Papua New Guinea (PNG) is likely to take a hard line on complete independence for Bougainville, despite the breakaway island province’s recent overwhelming vote to establish its own nation.
How the situation is handled will have major implications for regional stability, particularly as China aims to pull Bougainville as a new independent nation into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
PNG Prime Minister James Marape has accepted the referendum result, announced on Wednesday, but committed his government only to developing “a road map that leads to a lasting peace settlement” in consultation with Bougainville authorities.
“I want to assure the people of Bougainville and all Papua New Guineans that the government has heard your voice,” said Marape, who promised to outline his “vision” for the process at talks in Bougainville on Friday.
More than 97% of the island’s voters backed a total split with PNG in the two-week referendum, but government ministers in Port Moresby have made it clear they are worried about copycat secession movements in other outlying areas.
At last three other restive PNG provinces are also seeking independence.
Like Bougainville, East New Britain and New Ireland have a closer cultural affinity to the Solomons than to Papua New Guinea, while Enga in the Western Highlands has always had a physical and political remoteness from Port Moresby.
“We don’t want any part of Papua New Guinea to break away,” Minister for Bougainville Sir Puka Temu said before the vote. “We don’t want to set a precedent for the other 21 provinces. That will be our firm position.”
The referendum was part of a process of consultation promised by PNG in a 2001 agreement that ended a decade-long civil war believed to have killed as many as 20,000.
The war was fought between secessionists in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, as well as between the BRA and other armed groups. Later, PNG hired a British-based private security company to direct its operations.
Bougainville gained a limited form of autonomy through the consultation, but PNG continues to control its economic and foreign affairs. Secessionists want complete self-determination for the island.
Crucially, PNG’s parliament has the final say on whether to accept the referendum result, which is not legally binding. There is speculation that it might push for a compromise framework founded on more self-government for the island.
Partial independence, however, is unlikely to satisfy Bougainvilleans: only 2% of the 181,067 voters supported the second referendum option of “greater autonomy.”
Port Moresby could simply delay the reform process indefinitely if it finds the outcome as unpalatable existential threat. Likely to start in early 2020, the talks do not have any set schedule and it may take years before parliament actually votes on the result.
Patrick Nisira, chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission’s security committee, said there was a danger islanders could lose patience with any such delay.
“That’s the area that we are most concerned about,” Nisira told Radio New Zealand. “Frustration might build up with the national government and the ABG (Autonomous Bougainville Government) if they do not actually move quickly to facilitate for the result to be ratified in parliament.”
There is little support for a resumption of the civil war, but dissidents in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army who sparked the 1989 uprising over the operation of the Australian-owned Panguna copper mine have said they will only be satisfied with full independence.
Conflict broke out at the mine over the use of imported labor from mainland PNG, environmental damage and complaints by landowners that they had not received the profits they were promised.
It became a symbol of Bougainville’s continued reliance upon PNG and the removal of income from the island. Many of the guerrillas are still armed, despite a weapons handover under the 2001 peace agreement.
“These people are out there watching,” Nisira warned. “And if we allow a gap in there, these people might come in and might actually convince people that the national government and the ABG are not genuine in what they’re doing. Once they do that, they confuse people, and that could possibly trigger renewed conflict on this island.”
Nisira said it was imperative that the two governments come up with “a clear plan, a way forward” to avoid confusion and potential unrest. With a low literacy rate and at least 19 indigenous languages in Bougainville, there is a constant danger of misunderstandings triggering new social tensions.
A political stalemate and prospects for renewed instability will unnerve Australia and New Zealand, particularly as they try to counter China’s spreading influence on the island, as well as in the nearby Solomon Islands.
Australia, PNG’s former colonial power, sent troops to quell the 1990s fighting and help negotiate a peace settlement, as did New Zealand, partly because they feared the conflict could spread to the mainland.
In November, former BRA general Sam Kauona revealed that Beijing had a master plan for Bougainville that included offers for construction of an airport, highway, bridges and other facilities.
“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” Kauona said when he unveiled the plan, describing Bougainville as a “treasure island” that needed foreign partners. He asked: “Where is Australia and the US and Japan?”
Among these treasures is the Panguna mine, recently valued at US$58 billion and which contributed about 45% more than 50% of PNG’s export earnings before its closure in 1989.
Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), Rio Tinto subsidiary that established the mine, has an exclusive exploration license and first right of refusal over the site, but the ABG has refused to extend that license and imposed a moratorium on all mining — even thought ABG is itself a part-owner of BCL.
BCL is pursuing legal action against the ABG for refusing to extend its license. PNG wants to keep control of the cash cow, but it would obviously be the centerpiece of an independent Bougainville’s economy.
Deputy Bougainville ABG leader Raymond Masono said recently he would push for a new mining law that would nationalize the island’s resources and hand control of Panguna to his government.
The ABG is reported to be negotiating a deal with an Australian firm to jointly operate the mine, but this would be contingent upon the independence process.
There are outstanding legal issues to be settled with operator Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, before any foreign consortium will agree to take over the mine’s operations.
China also will be watching anxiously as the project’s future is decided: its development package, which will be part of the BRI, is contingent on Bougainville putting up collateral from long-term mining revenues, which gives Beijing a big stake in the coming political dialogue.