NOOSA – Bougainville president Ishmael Toroama’s declaration that the autonomous province will gain political independence from Papua New Guinea in June 2025 has left PNG prime minister James Marape with a delicate issue to negotiate.
The complexity of the challenge Marape faces became clear in two statements he made following the conclusion of the Kokopo consultations, during which Toroama had made his shock announcement that he had a firm date for Bougainville independence.
Marape responded with two major statements that highlighted his government’s dilemma and which were replete with a lot of mixed messaging and a softly cushioned but clear warning.
Marape’s words to “assure President Toroama and the people of Bougainville that the overwhelming results of the referendum will not be diluted and my government will respect this outcome” were sweet but offset with warnings.
These were scattered through the statements and intent on reminding Toroama that Bougainville’s independence is a matter finally in the hands of the PNG parliament.
“Bougainville’s self-determination aspiration is no longer an isolated issue but has become an issue of national interest that concerns the whole of Papua New Guinea,” Marape said.
“It is now about Bougainville, the national government and the rest of Papua New Guinea. The rest of Papua New Guinea must be on board when the final vote is taken in parliament.
“This discussion goes toward testing the total sovereignty of our nationhood.”
The central proposition amidst Marape’s array of messages was that Bougainville’s hopes to become independent would have serious repercussions on PNG that could create instability in other resource rich provinces which themselves might seek to break away.
A softening declension that Bougainville is a special case owing to the civil war and calls for independence that predated PNG independence was offset by Marape’s clearest and toughest statement of his position.
“My responsibility is to preserve the union of the country,” he said.
Seeking to create more room for manoeuvre, Marape also reassured Toroama that, if the PNG parliament did not ratify the referendum result in which 98% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence, there would be more consultations and another chance to put an independence motion to the PNG parliament.
Marape was tip toeing through the tulips.
But set against the strong position and the firm date for independence laid down by Toroama, it’s going to take smart statesmanship indeed to keep Bougainville “within the union” and, in Marape’s words, have “both sides of the Bismarck Sea [find] a common goal and a consensus.”