DON WISEMAN | Dateline Pacific, Radio New Zealand
WELLINGTON - The president of Bougainville, John Momis, says Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill is ill-informed and misleading in his statements on the region's independence referendum.
Earlier this week Mr O'Neill told parliament that the referendum may not go ahead.
The referendum is the final act of the Bougainville Peace Agreement which was signed amid much fanfare in Arawa on Bougainville in 2001.
The agreement followed the end of a bitter civil war that is thought to have claimed as many as 20,000 lives. Under the deal, an autonomous parliament was set up in Bougainville in 2005, and given the power and responsibility to guide the province towards a vote on possible independence by June of 2020 at the latest.
To avoid a clash with its own election schedule, Bougainville decided on a date for the vote of 15 June 2019.
This week, in response to a parliamentary question, Mr O'Neill said the vote would not happen if certain conditions laid out in the peace agreement were not met. These include the establishment of the rule of law, a proper government structure on Bougainville and disposal of illegal weapons.
"It's a long way off so I don't want Papua New Guinea and Bougainvilleans to think it's an easy path, just that tomorrow we will wake up and we'll go and have a referendum,” Mr O’Neill told parliament.
“It may be such that it'll be not possible. So we need to work between now and then, to work harder in making sure that we attend to the issues that are clearly defined in the peace agreement."
PNG's minister of Bougainville affairs, Father Simon Dumarinu, himself a Bougainvillean and a new MP, defended the prime minister, saying he had issued Bougainvilleans a challenge to ensure they are ready for the referendum.
"For me, it's a challenge,” Fr Dumarina said. “It's a challenge to the Bougainvilleans, the government on the ground and the people together. It's a challenge to them from the prime minister in regards to this question."
Fr Dumarinu says both governments need to work together to meet the timeline. But the president of Bougainville, Dr John Momis, is furious at the prime minister's claims. He says Mr O'Neill's comments are dangerous and misleading.
"Weapons disposal, fiscal self-reliance, good governance - all these things - are not conditions,” Dr Momis said. “They are considerations that we need to take into account in determining the date for the referendum. That's all.
“The referendum is inevitable. It's been decided. We will have a referendum."
Dr Momis says if Mr O'Neill acted on his comments, it would be a breach of the peace agreement. He says Bougainville and the PNG national government are equal partners in the implementation of the agreement.
But he says development has been held back by Port Moresby deliberately withholding funding that it is constitutionally obligated to send to the province.
Dr Momis says ultimately it will be the international community through the United Nations that will determine whether both sides have fulfilled their obligations under the peace agreement.