Bougainville and PNG Face Impasse in Ratifying Island Chain’s Independence

Impasse

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARoB) and Papua New Guinea (PNG) representatives are still at an impasse and “appear no closer” to voting on the referendum on Bougainville’s independence, according to local media sources.

The referendum was supposed to be ratified in 2023 but faced delays due to the opposition party, the People’s National Congress, threatening to hold a parliamentary “no confidence vote” in February. However, the government of current Prime Minister James Marape challenged the vote in the country’s Supreme Court, which led Parliament to delay convening until the end of May.

However, a point of contention between both sides is what kind of majority should be used to determine the referendum ratification by Parliament. ARoB wants the ratification to be used by a “simple parliamentary majority, but PNG set a 2/3 majority, or an absolute majority, as the requirement.

Other Options to Declare Independence

Ezekiel Masatt, the Minister for Bougainville Independence Mission Implementation and Law and Justice, said how the referendum is ratified does not matter at this point but will when a constitutional amendment is made to confirm Bougainville’s independence.

Masatt also highlighted that the referendum is not the only option for the ARoB to become independent. He said that the island chain could bypass PNG Parliament and use the constitution it is currently writing to declare independence. Masatt also pointed out that PNG set the precedent when they declared independence from Australia in 1975.

However, Masatt is also attempting to locate a moderator to help both sides overcome the contention over the ratification method and other issues that are holding up the process. The most pressing issue affecting negotiations is the inability for PNG side to complete any items the Joint Supervisory Body voted on in previous meetings.

He also believes that the moderator will bring their “expert conflict resolution skills” to help both sides overcome the issues with the ratification process. Furthermore, he also believes the moderator will help solve other issues, such as the continued lack of focus from PNG and continued challenges to the process from Bougainville, in the wider relationship between PNG and Bougainville.

Analysis

The issue related to how PNG Parliament will ratify the referendum is the latest in a long line of issues related to how Bougainville will become independent. However, other issues will likely continue to negatively impact the ongoing discussions to affirm Bougainville’s independence. For example, the lack of will or focus for PNG to complete the items the JSB voted on caused significant dismay among Bougainville representatives. Specifically, the lack of will for PNG government to complete the process and allow Bougainville to become independent will be the biggest issue they have to overcome.

Masatt’s comments about Bougainville having other options to declare independence are likely a threat to the government that the region will unilaterally declare independence for the third time if the obstacles persist. Furthermore, he even highlighted PNG as setting the precedent for declaring independence from Australia as proof of the legality of their potential bid. Masatt, however, also signaled Bougainville’s willingness to continue the process if a moderator is found to help both sides resolve the issues that are impending the independence process.

While Bougainville and PNG could potentially restart the civil war they fought in the 1990s, both sides would be unwilling to do so and would choose to continue the peace process. However, PNG would likely restart hostilities in the form of a blockade if Bougainville decides to unilaterally declare independence without the Parliament ratifying the referendum. Conversely, Bougainville will likely resume hostilities with PNG if they believe that the government in Port Moresby has no intentions to allow them to declare independence.

Regardless of how Bougainville achieves impendence, it would likely enable China to increase its presence and influence in the region through specific means. The one means that China would likely use to gain influence in Bougainville is infrastructure investment and the issuance of loans through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Bougainville would be especially susceptible to this because the region is actively looking for investment to restart the Panguna mine and establish new mines. Furthermore, the region would also be open to investment through BRI loans to develop the country’s infrastructure.

The loans would likely cause Bougainville to have the same levels of unsustainable debt found in other countries that took on BRI loans, such as Laos, Zambia, and Bulgaria. Another way China could increase its influence in the country is by recognizing and establishing diplomatic relations with Bougainville after independence. China would have the ability to further its influence in the country through investment, cultural exchanges, or defense and security agreements by establishing diplomatic relations with Bougainville.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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