John Momis says Bougainvilleans must address issues like weapon disposal and good governance practices to ensure the referendum has a desirable outcome.
The right to hold a referendum on independence was included in the peace agreement finalised in 2000 but parliament is yet to set a date for the vote.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Anthony Regan, Melanesia Program, Australian National University
REGAN: The right to the referendum was agreed in the peace agreement and then written into the Papua New Guinea constitution. It has to be held no earlier than 2015 and can't be held no later than 2020. And what President Momis was doing in the major speech he made that you were referring to was spelling out to people that some of the things that they were worried about, particularly ex-combatants; people who used to be in the BRA and the resistance forces, that they aren't actually the obstacles they're scared about. People who are very much in favour of independence in Bougainville had a fear that part of the peace agreement which said that there should be attention to weapons disposal and to good governance, could have delayed the referendum beyond 2020. And he was spelling out that that's not the case, it can never be delayed beyond 2020. But they have to deal with weapons disposal and good governance when deciding the date between 2015 and 2020. So the date can be pushed back closer to 2020 if there's not security in weapons, if there's not good governance in Bougainville. And he was pointing out that even if the referendum was held at the end of that period in that five-year window, and you didn't have weapons dealt with by then, then the international community, the national government might argue that the referendum didn't have a valid outcome. So he was really just making it clear to the people of Bougainville that they've got the responsibility to make sure that when the referendum is held, that it's held in free and fair conditions. And that the outcome can be widely accepted by the international community and the national government.
COUTTS: And what about the sort of pockets of mining and there's still some simmering of unrest on Bougainville still about what happened years and years and years ago, more than a decade ago?
REGAN: Yes the mining issues in Bougainville was what really kicked off the war there. There was really deep unhappiness about the way that the revenue of the mining by Rio Tinto at Panguna was divided between the national government and Bougainville, and also about environmental and social impacts of the mining. So there remains some people who are opposed to mining. Whereas the majority and the government are in favour of restoring mining in Bougainville as the way of providing the revenue to make Bougainville either fully autonomous within Papua New Guinea, or independent if the referendum were to head that way. So that does need to be resolved, there needs to be unity amongst Bougainvilleans on that question, or it could be a divisive issue leading to conflict and difficulties.
COUTTS: Well why is it still a problem, why hasn't it been resolved to their satisfaction?
REGAN: Because essentially some people are saying whatever happens we don't want mining, and the government - and probably a majority - saying well yes mining causes problems but it can be different next time, the division of revenue can be better, the social impacts and so on can be managed better. So that issue needs to be sorted through. I think the consensus is emerging from very careful consultation that the government's doing, there are some other complicating factors, there's some outside companies coming in trying to do direct deals with small groups of landowners, and that's complicating things as well. But part of what President Momis is doing in holding these consultative meetings is trying to help people better understand the complex issues and reach some agreement on them.
COUTTS: It was a ten-year long war and it split the country considerably and had a huge impact. How readily will people get rid of their guns because they've lived through such a long period of civil war that they must have at the back of their minds this could happen again, I'm going to keep my gun?
REGAN: Yes that's a worry, no question about it. No one really knows how many guns that are there either. However when the United Nations and the regional peace monitoring group were there in the early 2000s, about two-thousand guns were handed in and destroyed. At that time some groups didn't participate, in particular the Mekamui groups are putting Francis Ona, those groups are now indicating their willingness to participate in a weapons disposal program, and there's a great deal of work being done to develop agreement on how best to do that in a way that ensures that everybody feels secure. It's going to take a little bit of time, it's not easy, there are now also criminal groups and businessmen and so on that are holding onto weapons, and the police are still pretty weak in Bougainville and there's no consensus yet on the police being armed. So it's not easy to sort that out, but a great deal of work is being done on it and part of President Momis's message to people is it's in our interests as Bougainvilleans to agree on this because in that way we can go ahead with a referendum, the result of which will be accepted by everybody.
COUTTS: How much of a hurdle could the actual timeframe itself be that they have to have it no earlier than 2015 but no later than 2020? Could that be a hurdle as well, will the people be ready or what if they're not ready?
REGAN: I think there's many ways of, as Joseph Kabui, the first president used to say, he'd say there's plenty of ways to skin the cat. And the real reason for saying that it should be held no earlier than 2015, no later than 2020, was to allow Bougainvilleans time to sort out their differences and to build their capacity. That's taking longer than expected. But I don't think the setting of the dates should necessarily be a huge obstacle, because it's fairly obvious even to those who really want a referendum as early as possible, that as yet the capacity of Bougainville to run its own affairs is still limited. So as long as the government's working very seriously, both the national government and Bougainville to keep building that capacity and make progress, I think the majority of people will be supportive of the process of agreeing a date. The date has to be agreed between the national government and Bougainville. It can't be pushed beyond 2020, so people know they have that guarantee.
COUTTS: And what about infrastructure and resources? Will Bougainville be able to manage that aspect of independence?
REGAN: Well the issue of independence of course isn't yet decided. Once the referendum is held the outcome of the referendum then has to be discussed between the national government and Bougainville. Both sides would have to agree that there would be independence, the timetable for moving towards independence would have to be agreed. It wouldn't necessarily happen overnight, if Bougainvilleans and the national government agreed that it needed time to build capacity. So all of those things are yet to be decided. At the moment yes, Bougainville I think most would agree doesn't have the capacity to do everything itself. But there's a lot of work being done to build that capacity. On infrastructure, there's a lot of help from outside. The Australian government is supporting road construction and maintenance, the Japanese government has put in a large number of bridges on the main coastal road, there's planning to put in more. Various national government bodies are working with Bougainville government to develop a hydro-electric power grid that could be established over time on the rivers of Bougainville. So all of this work's going on slowly and gradually, but it's providing the foundations for what could be a choice between a very high level of autonomy or independence gradually achieved.
COUTTS: Has a date been set for the referendum yet?
REGAN: No, mid-2015's the earliest and mid-2020 is the latest dates on which it can be held. As we move closer to 2015 there's going to have to be discussion between Bougainville and the national government on the date, and a committee has been set up between senior officials of the national and Bougainville governments to begin the preparations for the referendum. That was set up about 18 months ago, which was a very strong sign to Bougainville from the national government that they're committed to what was agreed in the peace agreement and put into the national constitution.