Australia pushes Papua New Guinea to accept Bougainville secession vote

Under direct Australian pressure, the Papua New Guinea government accepted an “Agreed Principles on Referendum” with representatives from the island of Bougainville on January 26 at the East New Britain resort town of Kokopo.

The agreement represents an about-face by the PNG government because it allows for a referendum on Bougainville's future—including the option of secession from PNG. Previously the government in Port Moresby had refused to even consider permitting a vote on separation.

At the same time, the statement is a vague document that commits the PNG government to very little. It states that a vote will be held in between 10 and 15 years time, provided that two conditions are met: the disposal of weapons by separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) forces and “good governance” by the Bougainville provincial government.

More autonomy will be granted to an elected Bougainville government, but only when an agreed plan for weapons disposal is fully implemented. No agreement has been reached on the government's powers. Instead, the degree of autonomy will be discussed at a further meeting on February 13.

In a media statement welcoming the deal, PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta insisted that the PNG government would remain sovereign, retaining the right to override the referendum result. The document, he said, “respects the ultimate authority of the highest democratically elected body in Papua New Guinea by making the result of the referendum subject to final decision by the National Parliament”.

Even to become valid, the agreement requires a constitutional amendment from the PNG parliament, which must be passed by a two-thirds majority.

The weapons disposal clause is primarily aimed at Francis Ona, a BRA faction leader who conducted a guerilla war between 1989 and 1997 and still controls the territory around the Panguna gold and copper mine. Morauta said: “My government looks to the people of Bougainville, including Francis Ona and his supporters, for co-operation and support in bringing about early weapons disposal and making sure we can all enjoy the benefits of lasting peace by peaceful means.”

Bougainville provincial governor John Momis said he would hold talks with Ona in the next few weeks to obtain his endorsement for the deal. “Mr Ona is being kept informed, plans are now afoot to hold important talks with him, now that the government has given us a big concession.” Ona has not released any statement.

Australia, the colonial power in PNG until 1975, insisted that an agreement be reached. After talks broke down last December, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer intervened, holding meetings with all the parties in Bougainville and Port Moresby. The Australian's South Pacific correspondent described the pressure placed on the PNG government as “considerable”. Australian Deputy High Commissioner Stephen Henningham attended the Kokopo meeting and acted as a formal witness to the signing of the final communiqué by a United Nations ambassador, Noel Sinclair, who chaired the talks.

Faced with increasing volatility to its immediate north and east—from Aceh and Timor to the Solomon Islands and Fiji—the Australian government has become anxious to obtain a settlement in Bougainville. From 1989 to 1997, Canberra backed and armed the PNG military in seeking to violently suppress the separatist conflict. The failure of these efforts became a destabilising factor in PNG, which neighbours Australia. PNG is also the site of some of the most lucrative mining projects in the world, including the Rio Tinto-owned Panguna mine, which has been idle since 1989.

According to Momis and Joseph Kabui, an ex-BRA commander who now heads the Bougainville Peoples Congress, Australia's foreign minister played a leading role in hammering out the agreement. In a joint statement, they said: “We wish to place firmly on the record thanks to Australia for Minister Downer.” Kabui said the negotiations could not have succeeded without Downer's “proactive” part.

Kabui was particularly grateful because the agreement's provision for an independence ballot—even if far off—allows him to claim some success for the secession struggle, in which an estimated 20,000 people were either killed by the PNG military or died of disease and malnutrition as a result of an economic blockade imposed by PNG and Australia.

In the meantime, Momis and Kabui and their supporters hope that by forming an autonomous administration with the blessing of the Australian government they can secure investment and establish their own relations with multinational mining and other companies.

The settlement remains highly problematic, however. Obtaining Ona's agreement may prove difficult. Another former BRA commander, Sam Kauona Sirivi, has “cautiously” welcomed the agreement, but labelled it “unfair” for requiring only the BRA to disarm. In a statement from New Zealand, he called for the withdrawal of the PNG army and the disarming of the pro-PNG Resistance militias.

As soon as the agreement was announced, the PNG Defence Secretary John Vulupindi said plans were being made for PNG troops to establish major construction projects on Bougainville, such as roads and bridges. He claimed that the armed forces would help rebuild the province. This is the same military that for almost a decade waged a brutal war against the Bougainville people.

The Kokopo agreement does not require the withdrawal of the Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group, which consists of 293 military personnel and police, 239 of them Australian. Originally deployed in 1997 to enforce a ceasefire, the contingent may be given the task of supervising the BRA disarmament.

One final factor underscoring the fragility of the agreement is that it cannot even be put to the PNG parliament until July. Late last year the government shut down parliament in order to prevent the possibility of a no-confidence motion.

PNG Opposition leader Bill Skate, claiming to be enthusiastic about the Kokopo settlement, has proposed the immediate convening of parliament to pass the necessary constitutional amendment. Such is the instability of the PNG political establishment, however, that Morauta and his government do not want parliament convened for fear of being removed from office.