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Marles' words anger Bougainville president

| East Asia Forum

CANBERRA - The relationship between Australia and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is in repair mode following remarks by Australia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister Richard Marles.

Marles visited Papua New Guinea in October for negotiations over an Australia–PNG defence treaty.

The rift originated from a press conference with PNG prime minister James Marape and Marles when Marles responded to a question on Australia’s position on Bougainville’s pending bid to obtain independence from PNG.

Marles stated that Australia’s “role is to support the prime minister and the government of Papua New Guinea in the decisions that it makes in respect of the future of Bougainville, and we stand ready to do that”.

This statement was headlined in PNG’s media as ‘Australia backs PNG on Bougainville’.

Bougainville’s president Ishmael Toroama responded to the statement, saying it indicated support for PNG and compromised Australia’s neutrality on the issue.

Toroama cited Australia’s actions in the civil war between Bougainville and PNG as evidence of Australia’s support for PNG, saying that “it was the Australian government who trained and armed the Papua New Guinea Defence Force to wage war on the citizens of Bougainville and it was they who supplied gunships to wreak havoc and mayhem on Bougainville”.

These responses framed Australia as intending to “destabilise Bougainville’s right to self-determination”.

Bougainville, a province of PNG, engaged in a civil war with the PNG Defence Force from 1988 to 1998 that resulted in over 20,000 deaths and marked the most violent conflict in the Pacific region since World War II.

The Bougainville Peace Agreement that was signed in 2001 provided for a referendum to be conducted in Bougainville on the question of Independence.

That referendum took place in 2019 with an outcome of 97.7% in support of Bougainville’s Independence.

The Peace Agreement also states that ’the outcome of the referendum will be subject to ratification [final decision making authority] of the national parliament’, which gives the PNG parliament the ultimate power in deciding on Bougainville’s future irrespective of the referendum outcome.

Bougainville leaders are navigating the national political environment to ensure that there is sufficient political support in the PNG parliament for Bougainville’s independence, consistent with the referendum outcome.

While there is significant support in some quarters of PNG society for Bougainville’s independence, there is opposition among nationalists who argue that Bougainville should be given a special self-governing status, short of full independence.

Adding to this division is the position of prime minister Marape that there should be a nationwide consultation before a parliamentary decision — a position that the Bougainville government has strongly disapproved of.

Marles’ statement was perceived through this dynamic and uncertain political environment, in which the actions of external actors are closely scrutinised to ensure that there is no direct or tacit interference or influence in the ongoing negotiations.

Marles has attempted to clarify his statement by asserting that Australia’s position remains unchanged in its support for the “political settlement that will ultimately be reached by all parties to that agreement”.

But Toroama maintained that Marles’ press statement was a “pre-emptive act … a direct intervention by the Australian government on the internal affairs of Papua New Guinea” and that “it is an action that will directly influence the national government”.

These statements may unravel years of cautious diplomacy and sensitivity on Australia’s part in handling the Bougainville affair.

It raises the risk of Australia being accused of influencing a negative decision by the PNG parliament on the question of Bougainville’s independence — a prospect Australia needs to urgently work to avoid as it could be adverse to its interests.

A significant assertion in Toroama’s claim is that “Australia has bargained their neutrality in the Bougainville peace process for the sake of geopolitical manoeuvring and maintaining control of the Pacific region from their perceived threat of Chinese influence in the region”.

The official record of the press conference in question does not discuss China or regional security. But it appeared to the Bougainville government that those were impetuses to Australia’s intentions for a defence treaty with PNG and that it stands to overshadow Bougainville’s aspirations.

The birth of a new nation in the Pacific would be a scene of geostrategic contest — a new theatre for actors to influence state affairs, including Australia and China.

Australia is not well established in Bougainville due to lingering resentment over its role in the civil war and an independent Bougainville could be a strategic blind spot for Australia.

The assertions are indicative of the reality Australia increasingly faces in the Pacific region, where its actions are open to suspicion of serving underlying geostrategic interests.

As Australia and its allies intensify anti-China investments in rhetoric and military infrastructure in the region, the suspicions are likely to become more widespread.

It could be argued that Marles’ public statement alone does not suggest that Australia is interfering in Bougainville–PNG affairs.

However, there are significant strategic and political implications that are likely to arise from an outcome on Bougainville’s independence that Australia would be concerned about.

Whether those concerns have compelled some ‘interferences’ against either party is difficult to establish, at least from Australia’s public actions.

Dr Bal Kama is Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University


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Philip Fitzpatrick

If a province in Papua New Guinea thinks it is getting a raw deal from the central government there is a natural inclination to think about seceding.

This is particularly so if the province has something like the Panguna mine that can be re-established and potentially provide an economic base for its independence.

Getting support from one of the superpowers, like China, to re-open the mine is an obvious train of thought.

I'm not sure this is what is motivating the pro-independence people in Bougainville however.

Bougainvilleans were talking about independence from PNG long before independence in 1975 and the development of the Panguna mine.

Back then the motivating factor was their perceived recognition of ethnic and racial difference with the rest of PNG.

They didn't think they had anything in common with PNG's majority "redskins". With their black skins they knew they had more in common with the Solomon Islands.

That they were part of PNG was the result of an arbitary colonial division of territory. That arbitary decision saw the Germans and British divide the Solomons in two. Australia simply inherited that division.

If you wanted to be entirely logical the best thing that could happen to Bougainville would be re-unification with the Solomon Islands.

From the Solomon Island's point of view it would be not only a boost to their territorial boundaries but an addition to their economic clout.

It would also unite an ethnically and racially similar group of people as a bigger self-contained nation.

That larger nation would be a lot more viable with a much higher chance of survival in this crazy world that it inhabits.

Kindin Ongugo

The sole reason why certain people representing small islands are pushing to break away from PNG is just another get-rich scheme.

They are probably salivating to do business deals with Beijing directly rather than through Port Moresby.

Independence would do nothing to improve the lives of ordinary islanders.

For them they would be more isolated from the rest of the world and may be economically poorer.

Chris Overland

Poor Richard Marles. The statement attributed to him is pretty much all he could say.

Since when can an Australian government blithely announce that it supports what is, technically speaking, a demand for unilateral independence made by one region of an internationally recognised sovereign nation?

Even it was willing to do so it would receive precisely zero support within the region, especially from governments like those of Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines which are already confronted with actual or incipient separatist movements within their own countries.

The association between the Australian military and what is now the PNGDF goes back to World War II and, obviously, included the period of the civil war.

However, so far as I am aware, Australia's military played very little if any part in the planning or implementation of any PNGDF operations within Bougainville.

This would have made no sense at all to the military or political leadership of that time, and it does not make any sense now.

If, as may well occur, Bougainville unilaterally secedes from PNG in 2027, I would be very confident that neither the Australian, New Zealand, US nor any other Pacific government would be willing to support military action against it.

An independent Bougainville will necessarily be an impoverished mini state. It lacks the economic basis to be much more than a subsistence-based economy, although there may be wealth creation opportunities around mining and tourism.

The PNG government is highly unlikely to agree to transfer wealth to an independent Bougainville if for no other reason than to serve as a warning to others within PNG who may harbour secessionist ideas.

Quite what will happen is an open question. The world's major powers might be willing to direct resources to Bougainville in return for such things as the right to build naval and/or air force facilities on the island.

The USA has a well-established track record for doing this and China might wish to do so as well.

I mention these things not because I think they will necessarily occur but to illustrate just how fraught this issue has become well beyond the borders of PNG.

It is, as I have written before, a 'wicked problem' for which there is not an obviously 'right' answer.

If I was asked to nominate a plausible solution to the dilemma now confronting PNG, I think I would suggest that it adopt a new, 'federalised' constitutional structure similar to that of the USA, Australia or Canada, in which a great deal of autonomy was conferred upon newly created state or provincial governments.

This might be enough to convince Bougainville to remain a part of the 'United States of Melanesia' rather than attempt to go its own way.

Of course, this is a huge change to contemplate but it is not undoable if there is the will to embrace quite radical constitutional reform. Also, I have little doubt that it would be very tricky to manage, requiring a great deal of the supposedly inbuilt Melanesian capacity for negotiation, compromise and consensus building.

In some ways this concept would reflect a return to the pre-colonial past, in which Papua New Guineans lived within loosely understood tribal boundaries, subject to their own (but mostly very similar) rules about the production and distribution of resources.

A big risk with a federal system, apart from disputes about resource distribution, would include 'atomisation' whereby so many tiny 'statelets' were created that none were viable entities in their own right.

It seems to me that if I can imagine such a future for PNG surely it will have dawned on people within DFAT or PNG itself that such a drastic change may be the price of maintaining national cohesion in the face of secessionist pressures in other provinces as well.

Determining the fate of Bougainville will become a litmus test for the future of PNG as a whole, hence Richard Marles very cautious statement about supporting the PNG government to work through the process.

Lindsay F Bond

Marles may need more help than Bougainville.

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