People running out of patience
The pro-independence Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) is running out of patience with Papua New Guinea's indecisiveness and failure to make firm commitments regarding a satisfactory political solution for Bougainville. The peace process, which was commenced in 1997 after almost 10 years of war between PNG and Bougainville, is now very fragile, with PNG continuing to manoeuvre to gain time and avoid a referendum on the question of independence. Considerable progress has been made since the cease-fire came into force in April 1998 and a regional Peace Monitoring Group was established on Bougainville along with a United Nations Observer. The PNG-enforced blockade of Bougainville was lifted, the process of restoring basic services and reconstruction has begun, and considerable progress made towards reconciliation between Bougainvilleans. Relations between Boguainvillean leaders and PNG under the leadership of Prime Minister Bill Skate improved considerably. As part of the process, and in accordance with agreements endorsed by Papua New Guinea, the people of Bougainville elected a People's Congress (government), representative of the whole of Bougainville. The key questions of the withdrawal of PNG Defence Forces, disposal of arms, the exercise of self-determination remained to be resolved — through negotiations. The cease-fire agreement refers to the gradual withdrawal of the PNG Defence Forces with the simultaneous disposal of arms by the BRA and the Resistance (Bougainvilleans who were co-opted by PNG). At present the PNG Defence forces are still sitting on Bougainville, the BRA still has its arms as well as the Resistance and the only people who are standing between them is the Peace Monitoring Group (led by Australia) which is not armed. Negotiations were held last December with the new PNG Government led by Sir Mekere Morauta. During those negotiations the Bougainville People's Congress, which is now the Government of Bougainville, and all the groups and leaders in Bougainville were united in presenting their negotiating position to the Morauta Government. Political questions Moses Havini, international representative for the Bougainville Government told The Guardian that their position centred around three principles. First, that the highest level of self-government short of independence be established in Bougainville immediately. Second, that under this highest level of self-government, the Bougainville Government would have exclusive responsibilities for the full range of powers and functions in Bougainville other than agreed essential powers and functions that may be reserved primarily to the PNG Government. Third, and the most crucial point, that a referendum be held as a legitimate right of Bougainvilleans on the question of independence for Bougainville, at a time to be determined by the Bougainville Government. Unity on negotiating position "This is the common negotiating position which we presented to Sir Michael Somare [PNG Minister for Bougainville Affairs] and his team in December last year", said Mr Havini. "So we are not talking about a referendum in terms of tomorrow or in three years time but further down the track when the people of Bougainville are actually ready for it. "In fact what we said was that the referendum would be held on a date to be determined by an autonomous government of Bougainville, after consultation with the Government of PNG. "There would be a number of triggers which would depend on the following factors: capacity of the Bougainville administration, progress towards reconciliation, the political and economic situation, and the progress in the operation of the autonomy arrangement. "And then, of course the other important issue would be the progress on arms disposal." The referendum would be a yes-no vote on whether the people of Bougainville become an independent nation-state or remain within the constitutional frame-work of the PNG nation-state. This was the proposal put to PNG negotiators at the meeting last December. "In presenting this common negotiating position to Sir Michael Somare in December, Sir Michael Somare said to us that he would now present this proposal to the Cabinet and, in fact, they were not altogether opposed to the idea of autonomy and even considering a referendum and that during our second round of negotiations he would come back with an answer to the people of Bougainville. "The second round of negotiations took place in Buka [island north of Bougainville island] on March 6, 2000." Insulting offer Sir Michael Somare returned with an insulting counter-proposal that offered the people of Bougainville no more than a provincial government system that is basically even lower than a metropolitan local government council in Australia. "Now, the Bougainvillean leaders saw that as basically six steps backwards. What we were offered is even three times less than what the Bougainvilleans got in 1975-76, during the first struggle, by way of a provincial government system", said Mr Havini. "It is very provocative. The people of Bougainville are not dumb, are not stupid. They know what they are fighting about. "They know the political system of Papua New Guinea inside out and with the question of autonomy they are actually expecting to get something more and over what they got in 1975-76." The Bougainvillean parties were united in their outright rejection of the proposal from Papua New Guinea. They later requested a resumption of talks which recommenced on March 17 on Loloata Island and in Port Morseby. They continued until March 23, when an "Understanding" was signed. Loloata Understanding The Loloata Understanding, as it is called, provides for a Bougainville Interim Provincial Government to be established under PNG law. This would be followed by the establishment of an autonomous Bougainville Government. The functions of such a government are "to be agreed upon" and "Bougainville will take some years to exercise many legislative powers and functions". There is agreement to continue negotiations on a political settlement. There is nothing in the Understanding however, which pins PNG down to a fixed timetable or commitment to a level of autonomy or even when autonomy might be achieved. The Understanding is just as non-committal on the key political question of self-determination and independence: "Negotiations on a political settlement will continue with the Bougainville Leaders". PNG "acknowledges the aspirations for a binding referendum on independence as called for by the Bougainvillean leaders". Acknowledging an aspiration is a far cry from responding to those "aspirations" or even acknowledging them as rights rather than just aspirations. "The parties will address the referendum issue. The parties agree that the holding of the referendum may be deferred until after autonomy has been implemented and can be fairly and properly judged." In effect PNG has not committed itself to a referendum in the forseeable future or to "autonomy short of independence" as sought by Bougainville. PNG appears to be buying time with the aim of re-establishing control over Bougainville to avoid giving the people of an opportunity to express their will. The PNG authorities hope to break the unity that has been achieved, possibly buy off a section of the population and weaken the resolve of the Bougainvilleans as expressed by the Bougainville People's Congress. The creation of a second government by PNG creates difficulties and has the potential to sow disunity. But PNG might be in for a shock, the Bougainvilleans are a determined people, determined to become independent and manage their own affairs, and after the years of war and human rights abuses by PNG Forces, it may not be so easy for PNG to walk back in and be accepted. Frustration On Bougainville people are becoming impatient with PNG's failure to make advances in the peace process. It remains to be seen how quickly PNG acts on the Understanding, or whether it continues to drag the process out. "Unless speedy legislation is implemented through the PNG Parliament for an Autonomous Bougainville Government, over and above what Bougainville got in 1976, then there is no guarantee that we will ever get away from what has been offered", said Mr Havini. "The people of Bougainville have been fighting now for five decades and more consistently in the last ten years for an independent homeland. "Under international law, indigenous people's rights and the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not only is this right guaranteed under the provision, `the Right to Self-Determination', but also the right of the people to enjoy their own economic resources is also guaranteed. "Bougainville is a very resource rich island country and most capable of becoming an independent and leading viable nation within the Pacific", said Mr Havini. "We are frustrated." "Bougainville and Papua New Guinea are still technically in a state of war. The BRA Force is now fully and better armed than ever, and has ten years of experience of fighting a successful guerrilla war against the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Cannot rule out war "They are ready to re-enter war with Papua New Guinea at any time, that is, if PNG is secretly inclined that way." The BRA has raised concerns about recent political statements by out-going Australian Peace Monitoring group Commanders, that they were there to protect PNG's sovereignty. "While this is essentially a matter between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, the PMG's role is clearly that of a `neutral peace-keeping' force on Bougainville", concluded Mr Havini.