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By Don Wiseman, RNZ Pacific senior journalist

Papua New Guinea and Bougainville appear no closer to the tabling in the National Parliament of the referendum on independence.

The non-binding referendum, conducted in 2019, as required by the Bougainville Peace Agreement of 2001, resulted in 97.8 percent of voters supporting independence for a region torn apart by civil war in the 1990s.

It was to be tabled and ratified last year but was delayed further by the threat of a no-confidence vote in the Marape government, which has led to Parliament not sitting again until the last week of May.

A sticking point for both parties are the conditions under which MPs would vote on ratification.

Bougainville believes this should require a simple parliamentary majority but the PNG Minister of Bougainville Affairs, Manasseh Makiba, has set a two-thirds majority of MPs — an absolute majority.

Ezekiel Masatt
Bougainville minister responsible for independence implementation Ezekiel Masatt . . . “We are not doing anything unlawful. That is how Papua New Guinea attained its independence from Australia.” Image: PINA/RNZ Pacific

The Bougainville minister overseeing the implementation of independence, Ezekiel Masatt, believes this is not valid, at this point, but would be later, when a constitutional amendment becomes necessary.

Masatt has also warned that ratification of the referendum is not Bougainville’s only path to independence.

Close to completing constitution
He said Bougainville is close to completing the writing of its own constitution and using this document, it could declare its independence, bypassing the PNG Parliament.

“Having that constitution we would be following in the footsteps of Papua New Guinea in adopting that constitution and then getting independence by adopting that independent constitution,” Masatt said.

“And the precedent is Papua New Guinea. We are not doing anything unlawful. That is how Papua New Guinea attained its independence from Australia.”

The second draft of the Bougainville constitution is due at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Masatt is pursuing the plan for a moderator to be brought in to solve the issues holding up progress.

Bougainville has a timetable laid out to achieve its goal of independence by 2025 at the earliest, or 2027 at the latest.

Moderator would be beneficial
Masatt said to overcome the delay a working moderator would be beneficial, and that role could be much broader than the referendum issue.

“Every time we vote at a JSB [meeting of the Joint Supervisory Body involving both governments] we make commitments and we say all these things need to be attended to and when we come back to the next JSB the same issues are still littering the JSB agenda, because apparently nobody has worked on it.”

Masatt believes this working moderator could provide expert conflict resolution skills, and would bring staff who could deal with the other issues not confined to a ratification agenda, but the general autonomy issues affecting Bougainville’s relationship with Port Moresby.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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