09 July 2021
| PNG Signal
PORT MORESBY – Will Papua New Guinea break up if Bougainville is granted full independence?
For some PNG leaders the threat of balkanization has shaped their attitudes towards Bougainville leaving the union of 850 tribes.
One of them is prime minister James Marape, who recently pleaded with Bougainville’s leaders to take into consideration PNG’s fate when deliberating on the matter.
But asking Bougainville to empathise with PNG is a bit rich considering PNG has never really empathized with Bougainvilleans.
PNG certainly didn’t when Bougainville first demanded independence before PNG gained its independence and when the Bougainville people opposed the Panguna mine.
Instead of asking for Bougainvilleans to see things through a PNG lens, Marape should be preparing PNG to let go of Bougainville.
Bougainvilleans have already made up their minds on full independence as expressed in the results of the referendum on whether or not they remain an integral part of PNG.
PNG on the other hand needs a serious national consultation on its post-Bougainville political architecture instead of toying around with whether or not it should be defined in its Constitution as a Christian nation.
At independence there was recognition by the likes of the first Governor General, Sir John Guise, that the kind of centralised Westminster government PNG was borrowing from its colonial master would lead to separatist movements.
The context of Sir John’s concern was that prior to independence there were already movements of political self-determination across the land.
The aspiration for self-determination is as old as the independent Melanesian tribes that have for millennia defended their tribal lands from outsiders.
It was against this cultural grain that a forced unification was imposed by the West.
This has been perpetuated since 1975 by an elite whose minds have been successfully colonised. Colonisation in PNG has a black face.
But a tendency for self-determination need not necessarily mean balkanization is inevitable.
After all, Bougainville was initially amenable to being part of PNG at independence in 1975 and dropped its ambitions for independence.
However, Bougainvilleans were to be disappointed by a neocolonial government in Waigani and its instruments of suppression inherited from the colonial Administration.
Attempts to accommodate Bougainvillean aspirations within the nation-state model borrowed from the West led to a civil war remain a source of discontent nationwide with calls for autonomy.
The English language is not the native tongue of Papua New Guineans. Translating their self-determination aspirations inevitably involves losing some of the nuances of the political, social and economic autonomy control they wish to have.
We have seen this in the Bougainville experience where the Westminster model of the nation state has proven itself to be incapable of accommodating the political aspirations of the people of Bougainville.
Even after Bougainvilleans were granted greater autonomy than most other autonomous regions globally, they chose independence.
This reflected their bitter experience of Waigani continuing to deny them much needed development funding and thus stifling their progress.
The Melanesian world has for millennia been a multi-polar world with no strong political centre or hegemony.
The colonial powers imposed their nation-building historical tradition through a newly educated PNG elite.
The colonisers hoped the elite would administer a regime that would create a Western-style homogenous national identity under central control.
Such an animal is not necessarily evil, however the PNG experience has shown that it is flawed as it can easily be hijacked by a rent-seeking predatory elite.
The accumulation of power and resources at the centre of power has had little trickle-down effect to the periphery.
In natural resource law, many Papua New Guineans feel cheated by a system that enables itself to own and decide on the exploitation of oil, gas and minerals that lie under tribal lands.
Year after year sub-national administrations wait like beggars for Waigani to release warrants for their development activities.
Political leaders, proud of their people’s mandate, have become yoyos jumping into different political camps hoping to grab some crumbs for their people.
People who were once warriors have become worriers and bystanders in their own land.
Bougainvilleans clearly do not want to be part of this failed project and are intent on bailing out.
Through their natural resource laws they have demonstrated that the people should always be the centre of power and not the central government.
Waigani needs to catch up to this reality instead of looking for band-aid solutions towards maintaining central control through the nation state.
A second Constitutional Planning Committee is needed to seek opinions from the people of PNG as to the type of system of government that is more relevant to them.
PNG needs a new Constitution and a new political architecture to accommodate the different interest groups in this land post Bougainville’s inevitable exit.
The current centralised system has been rightfully acknowledged by many leaders, including the prime minister, as being unable to withstand pressures from separatists especially when institutions of the state are weak.
PNG is a pluri-national state that has been pretending to be a nation state for over 40 years.
Instead of obsessing over whether PNG’s Constitution defines it as a Christian country, we should be exploring models of government that may be more relevant to PNG.
Should PNG be redefined from being the Independent State of Papua New Guinea to becoming the Pluri-National State of Papua New Guinea?
PNG needs a new Constitution that recognises the different tribal nations and empowers them with their full rights to self-determination within a political union.