, one of the most knowledgeable non-Bougainvillean observers of the peace process, says that these “local reconciliation efforts have done more to consolidate popular commitment to peace than any other aspect of the process”.19

According to the principles of customary dispute settlement, the Bougainville peace process was and is framed in a long-term perspective. This holds true for the process as a whole as well as for its single elements. Peacebuilding on Bougainville has been ongoing since 1998 and is not yet complete. Dozens of rounds of talks and negotiations and a host of intermediate agreements, memoranda of understanding, protocols, and so forth were necessary to make progress. The time spent on every step helped stabilise the peace. To enable full participation and compliance, it was of utmost importance, for instance, that no time frame was given regarding demobilization and weapons disposal, highly critical (p.176) dimensions of postconflict peacebuilding as worldwide experience shows. There was only general agreement on a three-phase, open-ended weapons disposal process. The real weapons disposal did not start until December 2001, four years after cessation of armed conflict, and the process dragged on beyond 2005. Although the Bougainville Peace Agreement of August 2001 was a crucial milestone, this agreement envisaged another ten to fifteen years of a transitional period, still in process, until a final settlement shall be achieved via a referendum on the future political status of Bougainville.

The extended time frames for peacebuilding in Bougainville allowed a broad process of political debate. Stakeholders at all levels of society were involved. Peace talks and negotiations were each attended by dozens, if not hundreds, of Bougainvilleans—not only by the political and military leadership of the warring sides. Broad participation guaranteed the stability and implementation of agreements. Truce and cease-fire agreements were signed not only by the top political and military representatives of the conflicting parties but also by the local commanders of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Resistance Forces as well as by representatives of civil society and by traditional authorities. By putting their signatures to the agreements, the lower-ranking commanders had more of a stake in them and felt a greater obligation to observe them. Likewise, the representatives of communities and civil society took a shared responsibility for keeping the cease-fire and stabilising the situation. Women’s involvement (p.177) was of special importance. Although women were mainly active in peacebuilding at a local level and in the background, women representatives also attended all of the decisive high-level rounds of talks and negotiations in the first phases of the peacebuilding process. They spoke out strongly for peace. Male political and military leaders of the conflicting parties found themselves compelled to welcome and support women’s peace initiatives and to get women further involved in the process.20

Challenges arise, though, with the incorporation of customary reconciliation in the context of political negotiations. Reconciliation is a painful and complicated psychological and spiritual healing process, and these dimensions of conflict resolution are usually excluded from the political realm. Nonetheless, the Bougainvillean people have put considerable effort into reconciliation and have insisted that leaders dealing with the high-level political processes also pay due attention to the necessities of reconciliation. Although one might criticise as hollow tokenism the inclusion of gestures of reconciliation into political negotiations and agreements, there is little doubt that this form of paying tribute to customary and Christian symbols of reconciliation has made a major contribution to ending war and advancing postconflict peacebuilding in Bougainville.

Limitations of Customary Conflict Resolution

We have so far painted a very positive picture of Indigenous Bougainvillean conflict resolution practices and their role in the recent peacebuilding process. However, we cannot ignore the problematic aspects. It must be noted that customary conflict resolution does not have answers to all the questions raised by modern forms of conflict. One pressing question is how to deal with serious human rights violations and crimes, such as torture or pack rape, that were committed during the war. Such atrocities were not part of traditional warfare. Customary approaches to conflict resolution did not take them into account, and whether they can appropriately be dealt with by customary forms of reconciliation and restorative justice is questionable. This raises the broader issue of the relationship between custom and the concept of human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular.

Women and girls are often the victims of direct physical and sexual violence in contemporary conflicts. There was a lot of sexual violence against women during the war in Bougainville, much of which is still difficult to discuss. As in many other settings, men in Bougainville dominate not only violence but also the negotiations to resolve conflict. Compensation negotiations include exchanges for the rape of women or girls. Women and girls are thereby degraded as objects of male negotiation. And although women played a decisive part in building peace both at local and higher political levels in recent Bougainvillean (p.178) history, men today often continue to try to sideline women in social and political life. This is exacerbated by the fact that women and girls on Bougainville are the main victims of everyday violence, including domestic violence. The issue of women’s rights and the meaningful participation of women in political life, then, are significant challenges.

Youth issues are also important. Young people bore the brunt of much of the fighting during the war. They were seriously affected by violence, as both perpetrators and victims. But given their relatively low status in traditional Bougainville societies, young people were not meaningfully included in processes of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. These processes were controlled and steered by adults, with youth included in only a rather passive way. This situation both underestimates the peacebuilding potential of youth and increases the danger that young people will become future troublemakers.

A further limitation on Indigenous Bougainvillean conflict resolution derives from the general attitude towards violence. Fighting could traditionally serve as a means of re-establishing harmony. Traditional violence and warfare were ritualised, well-controlled, and relatively easily brought to an end by using the principles of reciprocity and the exchange of gifts to substitute for violent retribution. But in the context of modern war, it was much more difficult to maintain the customary rules of warfare and the enshrined limitations on the conduct of violence. A ‘culture of violence’ evolved during the war and still can be felt today. Violence against weak members of the community, in particular domestic violence against women and children, is a ‘normal’ feature of contemporary ‘peaceful’ life in many Bougainville communities. Although violence has been outlawed by modern state law and ethically discredited by Christianity, a notion of violence as a ‘normal’ part of life, dating back to the precolonial past, still exists despite its becoming much more problematic and dangerous.

Finally, we cannot escape the conclusion that Indigenous Bougainvillean conflict resolution to some extent struggles with differences introduced from ‘the outside’. It is true that Bougainvilleans have assimilated Christian principles and values over time. But it is also the case that customary Bougainville conflict resolution hinges on the existence of a community of relationships and values that are rooted in a common view of the world and a shared acknowledgement of customary institutions that people rely on to provide context for their actions and decisions. This means that Indigenous conflict resolution works well within and among relatively small communities in the local context. Conflicts among the members of the ‘we-group’ of the community can be addressed and solved by customary ways. Conflicts between neighbouring local communities pose relatively small problems, for some overarching customary principles can usually be developed and applied that allow for the creation of common ground. (p.179) However, dealing with outsiders is much more difficult. Conflicts between ‘us’, who share common customs and a common culture, and ‘them’, who adhere to another customary or formal statutory law, are much more difficult to tackle.

Often conflict resolution among ‘us’ is geared towards gaining strength against ‘them’. Reconciliation “is our traditional way which we used before the white man came”, one chief explains. “We had to do it this way for the sake of peace because, if we did not have peace in our villages, we would be open to attack from our enemies. We have developed this method of reconciliation so that we can bring the people back into the community and make the community strong again”.21 This type of conflict resolution operates along the lines of inclusion and exclusion—and hence can cause new conflicts. The recent history of Bougainville has demonstrated that conflicts between local communities and outside actors such as state authorities, non-Bougainvilleans, or business enterprises pose big problems with regard to the applicability of traditional approaches. If outsiders do not understand, do not respect, or are unwilling to be included in Bougainville’s ways of conflict resolution, Indigenous methods cannot readily bridge the accompanying differences and conflicts. Of course, Bougainvilleans cannot be held responsible for outsiders, but it is important to acknowledge the limitations of ‘we-group’ approaches to conflict resolution.

The inclusion of faraway external actors such as mining companies or state authorities within Indigenous conflict resolution will probably pose grave difficulties in the future, particularly when Indigenous approaches clash with external interests and systems. The experience so far is that it is always the locals who are supposed to adjust to the outside ways, and not vice versa. Bougainvilleans, however, hold the strong belief that they, as the original inhabitants of the land, have the right to demand respect for their ways and customs from outsiders.

The Way Ahead: Combining Indigenous and Introduced Conflict Resolution?

We have outlined some features of Bougainvillean approaches to conflict resolution and discussed some limitations, in accordance with Western academic conventions. However, such generalisations do not entirely capture the complexity and fluidity of local approaches. Bougainvillean conflict resolution is always context specific, depending on the people involved, the history of relationships, and local customs and ways of doing things. Western approaches tend to aim at formal procedures and universal applicability through a ‘tool box’ of conflict resolution instruments with formalised results. Bougainvillean experiences make us sceptical about tool boxes.

Nevertheless, there may be some lessons learned from the Bougainville experience that could be helpful in other cases. The most important observation (p.180) is that peacebuilding on Bougainville in the postconflict phase drew on both Indigenous and introduced methods. There was constructive interaction of local customary institutions and mechanisms and their Western counterparts. This process of positive mutual accommodation continues today, including in the establishment of new state structures. People on Bougainville are pursuing a new form of state-building that does not simply copy the Western model so highly recommended by politicians and political scientists from the developed world. A homegrown variety of ‘the state’ is in the making, built on the combination of Indigenous customary institutions and introduced Western state institutions with a strong emphasis on the role of chiefs and elders, restorative justice, and community-based citizenship.22 Such a homegrown state will most probably provide the framework for a stable society, sustainable internal peace, and the nonviolent resolution of conflicts.

The blending of local and introduced processes is also occurring in the conflict resolution endeavours of various civil society organisations, with churches and women’s groups at the forefront of these endeavours.23 In the Catholic Church, for instance, retreats aimed at mutual forgiveness and reconciliation were well attended by a great variety of people, including former combatants and members of all churches. Women’s nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom or the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency, also contributed valuable work to the peace process. Special mention should be made of the Peace Foundation Melanesia, which ran workshops to train people as mediators in conflicts at the local level. Each of these and many other initiatives avoided simply introducing Western-style conflict resolution approaches into the Bougainvillean environment. Rather, they built on the customary Indigenous experiences by referring to and drawing upon Bougainvillean approaches to restorative justice.24 In those instances where leaders of the warring parties were introduced to Western conflict resolution, as was the case through negotiation skills courses taught by the Australian lawyer Leo White, participants were encouraged to take what was useful for their context and blend it with their local traditions.

Today several NGOs on Bougainville work on issues of conflict resolution and overcoming violence. For instance, the Rehabilitation Centre in Chabai village addresses the needs of women and children in situations of violence, and of young people confronted with the issues of drugs and alcohol. The issues that the centre is addressing indicate that people are now confronted with problems that cannot be resolved by customary ways alone. Most of the young people badly affected by alcohol are male ex-combatants, often deeply alienated from their communities of origin and highly traumatised by the violence they conducted and/or experienced during the war. Today they have no jobs, no status, and (p.181) limited prospects. When they are not accepted back by their villages and communities, they turn to alcohol and drugs and consequently become involved in antisocial behaviour and uncontrolled violence. These patterns of behaviour are foreign to traditional life. Dealing with the accompanying problems and reintegrating individuals into society cannot be achieved by customary means alone. Elders and chiefs often have lost their influence upon ex-combatants, many of whom no longer know or respect custom. These youths are the products of a ‘culture of violence’, a new phenomenon that must be addressed in new ways, through the combination of Indigenous and introduced approaches. They need trauma healing programs and counselling as well as customary healing rituals.

The current problems of youth and women demonstrate that customary ways will have to adapt to new challenges. Given the fluid and changing character of custom, this is possible. Part of what makes Bougainville a fascinating and promising example of postconflict peacebuilding and conflict resolution are efforts to deliberately harmonise Indigenous customary approaches and introduced Western approaches in order to build new types of political and societal order that provide a framework for the nonviolent processing of conflicts. Bougainvilleans are actively searching for ways and means of constructive interaction and positive mutual accommodation of introduced and Indigenous mechanisms and institutions of governance and conflict resolution. In the process they acknowledge community resilience and customary institutions as assets that can be drawn upon in building sustainable peace. This is, then, a lesson that can be learned from Bougainville—a lesson that can be of use for the resolution of conflicts and political crises in a range of different political or cultural contexts.


(1.) Pat Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts: Peacemakers and Restorative Justice in Bougainville (Annandale, New South Wales: Federation Press, 2002), p. 22.

(2.) Anthony J. Regan, “Identities among Bougainvilleans,” in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds.), Bougainville before the Conflict (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2005), pp. 418–446 at 442.

(3.) Lorraine Garasu, “Women Promoting Peace and Reconciliation,” in Andy Carl and Lorraine Garasu (eds.), “Weaving Consensus—The Papua New Guinea–Bougainville Peace Process,” Accord, no. 12 (London: Conciliation Resources, 2002): 28–31Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts

(4.) James Tanis, “Reconciliation: My Side of the Island,” in Carl and Garasu, “Weaving Consensus,” pp. 58–61 at 60.

(5.) Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts, p. 129.

(6.) Ibid., p. 31.

(p.182) (7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid., p. 73.

(9.) John Tombot, “A Marriage of Custom and Introduced Skills: Restorative Justice Bougainville Style,” in Sinclair Dinnen (ed.), A Kind of Mending: Restorative Justice in the Pacific Islands (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2003), pp. 255–264 at 259.

(10.) Bougainville Constitutional Commission, Report of the Bougainville Constitutional Commission (Arawa and Buka, Papua New Guinea: Bougainville Constitutional Commission, 2004), p. 195.

(11.) Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts, p. 137.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) ibid., p. 103.

(14.) Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts, p. 17.

(15.) Ibid., pp. 117–118.

(16.) Anthony J. Regan, “‘Traditional’ Leaders and Conflict Resolution in Bougainville: Reforming the Present by Re-writing the Past?” in Sinclair Dinnen and Allison Ley (eds.), Reflections on Violence in Melanesia (Annandale, New South Wales: Hawkins Press; Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 2000), pp. 290–304 at 297.

(17.) Garasu, “Women Promoting Peace and Reconciliation.”

(18.) Roselyne Kenneth, “Land for Agriculture—Silent Women: Men’s Voices,” in Regan and Griffin, Bougainville before the Conflict, pp. 374–387 at 374.

(19.) Anthony J. Regan, “Why a Neutral Peace Monitoring Force? The Bougainville Conflict and the Peace Process,” in Monica Wehner and Donald Denoon (eds.), Without a Gun: Australian’s Experiences Monitoring Peace in Bougainville, 1997–2001 (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2002), pp. 1–18 at 15.

(20.) Volker Boege, “Bougainville and the Discovery of Slowness: An Unhurried Approach to State-Building in the Pacific,” ACPACS Occasional Paper 3 (Brisbane: ACPACS, 2006).

(21.) Peter Mekea, quoted in Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts, p. 103.

(22.) Boege, “Bougainville and the Discovery of Slowness.”

(23.) Volker Boege and Lorraine Garasu, “Papua New Guinea: A Success Story of Postconflict Peacebuilding in Bougainville,” in Annelies Heijmans, Nicola Simmonds, and Hans van de Veen (eds.), Searching for Peace in Asia Pacific: An Overview of Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities (Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner, 2004), pp. 564–580.

(24.) Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts.


(1.) Pat Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts: Peacemakers and Restorative Justice in Bougainville (Annandale, New South Wales: Federation Press, 2002), p. 22.

(2.) Anthony J. Regan, “Identities among Bougainvilleans,” in Anthony J. Regan and Helga M. Griffin (eds.), Bougainville before the Conflict (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2005), pp. 418–446 at 442.

(3.) Lorraine Garasu, “Women Promoting Peace and Reconciliation,” in Andy Carl and Lorraine Garasu (eds.), “Weaving Consensus—The Papua New Guinea–Bougainville Peace Process,” Accord, no. 12 (London: Conciliation Resources, 2002): 28–31Howley, Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts

(4.) James Tanis, “Reconciliation: My Side of the Island,” in Carl and Garasu, “Weaving Consensus,” pp. 58–61 at 60.

(6.) Ibid., p. 31.

(p.182) (7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid., p. 73.

(9.) John Tombot, “A Marriage of Custom and Introduced Skills: Restorative Justice Bougainville Style,” in Sinclair Dinnen (ed.), A Kind of Mending: Restorative Justice in the Pacific Islands (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2003), pp. 255–264 at 259.

(10.) Bougainville Constitutional Commission, Report of the Bougainville Constitutional Commission (Arawa and Buka, Papua New Guinea: Bougainville Constitutional Commission, 2004), p. 195.

(13.) ibid., p. 103.

(15.) Ibid., pp. 117–118.

(16.) Anthony J. Regan, “‘Traditional’ Leaders and Conflict Resolution in Bougainville: Reforming the Present by Re-writing the Past?” in Sinclair Dinnen and Allison Ley (eds.), Reflections on Violence in Melanesia (Annandale, New South Wales: Hawkins Press; Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 2000), pp. 290–304 at 297.

(18.) Roselyne Kenneth, “Land for Agriculture—Silent Women: Men’s Voices,” in Regan and Griffin, Bougainville before the Conflict, pp. 374–387 at 374.

(19.) Anthony J. Regan, “Why a Neutral Peace Monitoring Force? The Bougainville Conflict and the Peace Process,” in Monica Wehner and Donald Denoon (eds.), Without a Gun: Australian’s Experiences Monitoring Peace in Bougainville, 1997–2001 (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2002), pp. 1–18 at 15.

(20.) Volker Boege, “Bougainville and the Discovery of Slowness: An Unhurried Approach to State-Building in the Pacific,” ACPACS Occasional Paper 3 (Brisbane: ACPACS, 2006).

(23.) Volker Boege and Lorraine Garasu, “Papua New Guinea: A Success Story of Postconflict Peacebuilding in Bougainville,” in Annelies Heijmans, Nicola Simmonds, and Hans van de Veen (eds.), Searching for Peace in Asia Pacific: An Overview of Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities (Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner, 2004), pp. 564–580.