Independence-minded Papua New Guinea Region Elects New President

Former rebel leader takes the reins . . .

Ishmael Toroama, a former rebel leader turned peacemaker and cocoa farmer, was elected on Wednesday as president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, a group of islands in the far east of Papua New Guinea (PNG). For Toroama, who won in a landslide and will be sworn in as the region’s fifth president on Friday, dealing with the issue of independence from Papua New Guinea is high on the agenda. His campaign platform also focused on the restoration of law and order.

Countdown towards an independent Bougainville?

The election was the first since Bougainville voted in a non-binding referendum on independence late last year. To the question “Do you agree for Bougainville to have: Greater Autonomy; or Independence?” 98 per cent of voters chose independence. The referendum was part of the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement that helped end the decade-long civil war that broke out over opposition to the Anglo-Australian multinational mining giant Rio Tinto-owned Panguna copper mine and non-payment of royalties. In his victory speech, Toroama said, “I will stand up for independence in Bougainville . . . it is now time to work together.” He has proposed a deadline of two to three years to negotiate an independence agreement with the PNG government.

Other challenges remain . . .

The new leader will also need to address years of slow economic progress and debates about reopening the mine, which, along with other resource-extraction projects, can help revitalize the economy but are wrapped up in heated controversy dating back to the civil war. An economically unstable and independent Bougainville could – like other Pacific Island states such as Kiribati and the neighbouring Solomon Islands – become more susceptible to competing sources of international influence. Most notable are Beijing and Taipei, both of which would seek diplomatic recognition by an independent Bougainville and would want to gain access to the resource-rich region, but also from the U.S. and Australia, which are seeking to obstruct or slow China’s growing influence in the southwest Pacific.