Bougainville knows far better than Britain that a referendum vote to go or to stay is only the first mountain. Then the second mountain must be climbed—the negotiation to turn the outcome into a reality.
For decades, Bougainville has been trekking towards the first summit that’s now in view—the vote on independence or greater autonomy, to be held from 23 November to 7 December.
The referendum question reads:
Do you agree for Bougainville to have:
1. Greater Autonomy; or
In Bougainville, 200,000 people are enrolled to vote; 12,000 registered voters are in Papua New Guinea, and a further 200 are in Solomon Islands, Cairns and Brisbane.
The Lowy Institute prediction is that 75% of voters will choose independence, driven by separate ethnic identity, residual animosity from the war years, and the failure of the current model of autonomy.
PNG’s and Bougainville’s leaders have always known about the second mountain that lies beyond the referendum. That’s because both peaks were established by the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed in 2001.
The peace was a ‘complex agreement, produced by a succession of compromises made during more than two years of often intense negotiations (June 1999 to August 2001)’. The deal ended a conflict that ran from 1988 to 1997, with an estimated death toll ranging from 3,000 up to 20,000.
The referendum result isn’t binding on PNG. The second mountain climb calls for consultation on the outcome between the PNG and Bougainville governments. And even if that process produces an agreement, there’s a further stage. The final say on any deal, based on the referendum, rests with the PNG parliament, which can accept or reject.
Constitutional lawyer Anthony Regan, an adviser to Bougainville parties in the peace process since 1994, has just published a study of the vote, The Bougainville referendum: law, administration and politics. He says the vote could produce one of three outcomes: ‘a “yes” vote in favour of greater autonomy, which the national government endorses; a “yes” vote for independence, which the national government endorses; or a “yes” vote to independence, which the national government opposes’.
Regan says either greater autonomy or independence will need extended transition periods:
A ‘yes’ to independence, in particular, would require significant new institutions to be established. These could be expected to include a judiciary, a public prosecutor and a public solicitor, an auditor-general, a taxation collection agency, a foreign affairs agency and so on. The experience of the ABG [Autonomous Bougainville Government] in establishing new agencies where none existed is that it takes time and resources.
Regan’s book was launched last Thursday at an Australian National University symposiumon the referendum.
The optimism about what’s possible was well expressed by two of the speakers, Rose Pihei, of the Bougainville Integrated Community Learning Centre, and Barbara Tanne, of the Bougainville Women’s Federation, who is also a representative of the churches of Bougainville.
Pihei said ‘excitement is flooding Bougainville’, and Tanne said the referendum is ‘a window of opportunity for Bougainvilleans to realise their dreams’.
Expressing confidence that there’ll be a strong vote in favour of independence, two former independence fighters, James Tanis (‘the moment has arrived’) and Dennis Kuiai, put much of their focus on what’ll happen after the vote.
Kuiai is now acting secretary of the Department of Peace Agreement Implementation in the ABG, while Tanis is the peace envoy of Bougainville’s president and an adviser to the PNG government.
Kuiai said there’s ‘more confidence and trust in how PNG supports the process’. Tanis said PNG and Bougainville owned both referendum questions and paid tribute to PNG’s approach: ‘This is not a decision between a coloniser and the colonised. This is a decision taken by citizens, a decision between ourselves, to find a new relationship between ourselves.’
Both speakers invoked the ‘Melanesian way’ (consultation, conversation and consensus) as the key to how the two governments will deal with the referendum result. Kuiai said:
Using the Melanesian way of doing things, we know for sure we will finally get there. And this outcome we will agree on will be something good for PNG in terms of the sovereignty of PNG and in responding to the aspirations of the Bougainvilleans. The post-referendum has a lot of challenges.
One Melanesian-way analogy offered is that Bougainville is the daughter ready for marriage, and that PNG is the father who’s obliged to prepare for that marriage.
Bougainville is signalling the need for independent mediators to push along the Melanesian way—one PNG mediator and one international. The international mediator could come from New Zealand, based on its crucial role in securing the peace agreement; names mentioned are former prime minister Helen Clark and former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Commonwealth Don McKinnon.
With the vote in sight, Bougainville can embrace PNG to prepare for the next tough climb.
The departure of Peter O’Neill as PNG’s prime minister is an unspoken element in the warm sentiments. He didn’t give much time or cash to Bougainville, always putting the stress on a united PNG. In Melanesian-way fashion, O’Neill did keep the process going, even while abhorring where it could lead and pushing it off as much as possible. The Melanesian way can be about delay as much as about discussion or decision.
PNG now faces the cost of not having put in the resources to make a clear success of Bougainville’s autonomous government, which has been in operation since 2005.
Regan’s judgement is that two decades of peace created ‘more robust relationships’ between Bougainville and PNG. That history will matter, he says, ‘because it’s very unclear what will happen from the consultations after the vote’.
Graeme Dobell is ASPI’s journalist fellow. Image: Antman!/Flickr.