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What should we do with Bougainville?

Ketan - ANU Observers in Bougainville
The ANU-UPNG Bougainville referendum observer team in Central Bougainville, November 2019


PORT MORESBY - In November 2019, the voters of Bougainville turned out and voted overwhelmingly for independence at a referendum expressly giving them the opportunity to have a say on their political future of their island.

I was in Bougainville for the referendum as a member of the Australian National University’s accredited international and domestic observer team.

We concluded officially that the referendum was peaceful and orderly, which was true.

But what most observers missed was the subtle intimidation in the form of the presence at polling stations of veterans of the former Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

The underlying implications of this was overlooked by the international observer missions.

Then, in 2020, a hardliner was elected president of Bougainville; another strong indication that Bougainville voters wanted to break away from Papua New Guinea.

Outgoing president John Momis claimed there was intimidation and hijacking of the will of voters during this election.

This time however, rather curiously, there were no international or domestic observers on hand.

Constitutional independence for Bougainville means that Papua New Guinea would become a new, somewhat smaller nation-state, losing part of its territory including a big slice of its exclusive economic zone.

The only defined timeframe for the next stage of the independence process is president Ishmael Toroama’s firm intention to have everything settled by the end of 2027.

The final decision on independence or some other form of political arrangement will depend on further consultation between the PNG and Bougainville two governments and then a final determining vote in the Papua New Guinea parliament.

This is the point which will deliver far-reaching implications for both governments and for the people of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville.

"The message is clear - this long journey must end sooner rather than later," Toroama said last year, adding that Bougainville must become a country "no later than 2027".

A hasty decision might have serious consequences for PNG. Fast-tracked negotiations and a vote for Bougainville independence might send the wrong signal to other PNG provinces.

Conversely, protracted negotiations, taking many years and a delayed parliamentary vote, might frustrate Bougainvillean leaders and citizens.

Determining a realistic timeframe agreeable to both parties will go a long way in maintaining peace (and trust) between PNG and Bougainville, and civil order within Bougainville.

However, so far, that 2027 date has not been formally affirmed.

A second factor to consider is the question of whether or not Bougainville is ready for independence as a nation-state with all that it entails.

Among other matters, independence for Bougainville will require an adequate economic base, appropriate physical infrastructure, trained and skilled manpower resources and the establishment of strong public sector institutions.

Australian financial advisers have informed us that Bougainville currently has an internal revenue base of only K20 million.

To maintain itself as a viable nation-state, Bougainville, with a population of about 300,000 people, will require much more money than that to sustain itself domestically and to maintain its activities overseas.

PNG envoys tell me that even our country struggles to maintain its missions in Australia and elsewhere in the world.

Apart from political and economic considerations, I am reminded of a philosophical question Professor Ted Wolfers asked me almost 20 years ago: ‘Are Bougainvilleans more different from Papua New Guineans than Sepiks or Tolais or Engans?’

In other words, do Bougainvilleans constitute a unique ethnic group and, if so, what criteria should we use to distinguish this particular ethnic group from the rest of PNG?

The burden will be on PNG parliamentarians to determine how to appease Bougainvilleans without causing Papua New Guinea to disintegrate.

That said, I believe that parliamentarians should be given the freedom to vote according to their conscience rather than following party lines or bending to some other external pressure to vote in a particular way.

Any member of parliament who would sell his vote would be selling his country. This MP would be just as guilty as the one who grants resource development licenses in exchange for money.

I hope this will not happen when parliament sits at some stage to vote on the future of Bougainville.

Sentimentally, Papua New Guineans should appreciate the fact that at a crucial stage in the history of PNG, Bougainville – through its resources - carried the rest of PNG on its back.

The single copper, gold and silver mine provided enough money to sustain the whole country as it moved towards independence from Australia.

Today, of course, we have so many mines and oil and gas fields. But we probably could not support the country again like Bougainville did because much of the country’s wealth has been stolen by PNG’s leaders.

We would be much better off today had we protected our wealth from our crooks.

Is it perhaps now time to say thank you to Bougainville for its contributions to PNG? Or would an act of gratitude backfire on PNG in a nasty way?

For example, will the granting of independence to Bougainville open the floodgates for other provinces to break away from PNG?

Maybe we can identify some middle ground between where Bougainville is today, a province of limited autonomy, and Bougainville as an independent state.

There must be position of greater autonomy between those two jurisdictions.

And there are cases of countries existing in free association with each other – like the Cook Islands and New Zealand - or having considerable autonomy but maintaining representation elsewhere – like Palau and the USA.

But what we don’t know is whether the people of Bougainville will accept anything short of full Independence.

My personal opinion is that we should let the people of Bougainville form their own nation-state, with our blessings.

As discussed by PNG prime minister, James Marape, perhaps Bougainville could, be farewelled with a commitment of gift of K100-K200 million a year for the first five years.

To deter other provinces from following Bougainville’s example, we should ask Bougainvilleans to give up their PNG citizenship and leave PNG.

We would remove all Bougainvilleans from the PNG public service, statutory organisations, state security agencies and state-owned enterprises to enable them to go home to build their own country.

Finally, we would remove all provisions from the PNG Constitution that contain references to any special arrangements with provinces. All provinces, without exception, must be equal under the law.


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Chris Overland

Joe Ketan has neatly outlined what is usually described as a 'wicked' policy problem, meaning one for which there is no good solution.

It is abundantly clear that if Bougainville's demand for independence is not acceded to by the PNG parliament, then a unilateral declaration of independence will be declared by an angry and frustrated Autonomous Bougainville Government.

PNG has no capacity whatsoever to prevent this. Even to attempt to do so will drag it into a civil war that it lacks the resources to win, not to mention alienating a great many of its friends across the Pacific.

In such a scenario Bougainville could become yet another impoverished mini-state, of which the world already has an abundance.

Of course, if the PNG parliament approves independence for Bougainville then it may come under pressure to do so for other provinces who feel ignored or let down by Port Moresby's ruling elite.

The risk is that PNG might disintegrate into a collection of mostly landlocked mini-states, all of them incapable of lifting their populations out of poverty.

A fallback position might be the creation of Federation of Melanesian States, with a relatively weak national government having responsibility for foreign affairs, defence, customs and excise and, possibly, tax collection.

The tax revenues could be distributed through a version of the Australian Grants Commission, whereby 'horizontal fiscal equalisation' is used to ensure a relatively equitable distribution of resources across the states.

Whether PNG's politicians, almost all of them predominantly self-interested, are able to work through such complex issues is anyone's guess.

It is a policy conundrum that would challenge even the wisest amongst us let alone the collection of chancers and carpetbaggers that PNG politics typically produces.

Still, you never know, miracles do happen from time to time.

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