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Pressure for Bougainville independence grows

| The Lowy Interpreter | Edited extracts

CANBERRA - The second constitutionally-mandated post-referendum consultation between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville leaders to discuss independence for Bougainville is planned for later this month.

At the first consultation meeting in May, Bougainville president Ishmael Toroama had stated a goal of independence and full United Nations membership by the end of 2025.

Along with significant initiatives taken by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) since last year’s presidential election, this goals signals a degree of commitment to independence that is not yet fully understood outside Bougainville.

The late 2019 referendum on Bougainville independence showed a 97.7% vote for independence based on an 87% turnout of enrolled voters and based on an accurate roll.

The referendum was adjudged “credible, free and fair” and “transparent and inclusive” by multiple independent international and national observers.

Unlike other conflicts resolved by referendums on independence (notably South Sudan and New Caledonia), the Bougainville referendum outcome is not binding on PNG.

Both the Bougainville Peace Agreement and the PNG Constitution leave the outcome to be dealt with by three possible processes: PNG and ABG consultation; tabling the referendum results in the PNG parliament for ‘ratification’; and any differences being resolved by the dispute resolution procedure provided for in the PNG Constitution.

The first consultation was held almost 18 months after the referendum, much to the frustration of many Bougainvilleans.

Reasons for delay in the first half of 2020 included ABG constitutional amendment processes and a PNG supreme court challenge, both unsuccessful, directed to giving then sitting ABG president John Momis a third term in office.

Subsequently Covid-19, ABG general elections and a late-2020 PNG political crisis were factors. In addition, there was a lack of PNG focus and preparedness.

During the two day May consultation, Toroama tabled a short timeline of the main steps towards achieving independence in 2025.

It included that, at the end of 2022, self-government would be achieved for Bougainville.

This would involve establishing a constituent assembly which by the end of 2024 would present “feedback on the draft Independent Bougainville Constitution”.

PNG’s prime minister James Marape did not reject Bougainville’s independence demand outright.

He expressed concern, however, that Bougainville independence could provide a precedent for other parts of PNG to secede leading to the dissolution of PNG.

Marape also expressed unease about Bougainville’s capacity to manage independence.

Meanwhile, Toroama has challenged all Bougainville public service departments to become ‘independence-ready’, a significant and multi-faceted ABG initiative illustrating the extent and depth of commitment to the goal of early independence.

The program was launched by a late 2020 resolution of the ABG House of Representatives inspired by a highly successful ‘referendum-ready’ program which made significant contributions to local-level referendum-awareness.

The independence-ready program has a similar constituency-based focus and involves issues of economic development and generating the sustainable government revenue needed to support independence.

The ABG accepts the conclusions of research undertaken for the PNG National Research Institute since 2018 by economist Satish Chand and others indicating that an independent Bougainville is likely to need a budget two to three times its current budget.

The 2020 ABG budget was about K440 million (K151 million recurrent and K242 million capital expenditure).

Internal revenue sources in 2020 (some under PNG control but nevertheless derived locally, such as goods and service tax and tuna licence revenues) were estimated at K30 million, about 16% of the total budget.

The independence-ready program responds to the internal revenue deficit through awareness efforts encouraging all Bougainvilleans, including resource owners, to engage in income-earning activities (wage employment, cash crop production, or establishing businesses) with a view to contributing to economic growth, and also encouraging people to be tax payers, contributing to the proposed independent government’s revenue base.

Bougainville is also exploring what it should receive from PNG’s current share of revenue from a regionally administered Pacific tuna fishing licence scheme for fishing in Bougainville-associated waters, which Chand estimates could range from K30 million to K130 million a year.

Toroama also talks of proposed new ABG supported business ventures, part funded by the ABG (US$19 million) and investors (US$100 million), creating 2,000 new jobs.

Recognising the difficulties likely to be involved in gaining international community recognition as a new state and gain UN membership, the ABG cabinet recently established a Ministerial Committee on International Relations that will be ‘cultivating international support’ for independence.

It is clearly going to be difficult for PNG to persuade the Bougainville leaders to accept anything short of full independence.

Neighbouring countries need to be aware of the direction that the consultations are taking and the difficulties likely to arise in reaching compromises in the initial consultation process, and perhaps beyond.


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