VIEWPOINT: BOUGAINVILLE: ANOTHER STEP TOWARDS INDEPENDENCE

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SURRY HILLS, Australia---(June 23, 1999 - The Guardian)---"I am honored by the trust that my people have placed in me in selecting me to lead this historical government into negotiations with PNG on the question that has been at the bottom of these past twelve years of conflict and division," said Joseph Kabui, who had just been elected President of the Bougainville People's Congress.

"The people have spoken out in very clear terms about what it is that they want us to agree on with PNG. We will be looking to a phased in period of self-government, leading to full independence, underpinned by a lasting friendship and brotherhood with PNG," said President Kabui.

It is almost two years since the historic signing of the Burnham Declaration in New Zealand that set in train the present peace and reconciliation process after nearly 10 years of war with Papua New Guinea.

In July 1997, the Bougainvillean people embarked on a far-reaching process to restore peace, heal the divisions between Bougainvilleans, demilitarize their island, rebuild the lives of the people and determine their own affairs.

The election of the Bougainville People's Congress (originally to be called Bougainville Reconciliation Government) fulfills an important step in the struggle for self-determination and independence.

Members of the People's Congress were elected or selected by regional constituencies, depending on local conditions and the state of electoral rolls with so many people dislocated by the war.

Overall the election process ran well despite an extremely serious attempt by PNG and New Zealand to subvert the whole peace process.

The New Zealand Government, which had previously won the confidence of the Bougainvillean leaders when hosting the Burnham and other meetings, invited a group of Bougainville leaders to New Zealand for a "study tour."

Once there, the leaders were confronted with a new "agreement" to sign.

PNG's negotiator Sir John Kaputin pushed it on the Bougainvilleans and PNG's Prime Minister Bill Skate was there in person.

The document claims to be a reaffirmation of the Lincoln Agreement to which New Zealand is a signatory. But, it actually negates the intent of the Lincoln Agreement.

The document had been prepared in Port Moresby and was dated January 22, 1999.

The Bougainville leaders were unprepared for negotiations, did not have advisers present and had not had an opportunity to study the document prior to "negotiations."

The BRA withdrew from the discussions and did not sign the document.

But others, under pressure and not understanding the full implications of the document, signed the "Matakana and Okataina Understanding" on April 22.

This document was an act of treachery designed to undermine the whole peace process and firmly entrench Bougainville's sovereignty in the hands of PNG.

It failed to recognize the Bougainville constitution, which had been drawn up under the peace process, and completely usurped the functions of the Bougainville People's Congress, even though the election process was under way.

If implemented, it could have created divisions amongst the Bougainvilleans and set the struggle for self-determination back years.

PNG has been tardy in withdrawing its military forces from the island, another indication of its reluctance to adhere to its commitments.

The Government has consistently said independence is not an option, although it has reaffirmed the Burnham Declaration acknowledging the right of Bougainvilleans to self-determination.

The new People's Congress gives the Bougainvillean people one voice to negotiate their political future with Papua New Guinea.

Joseph Kabui was vice-president of the pro-independence Bougainville Interim Government. His election and resounding victory over the only other candidate, Gerard Sinato, by 77 votes to 10, sends a strong message to Papua New Guinea as to the wishes of the people of Bougainville. Gerard Sinato was Premier of the former PNG-appointed Bougainville Transitional Government.

The Congress has met and given its approval for negotiations to begin with the PNG Government on Bougainville's political future.

Provided by Vikki John (VIKKI@law.uts.edu.au)

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