Natalie Whiting | ABC News | December 14 2019
A ceremony to announce the results of Bougainville’s historic referendum opened with a chorus of the Bougainville anthem. When the overwhelming result for independence was handed down, people spontaneously started singing it again.
It was a clear sign of the separate identity that Bougainvilleans have long maintained. The thumping result for splitting from PNG was an even clearer sign.
But the path to potential nationhood remains complex and far from guaranteed, despite the mandate from an almost 98 per cent vote of support offers.
The end of the referendum not only starts another political process, but it will also turn eyes back to a massive open-cut mine that has been sitting, waiting in the mountains since the 1980s.
As Bougainville looks for a way forward politically, it also needs to look at economic options.
That’s something Papua New Guinea is keen for it to focus on as it grapples with how to respond to the vote.
PNG is known as the land of a thousand tribes and many in the Government are worried about keeping the rest of the country united if Bougainville leaves.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape has offered economic control but stopped well short of committing to independence for Bougainville.
Economically, the most obvious income stream for the resource-rich area is mining, but that would involve revisiting the issues that started the bloody conflict in the region.
Landowners at the site of the Panguna gold and copper mine, where the violence first broke out, say they are ready to see it reopen in the wake of the referendum.
Up to 20,000 people died in the secessionist conflict that followed, before the peace agreement which guaranteed the vote brought it to an end.
Several companies are already circling, keen to make a move now that the vote is over.
Whether they have the capital and the ability to reopen it peacefully remains to be seen.
PNG Prime Minister offers Bougainville economic control
As the referendum ballots were being counted in Bougainville’s capital Buka, speculation about the movements of Mr Marape were swirling.
Initial indications that Mr Marape would be coming to Buka for the announcement were replaced by rumours of him instead going to Panguna in the days after the result.
In the end his visit was moved to the town of Arawa, near the mine. But Panguna and building Bougainville’s economy featured throughout his speech.
Thousands of people gathered in the middle of town to hear him speak. The people even wanted to carry him to the stage on a specially built chair, an offer he graciously refused.
Mr Marape has been seen as being more supportive of the referendum than previous leaders, but PNG has nevertheless made no secret of the fact it wants Bougainville to remain a part of the country.
The independence vote is non-binding, and amid the celebrations of the result, PNG has been quick to remind people that years of discussions between the two parties will follow and a negotiated outcome will then be presented to PNG’s parliament.
In the lead-up to the referendum, Mr Marape had been discussing a “third option” beyond independence and greater autonomy which the people were asked to choose between — what he called “economic independence”.
His speech was in a similar vein, focussing on economic development and self-determination, but avoiding mention of independence.
He presented a cheque worth 50 million kina ($21 million), promised another 100 million kina ($42 million) next year and control over income generated in Bougainville, including tax powers.
“The only thing I will ask you, is that I will look after the border and both of our flags must fly until we reach the conclusion of this process,” he told the crowd.
Certainly, Bougainville is currently in no position to support itself and the call to focus on building the economy is warranted. But Mr Marape wouldn’t be drawn on whether he could envisage independence for Bougainville.
“That’s something for the future. I can’t pre-empt the outcome of the consultations that will take place,” he told the ABC.
After such a comprehensive vote, there may be little appetite in Bougainville to accept something less than full independence.
But for the moment his speech was well received by the crowd, and Bougainville’s President is confident of productive discussions going forward.
The greatest expectation from Bougainvilleans after the referendum is for change — people want improved services and infrastructure. Both governments will need to make that a priority and it will require funding.
Landowners split over who should reopen mine
In the base of the massive open pit of the Panguna gold and copper mine, a small settlement has been built and people work digging up gold that remains buried there.
It’s thought there is still $84 billion worth of copper and gold in the site, but re-establishing operations would likely take a decade and billions of dollars.
Keeping the mine closed has been seen as part of maintaining peace ahead of the referendum.
The local landowners now largely want to see it open, however, a split is already forming over which company should be brought in.
The most prominent landowner group is backing Australian company RTG, but there is another group of landowners who want to see the original company, Bougainville Copper Limited, brought back. The Bougainville Government has supported a third company, Caballus, which is also Australian.
That, combined with the ongoing political discussions, could create an uncertain investment landscape.
Mr Marape has said the PNG Government’s 39 per cent stake in Bougainville Copper Limited will be given to Bougainville, but he urged people to look at other industries as well, like agriculture.
It’s not just Panguna that has been attracting attention — landowners say they’ve received visits from other companies, some from Australia and some from China, interested in looking at other greenfield sites in the region.
Australia could face difficult diplomatic waters
The current geopolitical climate in the pacific — where China and the west are seen to be in a battle for influence — has thrown another filter on the vote.
Much has been made of possible offers from China to help Bougainville develop if it is a fledgling country.
However, Bougainville President John Momis has said there have been no offers from the Chinese Government and it was unclear if money being offered by companies, including some said to be interested in Panguna, would actually materialise.
He said: “These are complex issues, which we’re not going to deal with right away.”
The geopolitical and diplomatic complexities of either a new nation in the region, or of a disagreement between PNG and Bougainville during the upcoming negotiations, is undeniable.
Nowhere will that be felt more keenly than in Australia, which is a key financial and development supporter of both.
Already a key former combatant from the crisis is calling for the international community to “ask PNG to accept the reality and let Bougainville go”.
PNG’s Bougainville Affairs Minister Sir Puka Temu has urged the international community “not to interfere in the consultation phase”.
“What we want is to achieve an outcome like what we did 18 years ago, that is a joint creation — the Bougainville Peace Agreement was a joint creation,” he said.
In a statement, Australia’s Foreign Minister has passed on congratulations for the vote and says Australia “looks forward to continued productive engagement” between the two governments.
But as the cobalt blue of Bougainville’s flags flickers from buildings and cars across the region in the wake of the vote, credit must be given to both it and PNG for almost 20 years of peace and an incredibly well-run referendum.
Hopefully, the next phase will be as successful.