The threat of COVID-19 is just the latest factor to complicate the region’s bid for independence.
In November 2019, 98% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG), but complexities surrounding Bougainville’s independence claim risk stirring up deep-seated tensions and unresolved conflicts.
– Although Bougainville has voted for independence, there is no guarantee that the region’s vote will be honoured — conflict remains possible.
– Bougainville lacks the fiscal self-reliance needed to sustain independence.
– A successful transition to independence could intensify similar secessionist claims in Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces, where simmering conflict between the Indonesian government and locals has been steadily heating up.
A VIOLENT HISTORY
From 1988 to 1998, Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Bougainville Province — a series of islands off the country’s east coast — was the site of a civil war between Bougainvillean landowners and the PNG state. The conflict was largely driven by economic frustrations caused by the Panguna Mine (a copper and gold mine operated by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL)) and Bougainville’s long-held desires for independence from PNG. The conflict ended in 1998 and peace was formalised with the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) in 2001. As part of the BPA, Bougainville was given the right to self-governance and the promise of an independence referendum, which was finally held in November 2019. Almost every voter favoured independence.
Despite the strong show of support for independence, governance issues and a weak economic system throw the sustainability of an independent Bougainville into question. Bougainville lacks fiscal self-reliance for independence. Recent reports show that it generates just 56% of the internally generated revenue required to sustain independence and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) would need to double or triple its current budget to survive. The region is also still largely preoccupied with post-conflict reconstruction and is heavily dependent on aid, creating additional concerns about its capacity to sustain economic independence.
The potential effect of COVID-19 in Bougainville presents yet another economic challenge. If the virus reaches the region, its health infrastructure will almost certainly collapse. Presently, the region only has one hospital and 11 health centres for 250,000 people. Either a strict lockdown or a health disaster would economically cripple the region and cast further doubt over the ABG’s fiscal self-reliance upon independence.
There is significant political unrest within the ABG. John Momis, Bougainville’s president since 2010, is unwilling to step aside despite the constitution limiting presidents to two terms. The Bougainville House of Representatives recently rejected a motion to extend the maximum terms for a president from two to three, but Momis shows no intention of relinquishing power. He is disputing the legality of the House’s decision and has called for the regional election in June to be either delayed or cancelled while he seeks advice from the PNG Supreme Court over the legitimacy of the motion’s rejection.
Momis was central in facilitating the peace process following the civil war. Though he is unlikely to step away from public life if he fails in his bid to hold on to the presidency, losing his voice and influence during the delicate transition to independence could undermine the region’s fragile calm. Momis has indicated that throughout all consultations and negotiations with PNG, he would strive to ‘deliver… a peaceful outcome‘.
Although Bougainville has voted for independence, this outcome is not clear cut. The final decision lies with the PNG government, which must ratify Bougainville’s claim after a period of negotiation that would determine what an independent Bougainville would look like for both countries. PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape has explicitly expressed a preference for an autonomous, rather than independent, Bougainville. As such, he has been unwilling to commit to a definite date for negotiations — his public statements on the timeline range from after Bougainville’s upcoming election to five years’ time. Given the political schism within the ABG, Bougainville’s upcoming election is at high risk of being delayed or cancelled. If PNG continues to stall, and if there is further instability within the ABG (giving PNG an easy route to avoid negotiations), this delay and uncertainty could create significant unrest within Bougainville.
THE PANGUNA MINE: A GOLD TRAP
Bougainville’s significant economic problems could pressure the government into re-opening the Panguna Mine, which closed in 1989 during the fighting — at the time, it was the world’s largest open-cut mine. However, resuming operations at the mine isn’t a guaranteed economic solution. There is a significant risk that such a decision would be violently opposed, particularly by landowners who feel they were not compensated for the environmental destruction caused by the mine. In 2014, Jubilee Australia released a report saying local landowners were opposed to the re-opening of the mine, however BCL and the ABG strongly deny this.
Who has rights to the mine is also in dispute. These overlapping claims are deeply complex. Two Australian mining companies — Fortescue Metal Groups and RTG Mining Group — claim an interest, and the latter has the support of the chairman of the Panguna landowner association, SMOLA. However, Momis and other key landowners are deeply opposed to RTG, which they accuse of attempting to bribe the ABG. PNG’s BCL has the support of another landowner group, the Panguna Development Company. A $1 billion Chinese offer to fund the transition to independence, along with offers to invest in mining, tourism and agriculture, has the backing of Sam Kauona, a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general. Meanwhile, Momis’ personal plan would see the ABG and yet another Australian mining company, Caballus, set up a new joint company that would be given a monopoly over the island’s mineral wealth. It is not clear how the government intends to proceed as the Caballus option was blocked by the Bougainville legislature several months ago. Momis’ plan is also strongly opposed to by the landowner associations.
The competing claims among the ABG, Bougainville landowner associations and foreign mining companies prompted the ABG to call for a moratorium on the mine in 2018. However, tensions are already starting to rise, and two geologists have been killed at the mine in recent months. Deputy Police Commissioner and Chief of Bougainville’s Police Services has indicated this violence stems from disgruntled landowners.
Yet another complicating factor is Bougainville’s very large youth population — about 40% of the population is under the age of 15. This ‘youth bulge‘ could facilitate conflict, as ‘societies with rapidly growing young populations often end up with rampant unemployment and large pools of disaffected youths who are more susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups’. With tensions over the mines, floundering independence negotiations and low economic and education prospects, Bougainville’s disillusioned youth could be mobilised to violence, leading to a repeat of Bougainville’s devastating civil war.
Jakarta will be watching Bougainville’s independence journey very closely. Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces, which have close historical and cultural links with PNG, have been sites of simmering unrest ever since the controversial ‘Act of Free Choice’ brought the region under Jakarta’s governance. Instances of violence have been steadily escalating, particularly since 2019, when 70% of the Indigenous Papuan population signed a petition that supported an independence referendum. These acts of violence have paralleled violent protests across the region and increasingly severe repression from Indonesian security forces. With Bougainville potentially setting a precedent for regional independence and with increasing support from their Pacific neighbours, Indonesian Papuans may feel encouraged to continue pushing for independence, which could escalate the violence.
Bougainville’s bid for independence is reopening a series of wounds and risks disturbing the uneasy peace that has been sustained since the BPA was signed. While the population has overwhelmingly signalled its desire for independence, the journey is fraught and the risks of conflict are very high. The birth of a new nation will not be an easy one.