Target date set for referendum in Bougainville
An academic says there is a lot of work ahead for Bougainville and Papua New Guinea as preparations begin for a vote on self determination in three years.
A target date of June 2019 has been set for the self-determination referendum in the autonomous Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville.
Under the terms of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, a referendum must be conducted before mid-2020, the date being reached last week by the PNG central government and Bougainville's autonomous government.
Bougainville's president John Momis said although the date could not yet be finalised, due to various legal steps required to be taken first, it would be impossible to plan the referendum without a target date.
University of Woollongong Emeritus Professor and long time PNG advisor Ted Wolfers told Don Wiseman that many things still need to be sorted out.
TED WOLFERS: There are major problems on the ground. President Momis has spoken about the need to bring a number of groups on the ground into the peace process more actively, to remove weapons on the ground, to build the confidence in the community that makes it possible to move ahead with the referendum.
DON WISEMAN: The thing is, I suppose, we are now 11 years since we have had an autonomous government there, four years before that unofficial autonomy and a lot of these problems haven't really moved on in that time. Isn't that fair?
TW: I think they have moved on, I think that groups that were really not willing to participate in the past have moved in but is a peace process it isn't just a single act of peace that is at stake and the original agreement in the Bougainville Peace Agreement is that there would be a timeframe for holding the referendum rather than a specific date. So we are in that time frame, 2015 to 2020, and now there is a target date, not a precise date, but a target date for having everything ready in time.
DW: A critical thing is having a viable economy isn't it? There has been a lot of talk but the main thing is to attract foreign investment I suppose, but that is not coming in.
TW: It is certainly not coming in at the rate that is required but I think we also need to bear in mind that there are a range of other issues to do with the referendum that require attention. Part of it is identifying how Bougainvilleans living outside Bougainville will become involved in the referendum preparing the electoral roll for that and so on. There is now an agreement about a joint mechanism to manage the referendum and there has to be a political dialogue about the options that are available, that on the one hand separate independence for Bougainville is available but there hasn't been a lot of discussion about whether there are other options that Bougainvilleans might prefer and what it is that the national government might agree to or what the implications of independence might be, because they are quite different in different parts of the world in different countries within our own region for example.
DW: How big a role will the PNG government play in this whole process?
TW: Well the grant system means that financially it provides an enormous amount of the backing to the Autonomous Bougainville Government there is an agreement that has a joint mechanism to actually manage the referendum. And then there is the very big issue that hasn't really received yet the attention it requires which is okay what are the options that not only Bougainvilleans might want but that the national government might agree to. So the national government has a very important continuing responsibility and of course in managing the concerns that other governments in the region other regional organisations might have in the whole process.
DW: Do we have any idea of which way Port Moresby is leaning?
TW: Not at this point, there hasn't been that sort of detailed discussion about the options that might be available. There has been some preliminary work done. People are I think aware that this has to be examined, but there hasn't been a proper set of decisions about what might be agreed to as yet.
DW: A critical thing I think is that the government wants mining to resume. They see that as a quick way to get an economy that becomes viable. They are saying if Rio Tinto wants to sell out of Bougainville Copper that those shares should come at no cost to the ABG. How likely is that do you think?
TW: Look, it is very hard to know at this point. This is a purely private comment but it is hard to see that a major global mining company is going to make the kind of investment, the billions of dollars required to get that mine moving again, in a situation of ongoing political uncertainty. So that is a major challenge for everyone. Momis has introduced and the Bougainville Parliament has passed legislation on a new Mining Act but even that is quite controversial, in some circles, in Bougainville and elsewhere. So that is a major issue that has to be addressed and lies at the heart of what many people saw as the core of the conflict.
DW: In terms of this political discussion on the various options, who's got to lead that?
TW: There is no document that says anyone has to lead it, in the formal sense, but clearly, on the one hand, the Bougainville Constitution has in place quite a detailed process whereby it is possible that the referendum not be held. There has to be widespread consultation, a very substantial vote by the Bougainville Parliament and so on. So it is hard to imagine that the referendum won't go ahead, but it could be that there are other options than independence that both sides are willing to discuss - I am not suggesting that that's the case, I am saying that is something that could be on the table, but also if we look around our own region, independence can have quite disparate meanings. You know, will accepting independence for Bougainville mean that Bougainvilleans would no longer have access to tertiary educational institutions on the mainland; would they be treated as foreigners for purposes of investment and employment - those issues simply haven't been discussed at this point. I am not expressing a viewpoint on them, I am simply saying there has to be a discussion within the national government, amongst Bougainvilleans and across the table, about what the realistic options are for the future of Bougainville. And I think that this latest meeting, in a sense, lays the groundwork for that kind of dialogue.
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