NOOSA – It wasn’t so much the content as the arrogance of prime minister Peter O'Neill’s airy statement about Bougainville’s political future that came as a bombshell.
Bougainville’s ‘independence’ referendum scheduled for 15 June 2019 will not go ahead unless key conditions are met, O’Neill told the Papua New Guinea parliament on Tuesday.
And yesterday, Bougainville president Dr John Momis predictably reacted with anger, and said O'Neill was dead wrong.
“The referendum is inevitable. It's been decided. We will have a referendum," came the sharp retort.
Addressing the PNG parliament, O'Neill had stated that Bougainville’s autonomous government will be required to meet certain criteria before the referendum can be held.
These, O'Neill said, included “a proper establishment of rule of law, proper establishment of a government structure [and] proper disposal of weapons.
“All those issues are yet to be met as we speak today," he added.
"I don't want Papua New Guineans and Bougainvilleans to think that it's an easy path, that we'll just wake up tomorrow and have a referendum.
"It may be such that it's not possible."
Dr Momis said if O'Neill acted on his comments, it would be both unconstitutional and a breach of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.
“After the referendum is a different matter,” he said, “with the international community, through the United Nations, at that stage to decide whether [whether] what is happening in Bougainville meets international best practice.”
The referendum was formally agreed in 2001 in an internationally endorsed constitutional and legal treaty which brought to a close the bloody 10-year Bougainville civil war, a conflict which cost the lives of an estimated 10-15,000 people.
O’Neill has previously shown himself to be lukewarm on the referendum and other elements of the peace agreement.
In fact PNG has long been in breach of the agreement by showing itself unwilling to provide legislated reparations to Bougainville and failing to progress effective institutional arrangements to conduct the referendum.
O’Neill claimed that pre-referendum "conditions" still need to be met including establishing the rule of law, creating an effective government structure and disposing illegal weapons.
It was a specious list at best, as Bougainville has made great progress in each of these areas despite being strangled financially by the PNG government.
And, as Dr Momis said, "Weapons disposal, fiscal self-reliance, good governance - all these things are not conditions.
"They are considerations that we need to take into account in determining the date for the referendum. That's all."
In fact, it has been O’Neill’s failure to provide agreed funds and his tardiness in progressing negotiations towards a referendum that represent the main stumbling blocks to progress.
O’Neill told parliament the PNG government would help Bougainville “resolve the problems".
"We need to work harder in making sure that we attend to the issues that are clearly defined and stated in the peace agreement," he said.
But what his unilateral statement to the PNG parliament reinforced for Bougainvilleans was that Peter O'Neill cannot be relied upon to stick to an agreement, honour his promises or offer an honest helping hand.
As a prominent Bougainville politician told me, "Het bilong mipela ino pas" ['we're not stupid'].
Indeed, O'Neill's lack of consultation, his wilful misinterpretation of what the peace agreement says and his patronising tone may well project the Autonomous Bougainville Government into taking long-considered legal action against the PNG government.