When straddling a barbed-wire fence, shifting your feet risks a wound ranging from hurt to horrendous.
Shift carefully, not carelessly or inadvertently.
For two decades, Australia has been doing a delicate straddle between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville. That’s the significance of the ouch moment suffered by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles during his PNG visit earlier this month.
The sting Marles got is a vivid reminder of the balance Australia must maintain on PNG and Bougainville. And how things could end in a world of hurt.
If most peace agreements fail in their first five years, the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement is a profound achievement. But it’s still a work in progress, and the next five years heading to the 2027 deadline will decide.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape describes the possible independence of Bougainville and the sanctity of PNG as one country as the greatest challenge facing the nation.
The barbed wire grows sharper, and Australia’s balancing act becomes more precarious, because PNG is unlikely to let the autonomous region go, while Bougainville is unlikely to settle for anything less than full independence.
The PNG government and parliament may eventually baulk and declare, ‘No.’ Bougainville threatens a unilateral declaration of independence, a grab for freedom that’d leave it poorer and struggling to find international friends.
Bougainville was not top of mind for Marles as he headed to Port Moresby. He called it a ‘family’ call, which is fair enough for a man who has visited PNG 20 times. The deputy prime minister went to open a new hospital in Lae, Australia’s single biggest aid projectsince PNG’s independence in 1975. In his defence minister role, Marles started work on elevating the PNG–Australia Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership to achieve a bilateral security treaty with ‘the status of a treaty document between our two nations’.
At his press conference, Marles answered two questions on his ambitions for a defence treaty, and then got a question on Bougainville. The answer he gave led to a headline in the PNG Post-Courier: ‘Australia backs PNG on Bougainville’. Here’s what Marles said to generate that headline:
Back in 2011 I visited Bougainville, and it is a very beautiful part of the world. There’s a lot of history in terms of Australia’s engagement here.
The answer to this is pretty simple. As a witness to the arrangements that were put in place in respect of Bougainville more than 20 years ago, our job is to support Papua New Guinea. And that’s what we’re going to do.
So our job is to support Papua New Guinea, in the decisions that it makes around what arrangements take place in the future. It is absolutely not our role to articulate views there.
Our role is to support the prime minister and the government of Papua New Guinea, in the decisions that it makes in respect of the future of Bougainville, and we stand ready to do that.
The Autonomous Bougainville Government took two alarming signs from Marles. Australia will back PNG in the negotiations. And Australia is promising more military help to PNG.
Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama accused Marles of ‘veiled threats’, saying Australia had abandoned its neutral position:
It was the Australian Government who trained and armed the Papua New Guinea Defence to wage war on the citizens of Bougainville and it was they who supplied [helicopter] gunships to wreck havoc and mayhem on Bougainville.
What we are witnessing right now is simply history repeating itself where the Australian Government throws its support behind the Government of Papua New Guinea to destabilise yet again Bougainville’s right to self-determination.
The statements by the Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles are in my view veiled threats being issued to the Government and people of Bougainville as he boasts about the military cooperation between the two countries …
We have remained passive recipients of piecemeal contributions and boomerang aid from the Australian Government but Mr Marles’ sentiments have now shown Australia’s true intentions for Bougainville.
I assure the governments of PNG and Australia that my government and my people do not take kindly to threats and we will never kowtow to neo-colonists that seek to usurp the sovereignty of Pacific island nations with their bullying tactics and intimidation.
Marles’s office leapt to repair and clarify, giving these words to journalists:
The Deputy Prime Minister has stated that as a witness to the Bougainville Peace Agreement more than 20 years ago, Australia supports Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Peace process. There has been no change to our long-standing policy on Bougainville. Australia’s role is to support the peace process and decisions around future arrangements which the parties have to negotiate. Australia will support whatever political settlement is agreed by the parties. It is not Australia’s role to articulate views about those arrangements.
Australia’s high commissioner to PNG, Jon Philip, then wrote to Toroama offering reassurances that Australia hadn’t shifted. The high commission is trying to set up talks this week with Bougainville officials.
Constitutional lawyer Anthony Regan, who has worked on Bougainville since 1981, says Marles has ‘reignited all the old Bougainville suspicions of Australia. Marles’s pullback briefing has not been reported in PNG and Bougainville. That hurts our ability to play an honest-broker role.’
Australia doesn’t want to go back to the diplomatic tangle and moral agony it suffered before it got to the straddle position.
At the start of the conflict that ran from 1988 to 1997, Canberra backed PNG’s sovereignty, providing military equipment and training. As the bloody struggle dragged on, killing up to 20,000 people, Australia desperately sought a better position.
The shift to the barbed-wire balance took shape in 1999 when Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would see PNG and Bougainville as two parties in a peace process. A significant Downer contribution to the negotiations, led by New Zealand, was the idea of a ‘non-binding’ referendum on independence.
Downer sold the referendum to PNG as a means to restore and protect its sovereignty. On the Bougainville side, he pointed to the East Timor referendum and the way the international community forced Indonesia to release Timor-Leste.
The roadmap agreed earlier this year stipulates that the referendum result and the outcomes of joint consultation must be tabled in the PNG parliament by the the end of 2023. Following a vote of the parliament, implementation of the agreed final political settlement, which may include independence, will commence no earlier than 2025 and no later than 2027.
Two versions of the way ahead were set out by the top officials from Port Moresby and Buka at last month’s State of the Pacific conference at the Australian National University.
The secretary of the PNG prime minister’s department, Ivan Pomaleu, offered a catalogue of caution, saying Bougainville didn’t have the institutions and economy it needed to be autonomous or independent:
The fact is that in the 21 years since the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, and the 17 years since the creation of autonomous government, just a fraction of the powers and functions available to the Autonomous Bougainville Government have been drawn down. And to me, this represents a failing on the part of both governments.
Bougainville’s chief secretary, Shadrach Himata, said Toroama has pledged that only independence will satisfy Bougainville’s people. Himata said PNG’s parliament must respect the 97.7% vote:
A failure to protect the constitutional and democratic choice of the people will amount to a breakdown of the State’s legitimacy; and is a ground for Bougainville to assert its right under international law to remedial secession. In that scenario it will also allow the Autonomous Bougainville Government to take appropriate action/s, should the National Parliament fail to ratify or endorse the choice of the people for independence.
The secession threat, Regan says, means ‘we are quite likely to have Bougainville make a unilateral declaration of independence by 2027’.
PNG could do much to block international recognition of such a declaration. Membership of the UN requires recognition by the Security Council and a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. Without that status, Bougainville gets no access to the International Monetary Fund or World Bank.
Bougainville’s 2020 budget was 440 million kina ($182 million)—nearly 85% of which was paid by the PNG government, with Bougainville’s domestic revenue contributing the rest.
Chand calculates that even with a bigger share of fishery revenue from local waters, Bougainville would still rely on PNG for half its budget. His advice to Bougainville is: ‘Political independence isn’t worth much if you don’t have the economic independence to deliver for the people.’
After all that has been achieved, PNG is not going to go back to war with Bougainville.
The danger of unilateral secession is that Bougainville would be a poor and fragile state, prey to great internal demands and dangers but with little outside help.
For Australia, the two decades of stability achieved by the barbed-wire straddle would collapse. Balancing that future would need more than just smart footwork.