NOOSA – Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape has been forced to state publicly that at no point has his government agreed to Bougainville independence.
Marape has attacked the PNG Post-Courier’s reporting of his Wabag meeting with Bougainville president Ishmael Toroama, stating that “in no part [of our joint statement] is Independence mentioned."
Marape said the Post-Courier had printed a misleading front page headline on Wednesday when it ran with, ‘It’s 2027! PNG and ABG agree to independence’.
"If the Post-Courier reporter had gone through the joint statement - read by chairman of the forum, UN representative Dirk Wagener, in front of everyone and signed soon after by the President and I - [it would be clear that] in no part is Independence mentioned," Marape said.
"The 2027 date is the proposed date by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).
“The PNG government has accepted the date as a tentative one, but at no point did we agree to Independence," he said.
But what James Marape posed as a problem for the Post-Courier was in truth a bigger problem for James Marape.
His distaste for the newspaper’s headline was not matched by Toroama’s direct words on the question of independence.
And he had chastised Marape and his advisers for shunning the ‘I’ word in their communications.
“The reluctance in using the word ‘independence’ by the PNG side was a denial of historical facts that have taken place over the last 32 years,” Toroama told Marape.
“It is against the spirit of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, and the amendments in the PNG constitution, to now bury the independence word at this late hour of our journey.”
Toroama said the Bougainville war of 1988-1998, in which 20,000 lives were lost, had been about independence.
He stressed that the independence option had been accepted in the 2019 Bougainville referendum by 98% of voters.
But Marape’s view is far more nuanced than this and these differences in language foreshadow difficult negotiations in the months and years ahead.
"I think it is important to highlight that ABG has successfully recognised this week that there exists no provision at all within the Constitution of PNG that allows for one part of the country to break away and form its own country, including Bougainville,” Marape said.
"The word 'Independence' was used as a referendum choice. It does not mean the PNG government has automatically agreed to that move.
"A political settlement can only happen for Bougainville when all parliamentary processes have been complied with, including a wide national consultation and Constitutional amendments reflecting the result of that consultation.”
Marape said that while it was important to pay heed to the plight of Bougainville, it was equally important to pay attention to the implications of secession for the rest of the country.
"This is no small matter. It involves the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea. It involves change to our borders. It involves the risk this places on our people because of the precedent this is setting.
"When PNG was formed in 1975, it was based on a wide national consultation.
“Our Constitution was drafted based on that consultation, including the securing of our borders.
“That same process will be deployed in the matter of Bougainville."
Somewhere between the prime minister’s hesitancy and the president’s haste, the Post-Courier got caught in the crossfire.
There’s going to be a lot more of that before this thorniest of issues for PNG is resolved.