Don Wiseman | Radio New Zealand | 27 July 2019
A summit of huge significance for the future of Bougainville has taken place over the past week, in and around Panguna.
The focus of the Bougainville Me’ekamui and Veterans Summit was a reconciliation between former combatants in the region, and came just months out from a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea.
It involved former combatants from both sides of Bougainville’s brutal civil war of which the referendum is one of the ultimate expressions.
The groups issued the Mary, Queen of the Mountains – Panguna Declaration.
This includes commitments to the referendum, to maintain peace and stability before and after the referendum, the disposal of weapons, and agreement that the Panguna mine can be re-opened after the vote.
The summit attendees, now known officially as the Bougainville Veterans, aim to have guns held by former combatants and civilians contained by 15 August, with an ultimatum that the collection process be completed by 1 September.
The verification of the guns will be done by the Bougainville Police Service, working with community governments and veterans.
Eventually these weapons will be destroyed and a monument created from them.
The vote was to be held from 12 October, having already been moved from June, but the Bougainville Referendum Commission had been seeking an extension of six weeks.
This has now been agreed to by the Bougainville Veterans, but they say the referendum must happen by 30 November at the latest.
The veterans have urged additional reconciliations. They want to reconcile with PNG security forces – the army, police and prison services.
They also want the leadership of the two governments, Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, to reconcile before the ratification of the referendum outcome.
The veterans also say reconciliation with neighbouring Solomon Islands is a priority and are seeking donor support to facilitate this.
How to grow the Bougainville economy has long been debated in the region.
Several groups have been eyeing the re-opening of the controversial Panguna mine, which was forced to close 30 years ago at the start of the 10 year civil war.
Environmental and social damage caused by the mine sparked the conflict.
The veterans have agreed, however, the mine can be re-opened after the referendum. But because of the sensitive nature of the matter, public debate and discussions should be discouraged until after the vote.
Any decision on how mining might proceed will also wait until after the referendum and not before appropriate legislation on land, the environment and conservation is put in place.
At its peak, the mine produced almost half of PNG’s export revenue and is still considered to contain one of the largest copper reserves in the world.
The Bougainville Veterans also talked about the importance of investigating other options for fostering economic development, such as fishing and agriculture.
The Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed in 2001, included provisions for amnesty for all persons involved in crisis related activities or convicted of offences arising from them.
In the Mary, Queen of the Mountains – Panguna Declaration, the Bougainville Veterans say these provisions must be extended to beyond 2020 and include members of the Me’ekamui factions as well as other groups and individuals who join in the gun disposal programme.