Bougainville, PNG to appoint moderator as independence process stalls

Fundamental issues remain over the question to be put to parliament and the voting majority needed.
Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby
Bougainville, PNG to appoint moderator as independence process stalls People queue to vote at a polling station in Bougainville’s capital Buka during the referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea on Nov. 25, 2019.
Ness Kerton/AFP

The leaders of Papua New Guinea and the independence-seeking Bougainville region will appoint an outside moderator to help agree the terms of a parliamentary vote on the semi-autonomous island’s future.

Bougainville’s government wants to achieve independence by 2027 but has faced opposition from Papua New Guinea’s leaders, who fear it could encourage secessionist movements in other regions of the volatile Pacific island country. 

An estimated 10,000-15,000 people died in a decade-long civil war between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea that ended with a peace agreement in 2001.

A joint statement Wednesday from Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and Autonomous Bougainville Government President Ishmael Toroama said they reaffirmed their commitment to following a peaceful process “as both governments prepare to walk through the final leg of [their] political journey.” 

Bougainville is home to about 300,000 people, who are ethnically closer to the Solomon Islands than Papua New Guinea, and voted 97.7% for independence in a 2019 referendum. 

Papua New Guinea’s government missed the agreed 2023 deadline for parliament to debate the result and decide on the semi-autonomous region’s independence aspirations. 

The two sides are far apart on fundamental issues such as the question to be considered by parliament and the voting majority to approve or reject independence.

The moderator is expected to help bridge those differences. They also will be involved before a vote to raise lawmakers’ awareness of the history of the Bougainville ‘crisis’, the peace agreement and the referendum.

The leaders and other officials met throughout Wednesday and announced their joint statement in the evening, without taking questions from reporters. They had outlined their positions in speeches earlier in the day.

Toroama said he preferred a U.N. figure for moderator while Marape had argued appointing a moderator would only further delay a vote on Bougainville’s future.

Toroama said there is no point asking parliament to vote if its members don’t fully understand the historical context.

Parliament’s decision “will be a blessing or a curse forever,” he said. 

Marape has said a two-thirds majority would be needed for independence because changing the borders of Papua New Guinea requires an amendment to the country’s constitution.  

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape [left] and Autonomous Bougainville Government President Ishmael Toroama [center] are pictured at APEC Haus in Port Moresby on May 8, 2024 following a meeting on processes for PNG’s parliament to consider Bougainville’s 2019 referendum result in favor of independence. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

Papua New Guinea, the most populous Pacific island country with an estimated 12 million people, is a focus of intensifying U.S.-China rivalry for influence in the Pacific. Some analysts have said Bougainville would add a new dimension to the great power competition in the region if it were an independent nation.

Earlier this month, Bougainville’s government said it is exploring ventures with Chinese state companies such as construction conglomerate China Railway 25th Bureau Group for “key development projects.” 

Bougainville’s vice president and economic development minister Patrick Nisira said concerns about Chinese projects are based on information from “western media sources which clouds independent and informed decision making by the government to pursue development initiatives.”

The dearth of options from traditional donors over the past 20 years, the rapidly shortening timeframe for self-governance of Bougainville and Chinese approaches to invest in Bougainville “make such opportunities worth considering for the benefit of the people,” he said in a statement on the weekend.

Bougainville, which makes up the easternmost islands of Papua New Guinea and borders the Solomon Islands, is the site of the long-inactive Panguna copper and gold mine.

It sparked the conflict with the central government that spiraled into civil war as Bougainville people suffered the environmental costs but got little of its substantial earnings.

The Bougainville government in February renewed the exploration license of Bougainville Copper, a company in which Bougainville and Papua New Guinea each have 36% shareholdings. The renewal paves the way for redevelopment of the mine, which has among the world’s largest copper deposits, and offers a potential windfall for impoverished Bougainville.

Marape and Toroama’s statement said officials from both governments will draft the mandate and terms of reference for a moderator within a week. The joint body overseeing the post-referendum process will meet again in August, they said.

Stephen Wright contributed to this report from Brisbane.


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