An independent Bougainville? Don’t hold your breath
18 Dec 2019|

It seems that the overwhelming outcome of the referendum on Bougainville, with over 97% of eligible voters supporting independence, surprised even seasoned observers. Still, as is well known, the vote is not binding. Under the terms of the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement, the governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville are now required to consult over the outcome of the referendum, and the result of that consultation will be subject to ratification by the PNG parliament. So all eyes now turn to the consultation process.

Bougainville President John Momis spoke to the media on 23 November after he and his wife cast the first ballots of the referendum in Bougainville’s administrative capital of Buka. He said if the result went as he expected, independence should be the only basis for negotiation in the coming period.

The PNG government has been quick to acknowledge the result and has done so in what looks to be a magnanimous way. Still, in acknowledging the result, Papua New Guinea has sent two important messages.

First, it has reminded everyone that the referendum is non-binding. Prime Minister James Marape has made a range of comments since the announcement of the result signalling that there’s no inclination in the PNG government simply to let Bougainville go. It is prepared to talk, but the signs are that it is still looking for an outcome that falls short of full independence.

Marape’s other key message has been to warn external parties not to ‘interfere’. This message is aimed at a range of audiences: at Australia, at other members of the Pacific Islands Forum and at members of the wider international community. It underlines PNG’s anxiety that the Bougainville issue might become internationalised.

Of course, the emphatic result of the referendum confers enormous moral authority on the side of those seeking independence. No one who witnessed voting as it took place could be in any doubt as to the depth and extent of feeling about the independence issue in Bougainville.

Another advantage the Bougainvillean side will carry into the consultation period is the negotiation skills of its leaders and technical advisers. Indeed, the fact that the referendum was held at all is testament to formidably effective committee work over several years. The doggedness and persistence of Bougainvillean negotiators will serve their cause well in the period ahead.

What Bougainville lacks at this point, though, is an international network of sympathisers and activists capable of mobilising opinion to support its cause. The contrast with East Timor in the period prior to its own independence referendum is stark.

Even among other Pacific Islands Forum countries, in both government and civil society, support for Bougainvillean independence is far more muted than support (for instance) for West Papua’s independence. Notwithstanding the definitive nature of the referendum result, it’s unlikely that Bougainville will benefit from the active sponsorship of any individual country or coalition of countries.

This will be all the more true as long as PNG can persuade the regional and international communities that it is indeed consulting with Bougainvilleans in good faith according to the terms of the peace agreement—and assuming there’s no return to violence on the ground.

There is speculation in some quarters that China may seek to play a role in midwifing an independent Bougainville. Doubtless China is watching the situation closely, but it seems unlikely that it would risk its relations with Port Moresby over Bougainville. For China, PNG will surely remain the main game.

At his 23 November press conference, Momis said that the consultation process following the referendum could be lengthy, and might take up to five years to play out. Momis’s comments were those of a responsible leader in seeking (among other things) to manage expectations among Bougainville’s population for a rapid movement towards independence.

Even so, PNG will have happily pocketed this concession. Momis’s comments will also be read as reassurance that the risks of an early unilateral declaration of independence, or of a resort to politically motivated violence, are low and (from a PNG point of view) manageable at this point.

Both Port Moresby and Bougainville will be watching Australia’s responses very carefully. For Australia, there is no real best outcome, only a least bad one. Australia understands very well the depth of pro-independence feeling in Bougainville. As long as the issue remains unresolved in the minds of Bougainvilleans, it will be a source of potential or actual instability in Australia’s immediate region—not just in PNG but in Solomon Islands as well.

Yet the balance of Australia’s interests still argues for Bougainville to retain a relationship with Papua New Guinea, however tenuous. Australia won’t push PNG to deliver independence to Bougainville. It will support and encourage dialogue between the two sides in accordance with the peace agreement and will publicly commit itself to whatever outcome the two parties eventually agree on—even if it does end up at full independence.

Marape’s message to the international community notwithstanding, it’s possible that Australia could in time play a constructive behind-the-scenes role in facilitating dialogue between the parties and in underwriting an outcome, although at this early stage Australia would be well advised to be seen not to be actively involved.

The Pacific provides a range of unconventional forms of intra-state relationships and hybrid constitutional arrangements. It’s possible to conceive, for instance, of arrangements which lead to Bougainville becoming a full member of the Pacific Islands Forum, but not of the United Nations—an outcome that could go at least some way to satisfying Bougainville’s aspiration for statehood while providing a constitutional fig leaf to preserve PNG’s dignity.

But that is the merest speculation. It would be unwise at this stage to presume where the consultation process may end up, how long it will take, or even that the process itself will have a single, definitive end point.