Oct 31, 2020 Last Updated 9:15 PM, Oct 29, 2020

Who will welcome Bougainville?

  • Nov 01, 2020
  • Published in Sep-Oct

The results of the historic Bougainville elections are now known.  In electoral processes setting benchmarks for emulation in the Pacific, former Bougainville Revolutionary Army Commander, Ishmael Toroama, was declared President-elect.  Toroama in coming weeks will form a government and lead further negotiations with Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the implementation of the independence process endorsed by nearly 98% of Bougainville voters in the referendum last year.

For an event with such significant implications for PNG, Bougainville and the region, it was surprising to see the paucity of reactions to this occasion.  At time of writing, Prime Minister Marape from PNG has been the lone exception, offering his congratulations to President-elect Toroama and the invitation for talks in due course.  But across the Pacific, there has been a virtual silence.  Why?  And is this silence indicative of attitudes towards negotiations to come?  More ominously, might this be suggestive of the reception a newly independent Bougainville might expect?

To be sure, there is no suggestion the silence is motivated by any malign intent.  Perhaps it is simply diplomatic decorum, observing deference to PNG on what is an “internal” matter for resolution through negotiations between the parties in accordance with agreed process.  After all – by and large – things have run well since the cessation of hostilities, despite occasional political upheavals.  Why say anything that might be misinterpreted and potentially derail all the good that has been accomplished?

But truth be told, there might be additional considerations behind this silence.  For example, from the perspective of the larger resident powers in the region, the current geopolitical dynamics and strategic competition loom large.  The emergence of another “micro-state” vulnerable to influence from competitors, is the last thing needed at such a strategic juncture.  For France, moreover, this kind of example is not exactly helpful, with campaigning well underway in New Caledonia for another independence referendum, and simmering inclinations also in French Polynesia.  In this climate, any comment might be best avoided.

It is the silence of Pacific nations, however, that is most conspicuous and difficult to fathom and reconcile.  Is this wholly in deference to PNG?  Is this the Pacific Way?  But what of the Melanesian connection with Bougainville?  Are no expressions of fraternal solidarity permissible?

Most certainly, there are sensitivities to be navigated.  And some of these are purely “internal” among Pacific neighbors, such as the Solomon Islands and recent secession issues around Malaita.  It will be interesting to watch how bilateral relations between Pacific nations, PNG and an emerging Bougainville evolve in future, and how any such sensitivities will be accounted for. 

More broadly – at a regional level – it will similarly be fascinating to observe the evolution of regionalism with Bougainville’s emergence.  Both the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) have established precedents recognising the membership of organisations or less than fully fledged independent nations – the Front De Liberational De Nationale Kanak Et Solcialiste in the case of the MSG, and for the PIF, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.  Making dynamics interesting, for both the MSG and PIF, Papua New Guinea is a full member.  And for the MSG, there are the additional issues of Indonesia being an Associate Member, and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, an Observer.  In this complex milieu, what if a current PIF or MSG member proposes membership for Bougainville?  What kind of dynamics and repercussions will be unleashed by such a development?

No doubt, much water will pass under the bridge before we come to these issues.  But for many in the region, there will be challenging discussions to be had very soon about bringing Bougainville into the Pacific family.  While much will hang on discussions between PNG and Bougainville, the success or otherwise of these talks will have far-reaching implications for our region as a whole.  It is in the interests of us all to be invested in these.

Dr Oehlers is a Professor at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii. The views in this article are the personal opinions of the author and are not representative of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

 

The  outcome of this November’s election  will be crucial to Palau’s response to the economic crisis, as whoever will win the polls will be confronted by the impacts of COVID-19 well beyond 2020.

At the  September 22 primary election,  two of the four presidential candidates vying for the presidential post won the opportunity to face each other at the November 3 general  elections.

Vice President Raynold Oilouch and businessman Surangel Whipps Jr. will go head to head in November after beating early presidential candidates, former President Johnson Toribiong and businessman Alan Seid.

Login or subscribe today to read Bernadette Carreon's preview of the election

 

Palau's  National Marine Sanctuary— which is hailed as the tiny nation's  much celebrated signature policy—may face review from President Tommy Remengesau Jr’s successor.

More than five years in the making, Palau’s marine sanctuary law took effect on January 1 this year. It closed 80% of Palau’s exclusive economic zone to commercial fishing, a monumental policy for a tiny island nation with a population of 18,000.

The sanctuary however is at the centre of election debate, with presidential candidates Surangel Whipps Jr. and Raynold Oilouch saying during their campaign sorties that they are considering reassessing the PNMS, to ensure Palau’s people get the best benefits out of it.

Presidential candidate Surangel Whipps Jr. believes that the PNMS policy is a good one, telling the National Environment Symposium  in late September that he supports the marine sanctuary. However he believes there are things  in the policy that can be refined and amended to give more opportunities for Palauan fisherman to fish.

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Kiribati gave Taneti Maamau a resounding victory at the island nation’s presidential poll on 22 June, rewarding him with a second and final four-year term.

As the ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) leader, Maamau polled 26,053 votes, about 59 per cent of total vote cast. His rival Banuera Berina of the Boutokaan Kiribati Moa managed 17,866 votes, winning majority votes in only seven out of the 23 constituencies.

Berina who was chairman of the TKP until he crossed the floor to the opposition late last year was no match it appears to the promises of huge cash bonuses Maamau offered voters.

The opposition gamble of putting up as their candidate someone who had been in the same party as Maamau backfired, although there are others who would argue that the opposition didn’t have much of a choice after its leader Titabu Tabane lost his seat in the parliamentary elections in April.

Read more in the latest Islands Business.

The intense campaign in Kiribati’s presidential election has been dogged by allegations of interference by China’s ambassador to the country.

Opposition presidential candidate, Banuera Berina, said China must stop campaigning for his rival, and caretaker Kiribati president, Taneti Maamau.

“China should respect our sovereignty as an independent island nation,” Berina told Islands Business in a telephone interview this week.

“It should not be seen to be supporting and assisting one particular political party in Kiribati.

“It appears that I am competing not against one but two opponents,” added the long time politician and lawyer based in Tarawa, the capital.

Islands Business has sought responses from both the office of caretaker President Maamau and the Chinese Embassy in Tarawa, and although nothing has been sent from the President’s office, the Embassy has rejected the allegations.

“We do not interfere in any other countries’ internal affairs,” said the embassy. “China’s practice is upright and aboveboard.

“Secondly the embassy conducts official exchanges and promotes cooperation with the government of the receiving country.”

The Chinese Embassy confirms that it conducts community and school visits in Tarawa but only to “deepen mutual understanding and friendship.”

Berina however remained defiant that Chinese ambassador to Kiribati, Tang Songgen and his senior Embassy officials have been openly campaigning for President Maamau.

He gave several examples; one was reports that the Chinese Ambassador had been distributing free t-shirts and baseball caps to people on Tarawa.

The other was the offer that caretaker President Maamau’s party, Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) allegedly made to people on Maiana atoll, that the Chinese government was willing to fund the construction of their new maneaba (meeting house) if they convince their two parliamentary representatives to support Maamau’s re-election.

One of the atoll’s previous parliamentary reps was Anote Tong, the predecessor of Maamau.

The administration’s decision to sign aid agreements with China while in caretaker mode was another example provided by Berina.

Berina claims that Chinese’s involvement in the presidential election campaign is so blatant and intense that the upcoming presidential vote is fast turning out to be a referendum on the future of Kiribati-Chinese relations.

“This is not on. China should not be playing any role in our elections. As I see it, because of their involvement in the elections, China is making the upcoming presidential election a referendum on whether Kiribati should recognise China or switch back to Taiwan.

“If they vote for government, then they want Kiribati to remain with China, but if they vote for me, then the people of Kiribati want us to restore relations with Taiwan.

“This is the price China will have to pay for not respecting our sovereignty as an independent island nation.”

The issue of China plays a big role in Kiribati politics, and Maamau’s decision in November last year to withdraw its recognition of Taiwan and to ally itself with mainland China triggered a series of political mishaps.

His party lost its majority in parliament when Berina left the ruling TKP with 12 other government MPs to join the opposition’s Boutokan te Koaua (BTK).

This led to the defeat of President Maamau’s 2020 budget, and the formation of Berina’s Kiribati First Party, or KFP. For the 22 June presidential vote however, Berina is the joint KFP and BTK candidate, the two parties reportedly forming a coalition now know as BKM on 1 May, at the completion of parliamentary elections.

Under Kiribati’s constitution, the party with the largest number of MPs in parliament does not necessarily form government. It is the voters that directly vote for their President and the onus would be on the elected leader to lure MPs to join him in government.

Writing in May’s Islands Business magazine, retired i-Kiribati scholar Teweiariki Teaero said April’s parliamentary elections saw the ruling TKP with 12 MPs and eight MPs each for BTK and KFP, leaving the remaining 14 new MPs to decide which side of parliament they would align themselves to.

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