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.