A joint supervisory body meeting between representatives of the government of Papua New Guinea (P.N.G.) and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (A.B.G.) will be held on 6th March to discuss the outcomes of an independence referendum that was held in Bougainville from 23rd November to 7th December last year. Those present at the meeting must finalize a post-referendum transition task force after it returned overwhelming support for independence, with 97.7% of Bougainvilleans voting in favour of self-government. Once the taskforce has been finalized, the P.N.G. government must formally accept and ratify the results of the referendum for Bougainvilleans to continue on a path to independence.
Recent comments made by the P.N.G. Prime Minister, James Marape, suggest economic independence for Bougainville may be sought by the P.N.G. government in the interim, rather than complete political independence. As reported by RNZ, Mr. Marape spoke with hesitance regarding the issue during a recent trip to New Zealand: “For us as a government, we’re committed to assisting Bougainvilleans building their enabling infrastructure, making some investments in areas like agriculture, fisheries and forestry…What’s the use in talking about independence or autonomy when you are not economically strong?”
Australia holds many historical links to both P.N.G. and Bougainville. Leaders from each region gather annually for the Australia-Papua New Guinea Ministerial Forum. An excerpt taken from the 27th Papua New Guinea-Australia Ministerial Forum Joint Communiqué suggests the Australian government is taking a stance of non-intervention in P.N.G.’s domestic affairs, endorsing the results of the referendum, however alluding to supporting whatever the P.N.G. government decides to do: “Ministers noted Australia had accepted Papua New Guinea’s invitation to send an observation mission and to participate in the Regional Police Support Mission… Ministers acknowledged Australia’s current support for the Post-Referendum Ministerial Taskforce and welcomed Australia’s offer to expand this support in line with Papua New Guinea’s priorities.”
P.N.G. achieved independence from Australia on 16th September 1975. During the Bougainville Civil War, lasting from 1989-1998, the Australian government invested over $200 million into the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. A sum of these funds was channelled into the training of P.N.G. soldiers in Port Moresby, new equipment, training, and consultancy to the P.N.G. government.
In 2001 Australia shifted their attitude towards Bougainville, acting as a signatory witness to the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement, which sought to find lasting peace and political settlement for the people of Bougainville. Under a ‘weapons disposal’ pillar included within the agreement, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF) and Me’ekamui groups were required to disarm. In exchange for disarmament, Bougainvilleans were promised the establishment of an Autonomous Bougainville Government and the right to a constitutionally guaranteed referendum to be held 15 years after the establishment of the government. As stated on the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s website, in a summary of the peace agreement, “When conditions are right, independence must be an option and the outcome is subject to the final decision-making authority of the National Parliament.”
There are concerns P.N.G. will refuse to ratify the vote for independence. These concerns are largely based off of tensions over mining rights as Bougainville is richly endowed with mineral resources, as well as the risk a successful campaign for Bougainville could influence other provinces within P.N.G. to seek independence. However, refusal to award independence for Bougainville after significantly convincing referendum results risks the reignition of violence witnessed in the 1989-1998 civil war, which claimed in between an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 lives. As a signatory to the Peace Agreement, Australia holds an obligation to maintaining peace in the region. They committed to achieving peace for both P.N.G. and Bougainville in 2001; they cannot withdraw from this commitment now.
Whilst not interfering in P.N.G.’s domestic politics, nor rushing the process, Australia can use their historical position as a signatory to the peace agreement in order to prevent political violence. This will likely mean ensuring serious steps are put in place by the P.N.G. government to work towards independence for Bougainville. The next peaceful and thus logical step for the P.N.G. government is to implement a timeline for discussions that will allow both it and the A.B.G. government to resolve key financial, security, immigration, legal and territorial issues that will arise from the prospect of independence for Bougainville. Within this timeline must be a commitment to officially ratify the results of the referendum that includes a set and reasonable deadline for this ratification.
A key question that must also be answered is who will potentially lead Bougainville to independence as president. The incumbent president, John Momis, is unable to fulfill this duty due to reaching the maximum constitutional term limit allowed under the Bougainville constitution. Consequently, elections for the next Bougainville president are expected to be held mid-year. The P.N.G. government must assure this election goes ahead without any violence. Australia must also assist in this role.