Pacific News Minute: Independence Referendum On Bougainville Postponed To October

Mar 14, 2019

Map of Bougainville
Credit United Nations

The United Nations kicked off a series of public meetings in Bougainville this week to inform people about the upcoming referendum on independence. That vote, originally scheduled for June, has been postponed to October to allow more time to explain the procedure and what happens afterwards.

The referendum is required under the 1998 Peace Agreement that brought an end to the civil war on Bougainville that took the lives of as many as 20,000 people. Voters will decide between greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea, or full independence. 

The conflict started in protests over the giant Panguna copper and gold mine, and, more than 30 years later, those issues remain unresolved. John Momis, President of Bougainville, wants to re-open the mine in collaboration with an Australian company; landowners and a rival mining outfit continue to challenge that arrangement.

In another echo from the war, President Momis reconciled this month with Moses Pipiro, commander of the most militant faction, the Mekamui Defence Force. Pipiro said that the revolution had been fought to realize the dream of independence and called on all Bougainvillians to back Momis.

Momis also appears to have resolved his feud with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. Momis claimed that the central government in Port Moresby had failed to pay over a hundred twenty five million dollars for various projects, plus about 9 million more to assist the Referendum Commission. Prime Minister O’Neill told reporters this month that all the money will be paid.

The Prime Minister also took pains to point out that the referendum will not be decisive. The Peace agreement calls for the results to be put before parliament. The PNG Post Courier quoted Prime Minister O’Neill as saying people needed to understand that independence could only be granted by the national parliament.