Opinion: Bougainville signals tough line on independence

Shadrach Himata

In the last 100 years we have had to endure hardships from oppressive regimes who sought to take away our resources, our rights and even our lives. Our struggle for independence has been a long one.

In 2019, a referendum was successfully conducted on Bougainville to decide on the status of our political future in accordance with the PNG Constitution.

An overwhelming 97.7 percent of our people voted for a political independence from Papua New Guinea.

Bougainville’s historic struggle for the right to self-determination had been subjugated by oppression and the marginalisation of our rights.

In the last 100 years we have had to endure hardships from oppressive regimes who sought to take away our resources, our rights and even our lives.

Our struggle for independence has been a long one, and predates PNG’s independence.

Insurrection on Bougainville was reignited in 1988 when Panguna mine landowners sought to exert more control over their resources and gain a fair share in the benefits of the mine’s profits.

The mine, which bankrolled PNG’s independence, was operated by Rio Tinto subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited.

The PNG government’s refusal to listen to landowners resulted in a 10 year civil war that cost 20,000 lives and billions of kina in property loss.

As the conflict progressed to involve the rest of Bougainville, it was no longer seen as a war for our rights and resources but for the people’s right to self-determination after suffering at the hands of the national government and its military forces.

The Bougainville Crisis was fought between PNG security forces and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in the bloodiest conflict in the Pacific region since World War II.

In 2001 the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed between the people of Bougainville and the PNG government. The joint creation formally ended hostilities between both parties and paved the way for Bougainvillean self-determination.

Following the 2019 referendum, the Bougainville and PNG governments began joint consultations to implement the referendum results – that is, secure political Independence for Bougainville.

These consultations are jointly chaired by Bougainville president Ishmael Toroama and PNG prime minister James Marape.

While a number of outcomes have been reached, other issues are yet to be worked out.

A major achievement has been a timeline for independence which specifies that Bougainville’s political future must not happen before 2025 and not after 2027.

However, under constitutional requirements, the referendum result must be ratified by the national parliament.

Exactly how this will happen has yet to be worked out by the two governments, which have the constitutional duty to conclude the process.

It is Bougainville’s position that the PNG Constitution is supreme, and not the PNG parliament.

It is also our position that ‘ratification’ in its ordinary meaning was never intended to be a veto power able to overturn the outcome of the referendum.

There should not be any fear or anxiety whatsoever on the part of the PNG Government to implement the referendum result.

The important thing is that the Bougainville people were granted the legal right to choose their political status (‘nationality’) and the 97.7 percent result has conclusively settled the issue.

Bougainville’s position regarding the role of the national parliament is that it must protect the vote of the people by endorsing the result of the referendum.

A failure to protect the constitutional and democratic choice of the people will amount to a breakdown of the State’s legitimacy, and under international law would be a ground for Bougainville to assert its right to remedial secession.

Looking to the future, president Toroama has made it known in no uncertain terms that Bougainville will become independent.

He has made it clear that Bougainville’s future will not be compromised with a lesser political arrangement outside of the constitutionally-sanctioned processes under Part XIV of the PNG Constitution.

Achieving political independence for Bougainville requires development to be holistic. This means developing socioeconomic and political capacities to ensure service delivery to the people is far-reaching and that the people are actively involved in the development process.

The Toroama administration has introduced a strategy to reform and improve Bougainville through revenue raising, improving law and order and the public service machinery and promoting good governance at all levels.

Complementary to our political drive for independence is our focus on developing the economic sector on Bougainville.

We are without doubt one of the Pacific richest resource-rich islands. We were the economic guarantor for PNG’s independence in 1975 and so it is time we looked at providing for ourselves.

This will require the Autonomous Bougainville Government developing rigorous policy and legislative frameworks in both the economic and the social sectors that will establish the foundations for the development, growth and prosperity of a new Bougainville nation.

We cannot deny the difficult history that Bougainville has endured and the present challenges we face as we continue to remain tethered to Papua New Guinea.

Our people spoke unanimously to become an independent sovereign nation through the 2019 Bougainville referendum.

We have fought and spilled blood to protect our rights and defend our people.

So it is time for the national government to fully respect and endorse the wishes and aspirations of the Bougainville people to be politically free, liberated and independent. In conclusion, it is the call of my president Toroama to let his people go!