‘Secret plots’, sovereignty and Climate Change Challenges face Pacific in the New Year

Analysis by David Robie

Dr David Robie is a retired professor of journalism and founding director of AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre.

AUCKLAND (IDN) — In the South Pacific, the year 2021 has closed with mounting tensions over sovereignty and self-determination issues and growing stress over the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic in a region that was largely virus-free in 2020. Pacific leaders are also raising their voices globally on the devastation brought about by climate change on their islands.

Just two days before the year 2021 wrapped up, Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama made an extraordinary statement of denying any involvement by the people or government of the autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG) being “involved in a secret plot” to overthrow the Manasseh Sogavare government in the Solomon Islands.

Insisting that Bougainville is “neutral” in the conflict in the neighbouring Solomon Islands where riots have been fuelled by anti-Chinese hostilities, Toroama blamed one of PNG’s two daily newspapers for stirring the controversy.

 “Contrary to the sensationalised report in the Post-Courier (December 30) we do not have a vested interest in the conflict and Bougainville has nothing to gain from overthrowing a democratically elected leader of a foreign nation,” Toroama noted.

The front-page report in the Post-Courier appeared to be a beat-up just at the time Australia was announcing a wind-down of the peacekeeping role in the Solomon Islands. A multilateral Pacific force of more than 200 Australian, Fiji, New Zealand and PNG police and military have been deployed since the riots in a bid to ward off further strife.

PNG Police Commissioner David Manning confirmed to the newspaper had received reports of PNG’s allegedly training with Solomon Islanders to overthrow the Sogavare government in the New Year.

According to the Post-Courier’s Gorethy Kenneth, reports reaching Manning had claimed that Bougainvilleans with connections to Solomon Islanders had “joined forces with an illegal group in Malaita to train them and supply arms”.

The Bougainvilleans were also accused of “leading this alleged covert operation” in an effort to cause division in the Solomon Islands.

Warning over ‘sensationalism’

Toroama warned news media against sensationalising national security issues with its Pacific neighbours, saying the Bougainville Peace Agreement “explicitly forbids Bougainville to engage in any foreign relations so it is absurd to assume that Bougainville would jeopardise our own political aspirations by acting in defiance” of these provisions.

Bougainville is the remotest of PNG’s 19 provinces and is rich in copper. The Bougainville Peace Agreement is a joint creation of the Government of PNG and Bougainville leaders, signed on August 30, 2001. The Agreement provides a road map for all parties, based on three pillars: Autonomy, Weapons Disposal and a Referendum on Bougainville’s political status. The agreement calls for Bougainville to have its own constitution that recognizes the sovereignty of PNG.

This is a highly sensitive time for Bougainville’s political aspirations as it negotiates a path in response to the 98 per cent nonbinding vote in support of independence during the 2019 referendum.

Setback For Kanak Independence

In contrast, another Melanesian territory’s self-determination aspirations received a setback in the third and final referendum on independence in Kanaky New Caledonia on December 12 where a decisive more than 96 per cent voted “non”.

However, less than half (43.87 per cent) of the electorate voted—far less than the “yes” vote last year—in response to the boycott called by a coalition of seven Kanak independence groups out of respect to the disproportionate number of indigenous people among the 280 who had died in the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

The result was a dramatic reversal of the two previous referendums in 2018 and 2020 where there was a growing vote for independence and the flawed nature of the final plebiscite has been condemned by critics as undoing three decades of progress in decolonisation and race relations.

In 2018, only 57 per cent opposed independence and this dropped to 53 per cent in 2020 with every indication that the pro-independence “oui” vote would rise further for this third plebiscite despite the demographic odds against the indigenous Kanaks who make up just 40 per cent of the territory’s population of 280,000.

The result is now likely to inflame tension and make it difficult to negotiate a shared future with France which annexed the Melanesian territory in 1853 and turned it into a penal colony for political prisoners. New Caledonia is also rich in nickel amounting to 86 percent of its exports today.

A Kanak international advocate of the Confédération Nationale du Travail (CNT) trade union and USTKE member, Rock Haocas, says from Paris that the latest referendum is “a betrayal” of the past three decades of progress and jeopardises negotiations for a future statute on the future of Kanaky New Caledonia.

The pro-independence parties have refused to negotiate on the future until after the French presidential elections in April this year. A new political arrangement is due in 18 months. In the meantime, the result is being challenged in France’s constitutional court.

“The people have made concessions,” Haocas told Asia Pacific Report, referencing the many occasions indigenous Kanaks have done so, such as the “two colours, one people” agreement with the Union Caledonian Party in 1953 and the Nouméa Accord in 1998. He says it is now time to reflect and analyse the results of the referendum. “(This) is also the time of the internet. Colonisation is not hidden in Kanaky anymore; it faces the world.”

West Papuan hopes elusive as violence worsens

Meanwhile, hopes for a new United Nations-supervised referendum for West Papua have remained elusive for the Melanesian region colonised by Indonesia in the 1960s and annexed after a sham plebiscite known officially as the Act of Free Choice—and locally as the “Act of No Choice”—in  1969 when 1025 men and women hand-picked by the Indonesian military voted unanimously in favour of Indonesian control of their former Dutch colony.

Two years ago, the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) was formed to step up the international diplomatic effort for Papuan self-determination and independence. However, at the same time, armed resistance has grown and Indonesia has responded with a massive build-up of more than 20,000 troops in the two Melanesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

As 2021 ended, interim West Papuan president-in-exile Benny Wenda in a Christmas message said, “our goal is getting closer”, but said that Jakarta is using the covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to prevent the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visiting West Papua.

End of ’empty promises’ on climate

While covid pandemic crises are continuing to wreak havoc in some Pacific communities into 2022, the urgency of climate change remains the critical issue facing the region. After the lacklustre COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, Pacific leaders—who were mostly unable to attend due to the covid lockdowns—have stepped up their global advocacy.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown appealed in a powerful article that it was time for the major nations producing global warming emissions to shelve their “empty promises” and finally deliver on climate financing.

“As custodians of these islands, we have a moral duty to protect [them]—for today and the unborn generations of our Pacific anau. Sadly, we are unable to do that because of things beyond our control … sea level rise is alarming. Our food security is at risk, and our way of life that we have known for generations is slowly disappearing. What were ‘once in a lifetime’ extreme events like category 5 cyclones, marine heatwaves and the like are becoming more severe” he said, adding, “despite our negligible contribution to global emissions, this is the price we pay. We are talking about homes, lands and precious lives; many are being displaced as we speak.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 January 2022]

Note: This article is published under our partnership with the Auckland-based Asia Pacific Report.

Image: Map of the South Pacific Island region with the participating countries circled. Source: Sabera Turkmani | ResearchGate

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