FEW key things need to be clarified in regards to the two options in which 206,000 registered Bougainvillean voters will choose when the actual voting begins this Saturday.
The two options are: Box 1– Greater Autonomy and Box 2–Independence.
As previously explained by the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC), Greater Autonomy refers to a higher form of autonomy as the current Autonomy arrangement with Bougainville still remaining part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.
Independence on the other hand refers to a political status in which Bougainville will assume all sovereign powers and form its own independent State.
There is a general perception that the PNG Government favours Greater Autonomy than Independence.
There is also a general perception that those who are most likely to vote for Greater Autonomy, believe that Bougainville is not yet well prepared to govern its own affairs due to its very low internal revenue and current struggle on fiscal self-reliance.
Pro Greater Autonomy proponents further believe that if Bougainville is granted immediate independence, it will suffer with PNG withdrawing all its annual grants necessary to build infrastructure and run public service in Bougainville.
The Autonomous Bougainville Government on the other hand prefers a majority vote for independence from the voters to give more bargaining powers to the ABG negotiation team to push for independence.
This is because the results of the referendum are non-binding but are subject to PNG Parliaments ratification.
There is a perception among Bougainvilleans that Bougainville is resource rich with three quarters of PNG tuna being caught within the waters of Bougainville apart from more than US$60 billion (K206.57) worth copper and gold deposits still remaining on Bougainville.
With Bougainville natural resource s such as cocoa, coconut, forest and great potential in tourism industry, it is believed that in 20 years’ time, an independent State of Bougainville will become an economic superpower within the Pacific region outside of New Zealand and Australia.
So what are the likely effects of voting for these two options? Firstly, it is perceived that voting for Greater Autonomy through a majority vote could result in, PNG government through Parliament quickly ratifying Greater Autonomy and immediately ruling out any agenda for discussing independence for Bougainville in future even if Bougainville finally archives fiscal self-reliance under Greater Autonomy.
This could happen through Constitutional amendments to the Constitution of PNG.
Conversely, subject to Parliament’s ratification, a majority independence vote could mean immediate independence or deferred but guaranteed independence.
This could mean that if Parliament ratifies the independence vote, in 2020, Bougainville could be granted independence immediately in the same year.
Or it could mean that depending on a consultative process between the people of Bougainville and the PNG Parliament, after Parliament ratifies a majority independence vote, there will be a temporary or transitional form of government known as Free Association or known by another name which could operate for an agreed number of years such as five or six years.
This arrangement would be necessary to ensure Bougainville continues to obtain financial support from the PNG Government to run its public service for an agreed period of time until Bougainville assumes full sovereign powers as an independent State.
As such, given that Bougainville lost 20,000 people during the armed conflict and went through prolonged pain and suffering and loss of property worth millions of kina, and that Bougainville’s pursuit for a separate nation goes back to the 1800s, it would be advisable to vote for Box 2 knowing that the intent is not immediate independence, but a deferred independence of up to 5-6 years within which PNG should assist in rebuilding Bougainville’s economy and infrastructure during the transitional period until the seventh year when Bougainville will assume full sovereign powers from PNG.