Getting PNG literature recognised as a nation building tool
My journey as a writer – Part II

B’ville referendum choice clear, but where does Australia stand?

BRA guerrillas
Never again, surely. In 1994, from a hilltop position, Bougainville Revolutionary Army guerrillas observe the Papua New Guinea Defence Force garrison at Koromira (Ben Bohane/Australian War Memorial)


NOOSA – Two apparently unconnected events in Bougainville and its neighbouring and culturally related Solomon Islands have highlighted to a looming Australian dilemma in Bougainville.

If the autonomous Papua New Guinean province votes for independence in an October referendum, a decision requiring approval from the PNG parliament, how will Australia respond?

Earlier this month, as the Bougainville and PNG governments announced they had further refined the referendum choices for Bougainville’s political future, the Australian government announced a $250 million aid program for Solomon Islands.

In addition, Australia said it will provide $3 million in loans to Solomon’s workers who want to come to Australia under labour schemes as well as funding a new building for its prime minister's office and foreign affairs ministry.

The ABC commented that this “swift redesign of parts of the aid program [signalled] Australia's determination to reinforce its influence in the Pacific as strategic competition intensifies and China continues to pour resources into the region.”

It is worth noting that Solomon Islands is one of a shrinking number of countries that recognises Taiwan and not China and that this has been the subject of heated debate within the Solomons.

The United States has made it clear it would like Australia to urge the Solomons to retain the status quo and keep China on the outer.

It is against this background that the Bougainville people will decide on 15 October whether they want greater autonomy within PNG or total independence from it.

And the Bougainville and PNG governments have now refined the two options that will be on the voting paper.

The first option will be for "a negotiated political settlement that provides for a form of autonomy with greater powers than those currently available under constitutional arrangements".

The second option offers political independence, defined as an "independent nation state with sovereign powers and laws, recognised under international law and by other sovereign states to be an independent state, separate from the State of Papua New Guinea".

Bougainville’s president John Momis, who has been suffering from an undisclosed illness, for the second time in recent months has just left PNG for medical treatment.

Just before his departure he met with new prime minister James Marape to decide how the chosen option would be implemented.

There was no clarification of this crucial matter, one in which Australia will have great interest and over which it may seek to exercise influence.

Clearly Australia would prefer a Bougainville which remains as part of PNG. Not only would this make regional affairs easier to manage but it would discourage further movements towards autonomy by other regions of PNG.

But if Bougainvilleans vote for independence, as seems likely, and if the PNG parliament endorses that decision – which to avoid armed conflict it probably would – Australia is left with the challenge of keeping an independent Bougainville within Australia’s arc of influence.

Dr Momis – who spent many years as PNG’s ambassador to China - would be a key figure in bringing stability to this disrupted environment.

But he is ill – and just how unwell we don’t know.

So not for the first time, Australia faces a dilemma in Bougainville.

Let’s hope it is able to handle it better than it did during the tragic Bougainville civil war of the 1990s, when a peace agreement was reached as a result of New Zealand, not Australian, diplomacy.

And to close the loop on my discussion, might it be possible that Australia is scenario planning for an independent Bougainville to link up with its neighbouring Solomon Islands?


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Philip Fitzpatrick

An independent Bougainville linking up with the ethnically similar Solomon Islands seems like a logical thing to do but Australia must not be seen to be encouraging such an association.

Kowtowing to the big boys in the geopolitical game in the Pacific would also not be a good look for either Bougainville or the Solomons.

Whether such a link up is practical is another matter.

Papua and West Papua should logically be linked up with PNG but we all know where that scenario would lead.

Paul Oates

Your last sentence Keith, could well become prophetic as many have now suggested this is a logical conclusion. Bougainville is and has always been part of the Solomon Islands. It was just split off though colonial map makers in the 19th Century.

The essence of the potential dilemma for the political leaders of both Bougainville and the Solomons is whether they could be crunched back together without too much dyspepsia.

Political reality being what it is, once some leaders have political power, human history says it very hard to give some or all of it up.

From an outsiders point of view, those people living in the southern Bougainville have always had an a free association with their friends in the North Solomons. But then, so do the people in PNG's Western Provence have with Australia's Torres Straight people.

The viability of an independent Bougainville is the real question that could swing the outcome. The question might come down to: Mine or not to mine copper and gold?

Would Bougainville as a separate nation be more likely to reopen Panguna to renew an income stream or would Bougainville as part of the Solomons be pressured to mine Panguna for income for a cash strapped Solomons?

Husat i save? Speaking of which, there are subtle differences between PNG Tok Pisin and the Solomon's Pisin. Clearly any possible integration might lead to some interesting discussions in the future.....

The living standards of both may also play a part in any decision. Then there's the tension between the Malaita people and the people of Guadalcanal. Do Bougainvilleans want to become involved with that problem?

It could come down to having two bob each way. A free association once Bougainville splits off from PNG.

Jimmy Awagl

I have lost my email contacts for the PNG Writers so can you help me by forwarding your email to this new email address...

Help me to have your email address and also for Keith and Phil as well.

I have provided Jimmy with Phil and my emails - KJ

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