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Bougainville independence referendum

16 November 2018 Alex Barnes

Autonomous Bougainville Government President John Momis and Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O'Neill reached an agreement on the official referendum question in October, but key logistical, security, and governance issues remain unplanned.

  • If it proceeds as planned, the mid-2019 Bougainville independence referendum will likely lead to local skirmishes between competing landowner groups, as well as with security forces and locals on the island.
  • Despite notable planning progress during the past month, key questions - including how Bougainville would sustain itself financially should it become independent - have yet to be resolved.
  • The Panguna copper mine - currently dormant - is unlikely to become operational within the next year, as the government will be preoccupied with managing the referendum outcome, and landowners continue to dispute ownership of the mine.

On 9 November, Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) President John Momis indicated that the ABG would seek security and monitoring assistance from regional countries, commencing with New Zealand, to assist with the Bougainville autonomous region's upcoming independence referendum, scheduled for June 2019. Separately in October, Momis and Papua New Guinea (PNG) Prime Minister Peter O'Neill agreed on the official referendum question as follows: "Do you agree for Bougainville to have: 1) Greater Autonomy or 2) Independence?"

Bougainville Island was previously the site of a secessionist civil war from 1988 to 1998. The 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement stipulated that a referendum for independence must be held 15-20 years after the end of the conflict, meaning that the referendum must be held by 2020.

Key logistical, security, and governance questions have yet to be resolved concerning the referendum. Most notably, there is little clarity over what "Greater Autonomy" signifies - specifically, whether this would mean an extension of the ABG's existing authority over social services and security, or whether the ABG would be granted additional powers. Second, the role of the PNG government, the ABG, and any potential international partners in provided monitoring, logistical support, and security for the election has not yet been decided. Third, if Bougainville were to become independent, it is unclear how it could sustain itself financially, as a large portion of the region's funding is currently derived from the PNG government.

Mining development unlikely to restart within the next year

The referendum means that the government is unlikely to pursue the rehabilitation of the Panguna copper mine - one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world - in 2019. The mine was a focal point of the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and currently has a complex ownership arrangement, with various parts owned by local landowners, the PNG government, and the ABG through the state-owned company Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL). In April 2018, Momis announced that the Panguna mine would be placed under an indefinite moratorium. Momis indicated that two local factions were contesting ownership of the mine, and that the moratorium was implemented to maintain unity ahead of the referendum.

Outlook and implications

The ABG itself is in favor of secession, which increases the likelihood that the population will vote for independence. The referendum is likely to lead to violence in Bougainville between opposing local landowner groups, which are likely to initiate small-scale ambushes against their rivals during the referendum period. Despite sustained efforts to disarm the population since 2001, local landowners and tribal groups are likely to be armed with machetes and small-arms, as many local armed groups chose to abstain from the formal peace process. Such groups are unlikely to possess heavier weaponry, but will be capable of committing arson attacks against property and are likely to possess crude grenades or pipe bombs.

Additionally, should the PNG government elect to send its own armed forces to oversee the referendum, risks would increase substantially: PNG security force discipline is poor, and their presence will probably lead to altercations with the local community, including arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force as well as local retaliation, likely in the form of protests and spontaneous assaults against security forces. Bougainville operates a community policing service - mentored by a New Zealand police mission - which is largely separate from the rest of the PNG security services. The potential redeployment of security forces away from other economic assets across PNG to Bougainville would also increase risks to resource projects on mainland PNG, as local groups would use the lack of security presence to obstruct operations, including by creating road blocks, threatening or kidnapping company personnel, and damaging commercial property with arson attacks to pressure the government to deliver mining royalties.

An official commitment from neighboring countries - particularly from New Zealand and Australia - to provide robust security and oversight of the referendum, including the deployment of police and military personnel, would significantly decrease the likelihood of fighting between local groups and with security forces during the referendum and in the aftermath. A robust international presence would also ensure that the result is respected by the PNG and Bougainville governments.

A second indicator is the support of the PNG government for the referendum. During 2018 O'Neill has proven prepared to engage with the ABG, but the government has been slow to provide agreed funding and grants to Bougainville. If the government fails to provide funding for the referendum, or obstructs the process on legal grounds - leading to a deterioration in relations between the ABG and the PNG government - this would increase the risk of an ABG attempt to secede unilaterally, heightening the risk of conflict between a PNG security deployment and the ABG community police force, as well as local armed groups.

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