While Bougainville remains part of the sovereign nation of PNG, it is currently afforded the status of an autonomous region, governed by the ABG
The ABG signed a peace agreement with PNG in 2001
with various provisions of the agreement providing greater autonomy over the resources and administration of Bougainville than that granted to other provinces within PNG.
PNG has agreed to allow the ABG to hold a referendum between 2015-2020, relating to the possibility of an independent Bougainville. The ABG recently conducted their second general elections since the end of the civil war.
The second ABG general elections were widely accepted as free, fair and open elections and culminated in the swearing in of the new President John Momis, in June 2010.
Momis, a senior and experienced PNG diplomat, resigned from his post as Ambassador to China to campaign for the post of President. Goals for the ABG under Momis include; promoting good governance, improving the welfare of Bougainvilleans through economic development and achieving full autonomy.
Bougainvilleans are keen to move out of the shadow cast by the civil war, more commonly known as ‘the Crisis’.
There is an air of hope and anticipation as Bougainvilleans perceive that news of the economic and development potential of their land is spreading anew in the international arena. Educated and skilled Bougainvillean professionals are now returning to Bougainville to be part of its resurgence.
In order to gain independence between 2015 and 2020, it is expected that Bougainville will need to demonstrate the capacity to develop and maintain a sustainable economy underpinned by effective civil servants and a functioning governance system.
Future Governance in Bougainville
Under the autonomy arrangements agreed to in the Bougainville Peace Agreement, Bougainville has wide power to establish its own institutions. While the original leader of the 1988 rebellion, Francis Ona, has not yet joined the process, most other Bougainville leaders–including Damien Dameng, who, in his early seventies, continues to lead Me’ekamui Onoring Pontoku–support it.
Most people agree that a new Bougainville government should be based on customary authority. Processes for drafting a constitution for an autonomous Bougainville, expected to begin this year, are likely to involve wide public consultation. But discussion has thus far been limited to the strengthening of the COE system and the possibility of establishing of a bicameral legislature involving an upper house representing chiefs.
A range of difficulties, both practical and fundamental, confronts the enterprise. The practical difficulties have already limited the effective implementation of the COE system in Bougainville. More fundamental issues involve challenge to customary authority; rapid economic and social change will only exacerbate the problem. Resolving the tension involved in basing an accountable democratic system of governance for an autonomous or independent Bougainville on what is in many respects an autocratic system of customary power will not be easy. There is also potential for tension between conceptions of individual rights and responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities of groups, though of course Bougainville will not be the first place to deal with such tensions, and could learn much from experiences elsewhere. Discrimination by powerful local leaders against outsiders, both people from elsewhere in Bougainville and people from other parts of PNG, is also a threat.
These and similar potential problems should not be unmanageable, however, especially if effective and sensitive support and guidance is provided to customary authorities exercising new forms of power. Bougainvilleans are committed to the enterprise, and will undoubtedly bring great energy to it. They do not have a static view of their own custom. They want to build on it, and in so doing, to enable their multiple communities to find their own paths into an unpredictable future.
Anthony Regan, a constitutional lawyer, advises Bougainvillean parties to the negotiations with the Papua New Guinea government on the political future of Bougainville. He is a fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.