AUSTRALIAN mining giant Rio Tinto financed Papua New Guinea’s violent suppression of rebels opposed to the running of what was then the world’s largest copper mine in Panguna, Bougainville, says PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare.
In a startling affidavit, Sir Michael says the PNG government did the bidding of Rio Tinto in a miliary adventure in which 15,000 people died, or a tenth of Bougainville’s population.
SBS’s Dateline program on Sunday night reveals Sir Michael made the affidavit in 2001 when he was opposition leader.
He alleges that Rio Tinto, and its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), funded military operations during the Bougainville war, and effectively used its wealth to control the government – a claim BCL denies.
Sir Michael says BCL played an active role in the war supplying helicopters, pilots, troops, transportation, fuel and troop barracks.
“Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the government. The government of PNG followed Rio Tinto’s instructions and carried out its requests,” the affidavit states.
His statement is part of a class action in the US launched by a group of islanders against Rio Tinto in 2001.
In his signed statement, Sir Michael says that without Rio Tinto’s activity in Bougainville, the PNG government would not have engaged in hostilities or taken military action on the island.
BCL chief executive Peter Taylor described Sir Michael’s claim that the miner was involved in military action against the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a blockade of the island during the war, which ended 14 years ago, as baseless.
“I find it quite surprising he would say these things because he knows they’re not true,” Mr Taylor told Dateline.
BCL also disputes other claims made in the class action. They include that its manager on Bougainville at the time of the conflict encouraged the continuation of the blockade for the purposes of “starving the bastards out”.
“I don’t know where that came from. It just doesn’t make sense. The Bougainville people were the people that we needed to work with, and we wanted them onside, not offside,” Mr Taylor said.
It is claimed most of the 15,000 people who died did so because the military blockade prevented supplies, including medicine, from reaching the islanders.