Sports, Peace and Development: Conflict Transformation and Breaking Barriers of hostilities in Bougainville
Since 2007, UNDP has been applying the concept of peace fairs and sport games to the peace and reconciliation process of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Autonomous Region Bougainville (ARB). This blend of sports, music and culture has borne fruits and is breaking barriers between divided youth and elders, former fighters and their communities, and between key factions and the Autonomous Government of Bougainville (ABG).
The recently held 3rd Bougainville Games must be considered the most transformative event since the signing of the peace agreement signed almost exactly 10 years ago between the national government of PNG and leaders representing the people of Bougainville.
The Games were held in the southern district of Buin, a location that for many years has been inaccessible and insecure due to activities by former fighting groups. All of ARB’s districts participated in this competition, including groups the so-called ‘no-go areas’ of Tabago, Kuono and parts of Buin and Panguna. Their enthusiasm and passion for sports and culture was stronger than roadblocks and orders that limited movements and interactions between communities for almost 20 years. Along with the competing teams, the respective chiefs and supporters, most factional leaders turned up to witness such a rare event organized in their area.
The event also showed the transformative power of the women of ARB. For the first time, women of the no-go areas of Oria, Wisai and others defied the orders of their male counterparts and mobilized themselves to accompany their sports teams and cultural performers to Buin. The initial objective of the over 200 women was to cook for their teams at the games. But the presence of the women with their persuasive power turned out to be a very successful measure of appeasement as they met with their relatives for the first time after the civil conflict. These reunifications culminated into a massive decision by all to reconcile and to break the long silence between the factions. The faction leaders had no alternative than to give in to this new wave of social harmony emerging.
Following many one-on-one persuasions to the faction leaders by UNDP during and after the Games, the Meekamui factions – excluded from the 2001 peace agreement – agreed to a meeting where they ultimately charted a way forward for settling their differences and for dialoguing with the ABG. This dialogue is something many Bougainvilleans could not imagine only a short while ago. Not only is UNDP’s support to the peace and reconciliation process in Bougainville the trigger for this emerging social harmony, but with its impartial position, UNDP was also requested to further facilitate the dialogue between factions and the ABG.
The profile of the Games were further elevated with the presence of the President of the ABG and with pledges by key members of the both the Regional and National Assembly to highlight the development plans for their constituencies. It is in this light that the recent Games were also the occasion for the opening of the Buin airstrip as well as for the extension of the national electricity grid to Buin town.
In the meantime, the ABG has pledged to make the Games a yearly event, now fully owning and organizing them. The plan is to organize the event on a rotational basis so that all districts have the opportunity to host. The next speculated venue is the Panguna district, the area where the Bougainville crisis originated, and yet another perceived insecure and inaccessible area that awaits its chance to open up to all.
Future Bougainville Games – now fully owned by ABG and with UNDP support - will further strengthen the capacity of ABG and the people of Bougainville in their quest for peacebuilding, reconciliation and post-conflict recovery.