Bougainville: Countdown to independence referendum

Bougainville, the scene of a destructive civil war that left an estimated 15,000 dead in the 1990s, confronts an uncertain future as it starts the countdown to the independence referendum in 2019.

“The lead-up to the referendum in 2019 is likely to see increasing tensions within Bougainville, and between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea,” states the Lowly Institute’s June 5 report.

Bougainville and Papua New Guinea a peace agreement brokered by Australia in 2001, in which the Bougainvilleans were promised to have a say on their political status.

The two sides have resolved key outstanding issues, specifically Papua New Guinea’s payment for outstanding restoration and development grants worth US$132 million. Bougainvilleans, however, cannot agree on the future of the copper mine at Panguna, which bankrolled the province and Papua New Guinea itself until its forced closure in 1989.

John Momis, president of the autonomous province, can see no viable economic future for Bougainville without mining, but protests by landowners against Bougainville Copper Limited — now reconstituted as a company partly owned by the Bougainville government — erupted in 2017, leading Momis to declare an indefinite moratorium on mining at Panguna for fear that its opening might “ignite another war.”

To operate, Momis said, Panguna would need a “social licence” The episode echoed the original conflict, with government revenues boosted by mining and landowners, in this case the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association, exercising a veto over it.

Under the terms of the peace pact, Papua New Guinea is not obliged to grant independence to Bougainvilleans even if they vote in favor of it. “If it does not, the impact on stability on both sides of the border is likely to be substantial,” the Lowy report states.

The Lowy Institute recommends that Australia employ deft diplomacy with both Bougainville and Papua New Guinea in what could be a serious security crisis before and after the independence vote.