In brief

A ‘working moderator’ to break deadlock in Bougainville's independence process

Five years after referendum, Parliament has still not voted on the final decision

The governments of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville have agreed to appoint a “working moderator” to help the two sides agree on the contents of a crucial vote in Papua New Guinea’s parliament on the outcome of Bougainville’s 2019 independence referendum.

98 per cent of those participating in the referendum voted in favour of Bougainville independence, a Pacific island group with a population of about 300,000 people. The referendum was non-binding, and the final decision rests with the PNG Parliament. The two governments wanted the vote to be held in 2023, but disagreed on two central issues: what specific question MPs will vote on, and whether or not there will be a qualified majority.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape says he is “sympathetic” to Bougainville’s aspirations and calls on MPs to “understand” them. However, Marape has also reiterated that their duty is to “uphold the sovereignty and rule of law” of PNG. At the heart of the matter is the fear among the Papua New Guinean political class that Bougainville’s independence could unleash an avalanche of demands for autonomy or secession in other territories of this culturally, linguistically and geographically diverse country.

Following the referendum, some PNG leaders floated the idea that the process should be closed with an offer to extend Bougainville’s autonomy. The Bougainville government refuses to accept any alternative to independence and refers to the clarity of the referendum result. The Bougainvillean authorities suggest awareness-raising among Papua New Guinean MPs on independence.