In brief

Bougainville president tells Papua New Guinea: “Let my people go”

Ishmael Toroama insists 2019 referendum result should be honoured

James Marape (left) and Ishmael Toroama (right).
James Marape (left) and Ishmael Toroama (right). Author: Autonomous Bougainville Government
Talking to the government of Papua New Guinea, Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama said on December 9, “Let my people go.” The Bougainville leader also called on the PNG government to issue a “clear declaration [on] its plans for giving independence to Bougainville.”

Bougainville is an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. In 2019, it voted in a non-binding referendum on independence. 98% of voters did so for secession from PNG.

The governments of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea have been holding several summits since 2021 (joint consultation meetings) to reach a final agreement on the status of Bougainville.

The Bougainville government is demanding that the result of the referendum be honoured. The vote, although not binding, was overwhelming for independence.

But Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape maintains a more ambiguous position. He says he will “respect” the outcome of the vote, but clarifies that the final agreement must ensure the unity of the rest of the country, while at times it seems that Marape’s preference would be to keep Bougainville within Papua New Guinea.

The two governments have so far agreed on a schedule for independence in 2027, as long as Papua New Guinea’s parliament approves Bougainville’s secession.

In a joint statement issued at the end of the last summit this week, both governments reaffirmed their “agreement to determine political settlement or independence” between 2025 and 2027. This language suggests that the government of Papua New Guinea is still considering the possibility of offering Bougainville a deal that, while expanding self-government, would close the door of independence.

The fact is, however, that a similar deal was already explicitly rejected in the referendum (such a deal was the alternative option to full independence, and received less than 2% of the votes).