On 23 November this year, Bougainvilleans will vote in a referendum to decide whether they wish to stay part of Papua New Guinea or become an independent nation. It is perhaps the high point of a twenty-year peace process that in turn followed a gruelling, ten-year battle for independence waged between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and PNG Defence Force.
THE REFERENDUM IS NOT THE FINAL STEP—the vote must be ratified by the PNG Parliament and is subject to a final agreement between PNG and the Autonomous Government Bougainville, set up under the peace process. However, Bougainvilleans have long held a sense of separate identity from the rest of PNG, and it appears this island group of 300,000 people is heading for nationhood, with a clear majority expected to vote in favour of independence.
Australia has a vested interest in seeing this long-running issue resolved peacefully. Bougainville was part of Australian-administered PNG from 1915 until PNG’s independence in 1975. Australia’s relations with the territory have a long and complicated history ranging across the colonial era, two world wars, the 1988–98 Bougainville conflict, and subsequent peacekeeping missions. Since the Bougainville war, Canberra invested heavily in various peacekeeping operations, at considerable cost to the Australian taxpayer. The Bougainville peace process has been rightly lauded as a successful model, and Australia can be proud of its record, whatever the criticisms of its role in the war.
The November referendum is in keeping with a process laid out in the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed by virtually all parties in 2001, as a roadmap for Bougainville’s future status. Canberra has since signalled that it will be guided by the terms of the peace agreement and any ‘negotiated outcome’ under that arrangement.
Bougainville has significant natural resources. It has copper, gold, and silver reserves valued at more than $58 billion, rich fishing grounds, and a history of agricultural production, including large cocoa plantations. These resources—and good management of them—will be crucial if Bougainville is to become a viable independent nation. Its challenge now is to educate and mobilise a ‘lost generation’ of younger people disenfranchised by the war, while forging a unified people and bringing integrity to its political system.
It faces many challenges ahead, not least of which is finding consensus on mining issues. Australia’s challenge is to allow the peace process to unfold, signal its neutrality, and engage more with all parties to the process. Australia’s interest is in seeing this long-running issue resolved peacefully.
John Momis, Bougainville President, said in his address to the PNG Parliament in September:
While the Bougainville Peace Agreement is held in high regard by students and practitioners of peace processes around the world, the process will not be complete until the negotiations about the referendum outcome have been completed and implemented. Both governments must be ready to continue their cooperation, and work to avoid any renewal of conflict.
The two governments need to work together. They have the privilege of together attempting to develop something new that will contribute to continued peace. Just as the peace agreement was a remarkably successful set of arrangements, we now have the opportunity to again develop something new, something extraordinary.
Based on article written by Ben Bohane from Lowy Institute The Interpreter website—https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/bougainville-nation-waiting; photo and quote by John Momis from Keith Jackson and Friends website—https://www.pngattitude.com/2019/09/the-making-of-bougainvilles-referendum-part-3-the-future.html