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Resolving two dimensions of conflict: The dynamics of consent, consensus and compromise

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Anthony Regan analyses the different positions in the peace talks, how the talks stalled over the issue of a referendum and how the stalemate was resolved with an agreement on autonomy and a constitutional guarantee of a non-binding referendum.

The negotiation process between the Papua New Guinean government and the political groups in Bougainville was long and tense, revolving around autonomy and a referendum on independence. Critical to the talks was the establishment of a unified negotiating position amongst the different Bougainville parties. A workable compromise consisted of a high degree of autonomy to be followed by a referendum on independence, which was acceptable to all the parties and recognised disagreement on the question of independence. Anthony Regan analyses the different positions, how the talks stalled over the issue of a referendum and how, thanks to international intervention and a change in negotiating personnel, the stalemate was resolved with an agreement on autonomy and a constitutional guarantee of a non-binding referendum.

Bridging differences – within Bougainville

The assassinated Premier of the Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG), Theodore Miriung, was in many ways the father of the peace process. He sought to build bridges between all Bougainville factions. The BTG continued his efforts after his death in October 1996, and the BIG/BRA leaders who took part in the process from mid-1997 pursued the same goals. However there were other groups in the Bougainville political spectrum, both supporters of independence and supporters of integration, who had difficulty in seeing the possibility of a compromise acceptable to all. The challenge facing the coalition of Bougainville leaders, as they prepared to begin the political negotiations with Papua New Guinea in mid-1999, was to bridge the divides.

The Bougainville negotiating position was the product of weeks of work by the senior Bougainville People's Congress (BPC) leaders and their advisers, prior to the negotiating session with Prime Minister Skate on 30 June 1999. It involved major compromises between the 'radicals' (BIG and BRA) and the 'old moderates' (both former BTG members and others elected into the BPC). The compromises made by the radicals were heavily influenced by the experience of the by then six months of political conflict with the 'new moderates'. The latter were a new formation of leaders of groups aligned with the PNG Government which included John Momis, the Leitana Council of Elders from Buka and senior leaders of the Resistance Forces. They had at last opened the eyes of many of the 'radicals' to the extent of the divisions in Bougainville on the question of independence. At the same time they had to bear in mind the continuing fervent support for independence from Ona and his supporters.

At the beginning of the peace process, the BIG and BRA leaders tended to be adamant on the issue of independence for Bougainville, believing that virtually all Bougainvilleans supported their position. It took time for them to appreciate the fears of their opponents that independence would lead to domination by the BRA. Their views were first modified by the increasing contact they had with the BTG, which from 1995 advocated 'highest possible autonomy' as an alternative to independence. Equally, increasing contact with the BIG and BRA leaders helped the leadership of the 'old moderates' to understand the BIG/BRA position and become more open to the possibility of at least a referendum on independence.

After the election of the BPC in May 1999, it took several weeks to agree on the details of a compromise on independence. An important part of the process here was the development by advisers to the BPC of a paper entitled 'Options for Negotiations on a Political Solution – A Framework for Evaluation'. Over several days of intensive discussion, the advisers first defined a series of nine very broad options for an agreed political settlement. They ranged from immediate independence through to acceptance of the new provincial government system operating elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. The advisers then identified the main features – or issues – about post-conflict Bougainville and the twenty consequential requirements in respect of each such feature that should be met by the ideal option for a political settlement. Focused on the need to integrate opposing positions, a conscious effort was made to address the key concerns of each major faction. Each option was assessed – given a mark of high, medium or low – in terms of how well it could be expected to meet the twenty requirements. The analysis was summarised in a matrix [see page 40]. The analysis showed that the strongest option, in terms of how well it might be expected to meet the twenty requirements, was a deferred and binding referendum, together with highest possible autonomy operating until the referendum was held.

While that option received the highest assessment, the paper was careful to make no recommendation. Rather, it invited the BPC to first consider the suggested approach to evaluation of options. However, early in June 1999, when the paper was presented, first to the executive of the BPC, and then to the full assembly (over 100 members), the analysis was enthusiastically accepted. The paper was discussed in regional groupings of the BPC (North, Central and South) over several hours and then in the full assembly, where a vote was taken on which option should be supported in the political negotiations. There was an overwhelming vote in favour of deferred and binding referendum and highest possible autonomy. That option was then adopted as the Bougainville negotiating position. The advisers then worked closely with the senior BPC leaders (and later senior BRA commanders) to develop what became the basis for the Bougainville position throughout the next 26 months of negotiations.

Double indemnity: a workable compromise

The negotiating position was agreed to by the disparate groups in the BPC, and was later accepted by the 'new moderates', because it represented an acceptable and workable compromise. If the moderates would support the deferred referendum proposals, the 'radicals' would support the demand of the 'moderates' for high autonomy until the referendum. Despite initial opposition to a referendum by some 'moderates', they accepted that many Bougainvilleans had long desired independence, and that many now supported that goal even more strongly as a result of almost ten years of conflict. Hence, the issue had to be dealt with, and a referendum was the most democratic and fair means of deciding it. Deferring the referendum was best, as weapons needed to be disposed of if the vote was to be fair, and reconciliation was needed if the vote was not to be divisive. Further, they accepted the argument that high autonomy operating for a number of years might satisfy even the 'radicals', with the result that Bougainville could go united into a referendum, choosing to remain autonomous rather than independent. For their part, the 'radicals' took the view that the combination of deferral of the referendum and the operation of autonomy would allow time to build the capacity needed to run an independent Bougainville and allow a consensus on independence to develop.

The result was an interlocking package of two halves, each dependent on the other. The BIG and BRA could only achieve a referendum if they supported autonomy for the 'moderates'. In turn, the 'moderates' could only achieve autonomy arrangements if they supported a referendum acceptable to the BRA and the BIG. The awareness that each side of the main divide in Bougainville depended on the other meant that despite pressures that could have divided the Bougainvilleans, they remained fairly united behind their common position throughout the negotiations.

Despite their initial opposition to the negotiating position, by the time of the second round of negotiations, in December 1999, the 'new moderates' had embraced it without change. This was in large part possible because of a judicial decision in November 1999 concerning a legal challenge to the suspension of the Bougainville Provincial Government that had come into operation in Bougainville in January 1999. As a result of the decision a new provincial government was established, controlled by the 'new moderates' with John Momis (MP for Bougainville Regional Electorate) as Governor. As a large part of the concerns of the 'new moderates' had been about exclusion from power, once that issue was resolved, it was not too difficult to persuade them that the compromises involved in the BPC negotiating position were reasonable. A modus vivendi was agreed, under which the new provincial government would exercise legal power only after consultation with the BPC, and the two groups would jointly negotiate the political future of Bougainville united in a now common negotiating position.

Bridging differences – Papua New Guinea and Bougainville

The Papua New Guinea negotiating position and strategy

Successive Papua New Guinea governments under Prime Ministers Namaliu (1988 to 1992), Wingti (1992 to 1994), Chan (1994 to 1997), and Skate (1997 to 1999) publicly opposed independence for Bougainville. On that basis all but Skate also ruled out the possibility of a referendum on independence. Sovereignty of Papua New Guinea was the constant focus of the negotiating position for the national government, especially on the part of the officials, and for the first 18 months of the political negotiations, very little flexibility was evident.

The strong stand against Bougainville's demands is perhaps surprising given the fact that Papua New Guinea clearly had limited military capacity to impose a settlement had the political negotiations failed. Further, the BRA had entered the negotiations making it clear they believed they had been winning the war, and as a result had earned the right to have their terms accepted by Papua New Guinea.