Bougainville Referendum aftermath irresolute, PNG ‘duty-bound’ to support economy

BUKA, 16 JULY 2019 (POST COURIER) – The National Research Institute says in its research report on the Bougainville referendum that there will be political implications of the vote and the non-binding outcome that is expected.

The report stated that a vote for independence would trigger an immediate unsettlement of the status quo.

“The referendum provisions reflected a carefully crafted compromise that was the key to the achievement of the BPA (Bougainville Peace Agreement),” the report stated.

“Linking the agreement to an interim autonomy and a future referendum on independence created a compromise between the Bougainville aspiration for independent statehood and the aspiration of the PNG government for unity.

“The compromise enabled parties within Bougainville to unite to achieve the peace agreement — including PNG.

“The non-binding outcome of the referendum was contrary to the strong position of the Bougainvilleans for the first 18 months of the negotiations on political agreement.

“It was an issue on which they eventually compromised, under international pressure, in order to persuade the national government to agree to a constitutionally-guaranteed referendum.

“The commitment to a non-binding referendum has further introduced an element of ambiguity into the referendum process.

“It encourages Bougainvilleans to believe that their choice will determine the outcome, and the PNG government to believe that the PNG Parliament will determine it.

“Put generally, the political outcome risk is that without significant statecraft (skillful political management), the parties will be forced back into political disagreement, political instability and even risk violent conflict even though the referendum is a fulfilment of the BPA.”

The think-tank said the referendum would require one of the parties to now accept an outcome on which they could only agree to disagree in 2001.

It said that managing the referendum outcome would involve re-managing the disputes at the centre of the original peace process and trying to find a consensus forward that would bring the Bougainville interests, and the autonomous Bougainville government and PNG government, to a new understanding of their relationships, capable of sustaining peaceful co-existence.

“Whatever the outcome of the Bougainville vote, comparative experience from similar referendums suggests that both predictable and unpredictable political consequences will follow, without a doubt,” the report stated.

“No matter what the result of the referendum, the following political consequences are likely to require addressing.”

Meanwhile, the  economic consequences of a vote for independence on Bougainville may have major repercussions, the National Research Institute Research report on the Bougainville referendum says.

“The question of economic changes to enable Bougainvilleans self-reliance and the adequacy of its fiscal arrangements will come to the fore more starkly and immediately in a context where independence is the outcome,” the report stated.

“The possibilities for self-reliance in an independent Bougainville appear to be increasing ‘national’ debt, increasing foreign aid, developing industries, obtaining a clearer maritime delimitation and portion of PNG tuna rents, and reopening the Panguna mine as a revenue-generating proposition.”

The think-tank said it was worth noting that PNG would have an interest in ensuring Bougainvillean political and economic stability, even post-independence, which may induce PNG to make ongoing financial settlement.

Internationally, central states have often supported the move to independence of the departing entity financially.

“If independence is chosen in the Bougainville referendum, two critical issues that present in any independence outcome are likely to emerge; the basis for the division of assets and liabilities; and the assets and liabilities to be divided.

“International law rules on division are not detailed.

“The one clear rule, however, is that the parties must negotiate in good faith for an equitable solution. A full legal appraisal of the legal arguments that could ensue is beyond the scope of this paper.”

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