There is a growing concern in Bougainville that Papua New Guinea (PNG) is hesitating about granting the autonomous region independence.
With the 2019 referendum resulting in an overwhelming call for separation from Port Moresby, it is now up to the PNG parliament to ratify the decision and make it official.
The president of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), Ishmael Toroama, along with his government, wants to delay the next meeting of the Joint Supervisory Body with the PNG government. Ostensibly, the ABG argues that Port Moresby is taking too long to draw up critical constitutional changes.
PNG Minister for Bougainville Affairs Manasseh Makiba expressed disagreement with this delay, calling it “counterproductive.”
He argued that the Joint Supervisory Body has a mandate far beyond the matter of the Bougainville referendum: “The Bougainville Peace Agreement specifically states that the result of the referendum is not binding, and the National Parliament has the final decision-making authority.”
The PNG government is pushing to have the people of PNG vote on the independence of Bougainville in a nationwide consultation, but this has has angered some in the AGB leadership.
Tess Newton Cain, an associate professor at Griffith University, observed that there is “no doubt” that Toroama is frustrated by the delays.
“The delivery of Independence for Bougainville is something he is very heavily invested in both politically and personally,” she said.
The key focus for the ABG is achieving independence by 2027 – at the latest. Currently, the region has a degree of autonomy from PNG, including its own governing constitution, courts, legislative ability, and public service.
ABG Minister Ezekiel Masatt, in a statement calling for the deferral of the Joint Supervisory Body meeting, said that there is “no legal basis for such a proposed nationwide consultation.”
The AGB’s position is that the ratification of the outcome of the consultation on independence is a matter for the PNG parliament, not the citizens of PNG.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape has been more conciliatory than some of his ministers, highlighting that his government will work within the spirit of the agreement.
“We’ve established a pathway that we should work towards… I just want to assure Bougainville that it doesn’t matter who sits in this chair in 3 months’ time, the work for Bougainville has been set and the work we have set will continue on,” he said late last month.
The Bougainville referendum delivered the clearest of mandates, with over 97 percent of those voting in favor of independence.
Cain notes that this sentiment has been prevalent for a significant period, telling The Diplomat that, “Bougainville has wanted to be its own country from before Australia granted independence to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the 1970s.”
Nonetheless, fears around PNG reneging on the promise of unilateral independence continue to abound.
As Grant Wyeth highlighted in a recent article for The Diplomat Magazine, there is a variety of reasons for this. Economically, while the Panguna mine in Bougainville is dormant at present, its presence helped spark the civil war in the region. Experts estimate the mine “retains around $58 billion worth of copper and gold” Wyeth observed that there is perhaps a temptation from the PNG government to retain this significant stipend of resources for themselves, rather than handing it to what will soon be a neighboring nation.
Politically, the situation remains delicate. Giving up territory is not a nation’s preference and the instability in the area, ranging the Bougainville civil war to the current crisis in the Solomon Islands and its uneasy détente with China and Australia, makes any independence movement in the Melanesian region prone to angst.
In PNG, there is a concern amongst some members of the political class that Bougainville is not in an economically stable enough position for independence.
The secretary of the PNG prime minister’s department, Ivan Pomaleu, cautioned against unilateral independence, highlighting that Bougainville doesn’t have all the institutions, nor the economy that facilitate a successful independent nation.
“Seventeen years since the creation of the autonomous government, just a fraction of the powers and functions available to the Autonomous Bougainville Government have been drawn down,” he said.
A report by economist Satish Chand points to the likelihood that Bougainville would struggle to financially support itself when independent, ostensibly opening the country up to the possibility of having to survive on foreign aid.
Bougainville’s budget for 2020 was 440 million kina ($124.1 million) of which nearly 85 percent was paid for by the PNG government. Even with the increased fishery revenue coming with more oceanic territory, Chand argues that PNG would still have to supply half of Bougainville’s budget.
He concludes that “Political independence isn’t worth much if you don’t have the economic independence.”
Cain disagreed, observing that in “a significant proportion of the Bougainville community there is a sense that it is better to be ‘poor but free’ rather than ‘poor and not free.’”
The agreed roadmap toward independence is well established, with a stipulation being that the result of the referendum, and the outcomes of the joint consultation, must be tabled in parliament before the end of 2023.
Once parliament votes on this, there will be an implementation of the agreed result (which may include independence,) no later than 2027 and not before 2025.
PNG could technically refuse to ratify the referendum results in parliament, which would force Bougainville to declare unilateral independence. Such a move has a variety of contentious outcomes, including the possibility of not receiving international assistance from groups such as the IMF.
There is also a bigger political football in play: Bougainville could be drawn closer to China via its financial assistance, which would inevitably draw the ire from Australia and the United States.
Cain maintains that despite those within the PNG parliament who do not want to see Bougainville secede, it is “too simplistic” to say “PNG does not want to let Bougainville go.”
“There are plenty of people within PNG who are very supportive of Bougainville becoming independent,” she said.
What is certain is that the independence movement in Bougainville still has a long way to go before it becomes the world newest independent nation.