Rowan Callick | The Australian
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has stressed that Papua New Guinea will not be broken up under his watch, as the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of independence today.
Under the terms of the peace agreement that ended the civil war on Bougainville after a dozen years, a referendum about its future governance is to be held within five years.
The referendum will include the option of independence — which was also raised by Bougainvillean leaders in the lead-up to PNG’s independence, and led to the establishment of provincial governments in 1977.
Mr O’Neill told The Australian: “It’s important to understand that a vote of yes for independence on Bougainville by Bougainvilleans doesn’t necessarily mean it will lead to independence. That remains the responsibility of the national parliament.”
The parliament, he said, would consider the question with great seriousness, “with the backdrop of our understanding about our country”.
“We have a diverse and tribal country, so we can ask ourselves, where does it stop?” he said.
The government’s own views, he said, “are very clear, which I stated when I visited Arawa and Panguna” on the island in January last year. “We have no interest in thinking about independence, but about services, and the wellbeing of the people on Bougainville.
“While we appreciate working with the autonomous Bougainville government on many of these issues, I have the responsibility to make sure government services get rolled out and infrastructure built, and continue to talk to the ABG and landowners and other partners for economic opportunities there, including mining,” he said.
Politician and former Catholic priest John Momis was re-elected president of the ABG in June, with about half the votes cast. He is a figure associated strongly with PNG and Bougainville nationalism, and is prepared to negotiate eventually the reopening of the Bougainville copper mine as a crucial source of revenue if the population is to seek independence.
“Mining is not the answer to all our issues. For us, if the mine remains closed, that is a decision that landowners and the people of Bougainville need to make,” Mr O’Neill said.
“But it’s equally important the PNG government, the ABG and landowners resolve issues we have with Bougainville Copper Ltd in a manner that’s going to be commercially accepted, that will enhance our reputation as an investment destination by prospective investors in the future.
“This is the only way for meaningful engagement, and this is our government position.
“We need to find a solution through these discussions taking place in a constructive manner.”
Discussions towards finalising Bel Kol, a traditional reconciliation ceremony involving all parties to the civil war and associated disputes, especially concerning the mine, remain elusive, with opposition among former combatants recently forcing postponement of negotiations.