In ten days, the people of Bougainville will start voting in a referendum on whether to break away from Papua New Guinea and create a new state. A decisive majority is expected to vote for independence. The long-awaited referendum marks the start of a new era for the province, following Australian colonial rule for most of last century and the civil war (from 1988 to 1998) that left between 10,000 and 20,000 people dead. Last Wednesday, Mauricio Claudio, an American who is the chief electoral official, said the two-week voting period is likely to be peaceful, credible and “joyous”. “The people of Bougainville have waited for this moment for decades,” he said.
But challenges will arise in the aftermath of the referendum. According to a peace deal signed in 2001, the result of the vote will not be binding but will be followed by negotiations between the Port Moresby and Bougainville governments. This process was proposed by former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, in December 2000, to end a deadlock in talks between PNG and Bougainville leaders.
In a recent book on the referendum, Anthony Regan, an Australian National University researcher and former adviser to Bougainville parties, noted that Downer gave both sides “separate assurances” to win support for the referendum. To the Bougainvilleans, Downer insisted that a pro-independence vote – like the one in Timor-Leste – would be backed by the international community and lead to statehood. To Port Moresby, he said that the fate of Bougainville would ultimately depend on PNG’s parliament – a claim that persuaded PNG’s leaders that they could reject a vote for independence and retain Australia’s support.
Now, as the referendum finally arrives, Canberra will have to abandon this evasive diplomacy. Instead, it should endorse Bougainville’s peaceful and seemingly inevitable move towards independence. Australia is well positioned to use its close ties with PNG to encourage swift and equitable post-referendum talks. During the civil war between the PNG military and Bougainville separatists, Australia was perceived by Bougainvilleans as being on PNG’s side, particularly as Canberra continued to support its military. But Australia has since conducted peacekeeping operations and provided substantial aid to the region, which has improved its reputation there.
As journalist Ben Bohane wrote in the most recent issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, Australia has largely avoided commenting on the prospect of independence – which has prompted many Bougainvilleans to assume it supports PNG. Bohane, who covered the civil war and will be in Bougainville for the referendum, said Australia should now help to resolve the island’s status and must not be regarded as blocking independence. “Australia, along with New Zealand, should act as ‘honest brokers’ and help to nudge all sides towards a final settlement, rather than allow long-running resentments to fester, which could result in more distant powers such as China increasing their involvement,” he wrote.
One of the main challenges facing the province involves the reopening of the controversial Panguna mine, which has one of the world’s biggest copper deposits. In the 1960s and 1970s, Australia – then the colonial power – allowed the development of Panguna. It was this mine, originally operated by a forerunner of Rio Tinto, that sparked the tensions between local landowners and the PNG military that led to the civil war. The mine was closed in 1989 but in recent years, various Australian entities have been eyeing its reopening. However, the initial concerns of local landowners, such as over environmental degradation and financial exploitation, still remain.
The PNG government’s attitude towards independence is unclear, but there are signs that it is ready to embrace a new collaborative future with Bougainville. Last Wednesday, a reconciliation ceremony was held in PNG between former fighters from the PNG military and from Bougainville. Both sides apologised, and accepted each other’s apologies – they shook hands, broke bows and arrows, and together planted a coconut tree. PNG’s former military commander, Major General Jerry Singirok, described the war as the worst event in his country’s history, adding that he blamed it on his government and on foreign entities. Bougainville’s fate, he said, should be determined by Bougainvilleans. “It was not my choice to go to Bougainville,” he said. “I was only an instrument of a state institution.”