Papua New Guinea : History


Melanesian people inhabited the area from 3000 or 2000 BCE, living in groups isolated by dense forest. In consequence, no larger social order developed, and even today, more than 700 languages are spoken. Spanish and Portuguese sailors sighted the land in the early 16th century. There was some limited exploration in the 19th century, and a few settlements made. In 1884, Germany annexed the northern parts and Britain proclaimed a protectorate over the southern parts (which were formally annexed by Britain in 1888 and became British New Guinea). In 1906, Australia took over British New Guinea, renamed a year earlier as the Territory of Papua. The Australian army occupied German New Guinea in World War I and in 1920 Australia received from the League of Nations a mandate for the government of New Guinea, as it was then called.

In 1942 the Japanese army occupied parts of New Guinea and Papua; the Australian military administered the rest. Under the Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949, the two parts were united for administration as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and put under United Nations International Trusteeship.

The Act also set up a legislative council, under an administrator, with 28 members, of whom three were elected, nine appointed and 16 official. There had to be at least three Papua New Guineans among the appointed members. Under the Papua and New Guinea Act of 1963, the council became a house of assembly, with 64 members, ten of them nominated official members.

Consequently, at its opening in June 1964, the Assembly had a majority of elected Papua New Guineans. The following year, the House set up a Select Committee on Constitutional Development, whose recommendations were put into effect in 1967, when the number of elected seats in the House was increased to 84, and in 1968, when a new ministerial system was adopted and an Administrator’s executive council set up.

In 1970 an appointed spokesman for this council was recognised as the House’s leader for government business. In 1971 the Select Committee recommended that the Territory prepare for self- government. Elections were held in April 1972. The House had 100 elected members, with an additional three appointed and four official members, and Michael Somare became Chief Minister of a coalition government. Self-government was granted at the end of 1973 and in the spring of 1975 Australia gave up certain remaining powers over defence and foreign affairs.

In September 1975 Papua New Guinea proceeded to full independence, becoming an independent sovereign state as a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, represented by Governor-General, Sir John Guise, a Papua New Guinean.

Sir Michael Somare, the Prime Minister at independence, was returned at the 1977 elections, but a parliamentary defeat in 1980 led to his replacement as Prime Minister by Sir Julius Chan, leader of the People’s Progress Party, until 1982 when parliament re- elected Somare. The 1987 elections brought in another coalition government, headed by Paias Wingti. Somare resigned as leader of the Pangu Pati in May 1988 and a month later his successor, Sir Rabbie Namaliu, became Prime Minister, after Wingti had lost a vote of no confidence in the House. Paias Wingti was returned at the elections of 1992. Sir Julius Chan again became Prime Minister in 1994, following a leadership challenge and Supreme Court ruling. In early 1997 the government dispatched foreign mercenaries to Bougainville. The defence force rounded up and expelled the mercenaries and called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Chan dismissed the defence force chief, but the army refused to recognise his successor and Chan himself resigned in March 1997. The cabinet appointed a caretaker government headed by the Minister for Mining and Petroleum, John Giheno.

In the elections held in June 1997, 16 ministers (including Chan) lost their seats and Bill Skate, the Governor of Port Moresby, was elected Prime Minister by parliament after a month of negotiations. He headed a four-party coalition comprising his People’s National Congress, the People’s Democratic Congress and the two constituents of the previous ruling coalition, the People’s Progress Party and the Pangu Pati. Beset by corruption scandals and an acute financial crisis, by mid-1999 Skate found his political support, which had at best been fragile, dwindling rapidly. In June 1999 he could no longer count on a majority in parliament, he resigned as Prime Minister in July shortly before parliament started its new session, and Sir Mekere Morauta emerged as his successor.


The greatest threat to stability since independence has been the attempted secession of the island of Bougainville, the site of the Panguna copper mine and one of the underpinnings of Papua New Guinea’s economy in the 1980s. In 1990, a group calling itself the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) led a movement for secession by the island from Papua New Guinea. This act followed a period of violent political upheaval centred on the copper mine, and then spread through the island’s society. Initially, the revolt was focused on the environmental damage caused by the mine and the lack of royalties being paid to the Bougainvilleans.

Numerous attempts were made to solve the problem, which damaged Papua New Guinea’s economy and destroyed Bougainville’s, and led to years of violence with many atrocities and the destruction of the mine and other infrastructure.

By 1994 some secessionist leaders were becoming dissatisfied with the hard-line stance of the BRA. At a meeting with the Prime Minister in November 1994, after which the Mirigina Charter was established, they agreed to the setting up of a transitional administration for the North Solomons Province (the Bougainville Transitional Government), which would have a council of chiefs nominating members of the provincial assembly. This administration was established in early 1995, with Theodore Miriung as its Premier and talks on increased autonomy continued.

In October 1996 Premier Miriung was assassinated. Miriung was replaced by Gerard Sinato, who immediately called for tripartite talks between the BTG, the BRA and the Papua New Guinea Government. The government, however, had decided on a military solution and in early 1997 it contracted a group of foreign mercenaries to impose a permanent resolution of the Bougainville crisis. However, Papua New Guinea’s defence force immediately took to the streets and detained and then expelled the mercenaries.

In October 1997, following talks in Christchurch, New Zealand, a truce was signed between the new government and many of the Bougainville separatists, though not the BRA led by Francis Ona. After further negotiations, in January 1998 a permanent peace and amnesty were agreed with all the secessionists, taking effect after an official signing ceremony at the end of April 1998, and ending a nine-year conflict which had claimed the lives of some 20,000 people.

A process of negotiation on greater autonomy was initiated: a Bougainville assembly was established in January 1999; the Bougainville Reconciliation Government (BRG) was elected in May 1999 and Joseph Kabui voted President at its first sitting; and he then appointed a team to conduct the negotiations.

In March 2000, the ‘Loloata Understanding’ was concluded between the BRG and the Papua New Guinea Government, setting up the Bougainville Interim Provincial Government.

The Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in Arawa in August 2001, providing for special autonomous status for Bougainville, with a gradual draw-down of substantial self- government powers from the Papua New Guinea Government, and the promise of a referendum on independence to be held between 2015 and 2020. These terms were enshrined in Bougainville’s constitution which was approved by the Papua New Guinea Parliament in December 2004. The first Autonomous Bougainville Government was elected in May/June 2005, and a former leader of the pro-independence movement, Joseph Kabui, was elected President. James Tanis was elected President of Bougainville in a by-election held in December 2008, following the death of President Kabui in June that year.

The second Autonomous Bougainville Government elections were held in Bougainville in May 2010. Former Provincial Governor John Momis was elected President with 52.4 per cent of the votes, while a large proportion of new members representing various political factions were elected to the House of Representatives.