After being returned as Prime Minister to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the 2022 elections, James Marape must now confront what is considered the country’s “biggest issue”-the question of Bougainvillean independence.
Three years ago, 97.7 per cent of Bougainvilleans voted to secede from PNG in a province-wide referendum. Now, the PNG Parliament must decide whether to ratify the outcome. In effect, the future political status of Bougainville rests in Marape’s hands. His actions over the next few months will play a critical role in determining whether the Pacific region will soon see a brand new state join its ranks.
Bougainville’s long fight for independence
The Autonomous Region of Bougainville is an island province of PNG, but geographically and linguistically, it is much closer to the Solomon Islands. This is the result of a long history of colonial occupation and mismanagement. Bougainvilleans have been trying to secede from PNG since the 1960s. After repeated attempts to call for independence, and many years of negotiation and conflict with PNG (with more than 15,000 casualties), the two actors signed the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001. This led to greater autonomy for Bougainville and set a date for a future non-binding referendum on self-determination.
The 2019 referendum saw almost unanimous support for independence. But, despite this result, PNG Parliament still acts as the “final decision-making authority” on Bougainville’s political status and are set to vote on it in 2024. They will decide based on the outcome of a series of consultations between Marape and Ishmael Toroama, President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).
A new era of negotiations
To predict how this next stage will unfold, is important to understand who will be making the decisions. Marape and Toroama are relatively new to the negotiation table, coming to power in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Their predecessors Peter O’Neill (PNG) and John Momis (ABG) had led this process for nearly a decade.
Marape and O’Neill are similar in some respects; they both share the view that granting independence to Bougainville might set a precedent for other provinces to follow suit. But, despite this similar stance, Marape has shown to be less hard-line on blocking independence than O’Neill. For example, just before the 2022 elections, he signed the Era Kone Covenant which effectively tied any future government to continue addressing the Bougainville issue.
In contrast, Toroama is very different to his predecessor, Momis. While Momis was born on the PNG mainland and has a much closer relationship with it, helping to write the PNG constitution, Toroama was born in Bougainville and was heavily involved in the independence movement. He fought for the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) during the civil war against PNG forces and was a key actor in bringing about peace and post-war reconciliation. Toroama is staunchly in favour of independence and this, scholars argue, is what helped him win the 2020 election, in a race against 25 candidates.
While Momis might have been more willing to compromise and reach a political settlement with PNG, Toroama is intent on securing nothing short of independence. However, Toroama is new to politics, so his negotiation skills and determination to realise this goal will being put to the test. The performance of both leaders over the next few years will be critical in determining Bougainville’s future.
What happens now?
The path forward can go a number of different ways. One potential outcome is nothing happens, and PNG continues to stall the independence process. There have already been lengthy delays with consultations being pushed back because of COVID-19. But a big risk here is that Bougainville could get impatient.
If the consultation process is drawn out too long, Bougainville might decide to announce a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). This has happened twice before, in 1975 and 1990 but both attempts were unsuccessful in securing international recognition. Some argue that a third UDI will carry a “stronger basis” given the referendum results, but it is uncertain whether international actors will be willing to compromise their relationship with PNG to recognise a sovereign Bougainville.
A third option is for both actors to come to a settlement. This might involve greater autonomy for Bougainville, but not quite full independence. While this may seem the most feasible solution, a majority of Bougainvilleans actively voted against ‘greater autonomy’ when given the option of full independence. With an independence-ready program up-and-running and a groundswell of support for liberation in Bougainville, the province will be reluctant to accept anything short of full independence.
A fourth possibility is that Marape changes his position and allows Bougainville to become independent. While this is highly unlikely given Marape’s concerns over the potential fracturing of PNG and loss of income from Bougainville’s valuable natural resources (cocoa, copper and fishing), nothing is impossible.
Either way, it is likely that Bougainville will gain more autonomy in the coming years. With growing international interest in the region, Australia should make sure to keep trade, aid and communication channels open with both actors and pay close attention to the developing situation.
Zoe Crowston is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University studying Arts/International Relations, overseen by Dr. Kerryn Baker.