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Bougainville Referendum: A crisis looming for US in the South Pacific?

(Contributed)      8 March, 2019
The Bougainville referendum for independence from Papua New Guinea will now take place on 17 October, not earlier in June as previously planned.
Behind the scenes, however, two important factors have to be considered.
  1. 1. the legacy of the bitter war from the late 1980s to late 1990s, where as many as ten per cent of the population were killed;
  2. the involvement of US-led military involvement in PNG itself, which has some bearing upon decision-making in the corridors of power in Port Moresby.
An official announcement in early March about the proposed referendum in Bougainville about independence from PNG now planned for 17 October has revealed the problem of funding has been partially resolved. The referendum, which was initially planned for 15 June, was regarded as central for the peace process finalised nearly two decades ago to resolve a war on the South Pacific island.
The war, which raged from the late 1980s to late 1990s, resulted in heavy casualties; the three-way hostilities, with successionists wanting full independence together with tribal elders wanting further compensation from Panguna mine-owners, was brutal. It was only resolved in 2001 with a peace-process which included a guarantee of greater autonomy from Port Moresby-based decision-makers, leading to a vote about full independence and statehood for the Bougainville before 2020.
Problems had arisen late last year and earlier this year, however, with what Bougainville's president, John Momis, regarded as a, 'slow release of funds', for the referendum. (1) The official position of the PNG government, led by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, nevertheless, is that they support the referendum taking place later in the year.
The proposed referendum is intended to resolve many of the problems which have arisen from the troubled past with expedient decision-making in Canberra.
Bougainville was incorporated into the main PNG landmass by the Australian colonial administration in the lead-up to independence in the mid-1970s. Many Bougainvillians, however, disagreed with the decision, having stronger identification with the neighbouring Solomon Islands. Matters eventually came to a head during the 1980s with the Panguna mine and the exploitation of a huge workforce and natural resources which most Bougainvillians regarded as their own, not the property of mine-owners and decision-makers in Port Moresby.
The establishment of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), a well-armed successionist group, resulted in a PNG Defence Force counter-insurgency operation which further alienated Bougainvillians. Panguna mined was closed in 1989 and has never reopened. The blockade of the island together with a later US-led western mercenary operation which ended in fiasco and the toppling of the main government in Port Moresby, saw the problem escalate into a major political drama in the once, almost disregarded and forgotten, South Pacific backwater.
Throughout the period progressive forces in most Australian cities had Bougainville Support Groups which monitored developments and sought to overcome the blockade which prevented medicines and other essential items from entering the island. The BRA also had their own radio station which broadcast across the Pacific region as far as California, although it was regularly jammed by the PNGDF to prevent what Port Moresby regarded as unfavourable publicity.
Peace-talks, brokered largely through Canberra, resulted in a lasting peace for Bougainville although problems arising with the planned referendum has raised many tensions behind the scenes. While a statement released from Port Moresby recognised 'the referendum commission will need more time to be ready to conduct the free and fair and credible referendum', it has also been recognised that 'disputes and delays risk rekindling unrest and heightening political tensions'. (2) Fears have already arisen in PNG about a resurgence of Bougainville secessionism which would have far-reaching implications not only for the country but wider afield across the Asia-Pacific region.
Political stability in PNG is a particularly important consideration for Australia; the country forms a central part of the Defence of Australia doctrine (DOA), where northern shores are protected by a buffer of the three Melanesian countries, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Australian diplomacy, toward the three countries also takes the form of US-led initiatives to counter China in the wider region.
Much of the US-led diplomacy toward the region, aimed at reasserting traditional hegemonic positions, is centred upon PNG. Last year, for example, US-led attempts to prevent PNG using Chinese telecommunications technology for internet access saw responsibility thrust upon Australia to provide the necessary cables for on-line provision.
Fears that China was planning to make use of facilities on Manus Island last year, also brought a furious response from US-led centres of power in both Washington and the Pentagon.
At the APEC summit late last year in Port Moresby, the official position of the US was outlined by vice-president Mike Pence with the intention 'to boost operations at a Manus Island naval base'. (3) Official media releases noted high-level diplomacy had 'set in motion plans for a joint naval base on Manus Island, edging out Chinese interest'. (4) Later statements also clarified the US position toward the strategically-placed Lombrum base on Manus Island, with facilities 'capable of hosting Australian and US warships'. (5) Further media releases noted Australian military vessels, including those used for maritime patrolling, would be based permanently at Lombrum. (6)
What was not openly stated, however, was the wider strategic position of the Lombrum base with other important US military facilities in the region. Manus Island, for example, is regarded by US military planners as one end of a maritime corridor, the other end being Guam, a major US facility in Micronesia. (7)
US-led regional military planning has elevated the Guam facilities in recent times as the right-hand wing of the arc from Pine Gap intelligence facilities, the left-hand wing being Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Both wings have been developed for military operations in the Pacific and Middle East. (8)
Manus Island, for US-led regional military considerations, is far important than previously thought.
As the forthcoming Bougainville referendum is very likely to produce a vote for full independence, how PNG reacts remains a matter for future consideration. It has already been assessed that as many as 99 per cent of Bougainvillians will want full independence. (9)
An article in the Post Courier of PNG last year, dealing with the proposed referendum, included statements that 'Bougainville was never meant to be part of PNG', and there was a 'desire to be independent'. (10)
A study for the Australian government conducted by Fitch Solutions, assessed most Bougainvillians will vote for independence. (11) Fears already exist, however, that 'it is not clear that the authorities in Port Moresby will honour the result'. (12)
As the Nikkei Asian review noted: “On both economic and diplomatic fronts, Papua New Guinea's autonomous region of Bougainville has become a key piece in the game between Beijing, on one side, and the U.S. and its allies on the other.” (13)
Australia needs an independent foreign policy to distance ourselves from US-led regional military planning before diplomatic posturing and war-games develop into real-war scenarios.
1.     Statehood vote delay for PNG province, The Weekend Australian, 2-3 March 2019.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Mike Pence announces US-Australia military pact, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2018.
4.     Bid to beat China to PNG domestic internet cable, Australian, 21 September 2019.
5.     Ibid., and, Sydney Morning Herald, op.cit., 17 November 2019.
6.     Website: Lombrum Naval Base, HMPNGS TARANGAU Military,
7.     Ibid.
8.     Guam: Chamoru fighting for survival, The Guardian, 9 July 2008; see also, Map of the World, Peters Projection, Actual Size, Scale: 1: 1,230,000,000
9.     A small island, Nikkei Asian Review, 11 December 2018.
10.   No turning back, Post Courier, PNG, 25 March 2018.
11.   Weekend Australian, op.cit., 2-3 March 2019.
12.   Ibid.





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