State Crime on the Margin of Empire: A new book on Bougainville

The civil war on Bougainville — a large island that is part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) — was one of the most important events to happen in the Pacific since World War II. Local dissatisfaction with the island’s large, foreign-owned copper mine turned to demonstrations, escalated into a guerilla war, and forced both the mine and the PNG government to leave the island, which then entered a period of conflict between pro- and anti- PNG factions. It was a key test of sovereignty in newly-independent Pacific states, had an enormous human cost (20,000 dead, sexual violence, destruction of villages and property), and was a cautionary tale about the limits of corporate power. The reconciliation process that ended the conflict in itself is studied by academics and policy makers all over the world as an example of successful peacemaking. So what does this new book offer to Pacific scholars, and to the anthropology of mining?

Everyone knew Bougainville was important when it happened, and there is a large literature on the conflict — often written in the heat of the moment — recording the events that transpired. Given this crowded terrain, it’s fair to wonder whether Kristian Lasslett’s new book State Crime on the Margins of Empire: Rio Tinto, The War on Bougainville and Resistance to Mining can add anything new. The answer is: “yes.” Lasslett’s book is a remarkable and extremely valuable addition to the literature on this area. Written from a Marxist perspective, it uses impressively detailed original research to present a fresh take on the Bougainville conflict, one that is highly critical of the existing consensus about what happened on the island.

Lasslett is a criminologist and a member of the fascinating new field of State Crime Studies, which seeks to describe, analyze, and denounce actions that would be considered crimes if done by anyone other than a sovereign country. Lasslett’s leftist agenda has a different reading list than most contemporary anthropology does: Laclau and Rancière are not on the menu but Marx and Trotsky are, and Lasslett sees Bougainville as an important case study of state violence being used to secure the interests of capital (in this case, mining). Since Lasslett uses the Bougainville case to elaborate a wider theory of state crime, it’s fair to ask whether he really has the deep areal expertise necessary to keep from embarrassing himself when writing this book. I hate to admit it, but as I picked this volume up I thought “this guy is not an anthropologist, and not a Pacific specialist, and not a mining guy. A million half-informed well-meaning NGOs types parachute into conflict zones like Bougainville. Does Lasslett really have real areal chops?”

The answer is: Yes. The greatest strength of this book is Lasslett’s profound mastery of the primary and secondary sources on Bougainville. His deep research — clearly conducted in Pacific libraries and in close collaboration with Pacific people — has produced a level of erudition that, in my opinion, establishes him as one of the world’s top experts on Bougainville. And, most amazingly of all, he has done so despite the fact that he is a junior scholar who, unlike many Bougainville scholars, did not live through conflict.

Lasslett’s book is a revisionist history which is frankly critical of the existing literature and the scholars who produced it, especially Anthony Regan. The more original and controversial a claim is, the more important it becomes to make the case convincingly, and so in taking on established scholars, Lasslett set the bar very high. His research is more than up to the task. In addition to library, archival, and grey literature work, Laslett also did a great deal of original interviewing for this project, producing some amazingly frank assessments of the mine by mine executives and PNG politicians, civil servants, and soldiers. Lasslett’s work is partisan and activist, and also compelling and convincing precisely because he marries his strong political commitments to rigorous research and careful presentation of evidence. I wish other scholars — including myself! — had such high standards. Ultimately, I am not an expert on Bougainville, so I will be interested in seeing what the small community of scholars of the island have to say about this book. But as an expert on mining in Papua New Guinea with a strong background in the history of the country, I found Lasslett’s work to be superb. I would recommend it as the one book people should read about the island and its conflict — especially in conjunction with the more popular backgrounder Bougainville Before The Conflict. 

That said, I should emphasize that the book does have its drawbacks. It is ethnographically dense. You must really be interested in reading about what happened on Bougainville, week by week to enjoy the volume. And — I can’t really tell at this point — I think you already have to be an expert on PNG history to tune in to the story. I’ve interviewed Rabbie Namaliu about his time as Prime Minister during the Bougainville conflict, and so I was very interested in reading Lasslett’s take on Namaliu’s performance during that period. But your mileage may vary.

Additionally, the book is written in a high Marxist style full of abstract noun phrases and cynical analysis of real politik. Again, for me this was a refreshing throwback to my Cold War childhood when people sat in cafés and read Lenin and were pissed off at Reagan. But I imagine for many readers it will be a slog. Perhaps in the future we will have a popular version of this history by Lasslett, but for now if you want to work through this book you’ve got to be all in, both ethnographically and theoretically.

Lasslett is committed to showing that rigorous Marxist theory can explain the Bougainville conflict. I strongly agree with his argument that we must move beyond abstractions like ‘landowners’ or ‘the company’ to reveal that complex actually existing reality of political action during the crisis — this demand for particularity is a fundamentally anthropological impulse. And I was convinced by Lasslett’s claim that a Marxist framework could be used to analyze Bougainville, but I wasn’t quite convinced that only a Marxist framework could make sense of it. The Weberian in me feels like you don’t need to be a Marxist to understand that when a company has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into mining infrastructure, they’ll be reluctant to walk away from it. As a result, I sometimes found myself skimming over passages which insisted that close reading of certain sections of Capital provided the key analyzing events which seemed to me amenable to a common-sense analysis of political maneuvering. Again, I think your mileage may vary here.

Lasslett is associated with the Jubilee Australia, an NGO critical of current attempts to re-open the Bougainville mine, and his book is published by Pluto, a publisher proud of its tradition of leftist and radical publishing. Some may be put off by Lasslett’s decision to write such a specialized book given the publicity and importance of the Bougainville conflict, but I believe his choice here was justified. This specialist scholarly monograph provides the erudite anchor for a whole chain of other texts written in other genres: reports, press releases, twitter flamewars, and more. Considered on its own, some might fault it for not doing enough to reach a broad audience. But when considered as part of an ecology of activist publishing, this book plays an important role.

I can’t comment about the importance of this monograph for state crimes studies. But as someone who focuses on the anthropology of mining and of the Pacific, I think this volume deserves to be widely read and deeply engaged with. Pacific scholars — who might not hear of the book through their usual networks — should take note and anthropologists of mining should definitely have it on the agenda. There are barriers to entry, to be sure, but for anyone truly concerned with these issues, there is no doubt that this volume establishes Kristian Lasslett as an important figure in contemporary debates.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “State Crime on the Margin of Empire: A new book on Bougainville

  1. You must really be interested in reading about what happened on Bougainville, week by week to enjoy the volume. And — I can’t really tell at this point — I think you already have to be an expert on PNG history to tune in to the story.

    Is there a book or small set of other materials that you would recommend to someone who will never be an expert but would like to be a knowledgeable reader?

  2. Thank you Alex for such a thoughtful and deep engagement with my book. I wont lie, the praise meant a lot coming from a anthropologist with rich Pacific experience, it is always the most nerve racking when those with a patient anthropologist eye for detail, examine your work; so to come out with a good report card is gratifying.

    I think the constructive feedback you have made is spot on. On the theoretical front, there is a lot of scope for different theoretical lens, each of which can bring out it different nuances. Certainly of late, I have benefited enormously from engaging with the literature inspired by Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, which in my view opens up new ways of researching and thinking about the conflict and the deeper currents it was part of. Also the seriously under recognised work of Tinputz scholar, Ruth Soavana, is intriguing, and offers a lot of valuable insights into the how and why of resistance to extractive industries on Bougainville, drawing on local ontologies and epistemologies.

    I agree also, popular histories are really important, especially on Bougainville where there is a strong demand for histories that can contribute to a local process of reorientation, which is becoming increasingly contested as strong forces attempt to steward in a range of policies that incentivise inward investment in palm-oil, forestry and mining, including of the deep sea variety.

    One lacuna, that has become increasingly apparent through my work with Jubilee Australia, is the way in which local voices in the mine affected communities have been suppressed. Quite often, if they do appear, its paraphrased by experts whose own credentials of speaking for these communities is not always clearly established (there are some really honourable exceptions). Worse still, is when the complex conversations going on in the Panguna region, are ignored and misrepresented through political catch-phrases looking to ease the way for policies that are more contentious than what their backers would like to think.

    Indeed, if there is a hidden history behind the Rio Tinto-Australian government-PNG government nexus, there is an equally hidden history within Nasioi communities (and I am sure that is replicated across Bougainville, in different unique ways); but unlike the former organisational actors who have been active in hiding their history for reasons pointed to in the book, for mine-affected communities, they are ready to tell their stories, if ears were willing. From the empirical research I have been involved in so many within the mine affected communities talk of profound inner turmoil, or trauma, sparked by dislocation of local histories by the seismic forces of colonialism, industrial mining capital, and the rapid changes – and associated antagonisms – the latter generated. There is also such rich local conceptualisations of this process, which have emerged through local dialogue and debate. I hope one day these complex histories and organic theory become more widely known. They need to be.

    And that connects back to the book. As you rightly note, it can’t be pressed home enough, the importance of listening carefully to the voices of those whose history we attempt to understand and write about. Over the course of my research, my own interpretations were challenged and changed, as I listened to the considered reflections of Papua New Guinea leaders from the period, including PNGDF officers. Similarly, the reflections of Australian government and corporate officials were full of nuance, complexity, self-reflection and anxiety. They really told a story I wasn’t expecting, and for a period I was disoriented, but following careful reflection graspable threads emerged. The same attention to voice and story, now needs to be given to local histories, which are just as rich, and full of unexpected plots.

    Congratulations on your own recent book Alex, what a fascinating topic! I have just ordered a copy, and will read it with great interest over the summer!!

  3. John, here are some resources that might be helpful –

    A short piece for Open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/kristian-lasslett/fog-of-peace-postconflict-environments-as-sites-of-impunity-denial-and-dispossessi

    A short summary chapter: http://statecrime.org/data/2011/10/winning_hearts_and_mines.pdf

    A multi-media presentation on the conflict, it allows you to duck into some of the primary sources: http://www.statecrime.org/testimonyproject/bougainville

    And an extended interview with ABC looking at Australia’s role in the conflict: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/bougainville3a-the-forgotten-war/6280408

  4. Kristian, thanks for that — hopefully we’ll connect down the road… when it is not so near to end of term for us here in Hawai‘i…!

    Just wanted to pop in to recommend to John the excellent movie Mr. Pip, which is available on Netflix (at least in the US).

  5. I have just read the first piece that Kristian recommends, “Winning Hearts and Mines.” The description of events is clear and readable, the history being described is a horrible one. Analytically speaking, however, I was instantly reminded of Gregory Bateson’s schizmogenesis, with repeated breakdowns in negotiations and both sides finally convinced that organized violence was the only way to achieve their aims. At that point, military superiority determined the outcome. On a more personal note, as someone who grew up in Virginia and was immersed in the history and folk lore of the American Revolution and the War Between the States (the Civil War, as the damned Yankees referred to it), I found what I read depressingly familiar. One wonders what would have happened if Australia had played the role of France during. I sympathize with the members of the BRA who fought for what they believed was a just cause. I wonder how many of their children will wind up like the guys with gun racks and Confederate flags on their pickup trucks who still play a prominent role in Southern and US politics. I wonder if “state terrorism” is sufficient to explain all this.

  6. “played the role of France” should be “played the role of France in the Revolution.” It was the French fleet that sealed the deal at Yorktown.

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