Australian deputy PM Richard Marles accused of ‘veiled threats’ by Bougainville president

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The president of the Autonomous Bougainville government (ABG) has accused the Australian deputy prime minister and defence minister of “veiled threats” and “intimidation” over comments made during his visit to Papua New Guinea last week.

Richard Marles was asked about Bougainville’s future during a joint press conference with the PNG prime minister, James Marape, at Port Moresby last Thursday.

Marles said: “As a witness to the arrangements that were put in place in respect of Bougainville more than 20 years ago, our job is to support Papua New Guinea. And that’s what we’re going to do.

“It is absolutely not our role to articulate views there. Our role is to support the prime minister and the government of Papua New Guinea in the decisions that it makes in respect of the future of Bougainville, and we stand ready to do that.”

But the ABG president, Ishmael Toroama, hit back at Marles’s comments, describing them as “the very first time [Australia] has come out clear … to support the government of Papua New Guinea on the issue of Bougainville’s independence aspirations”.

He said Australia had maintained its neutrality since the cessation of the Bougainville civil war and the signing of the Bougainville peace agreement in 2001, of which Australia was a signatory. But he said these comments came as a “very clear indication” Australia would no longer remain impartial in implementing the provisions of the agreement.

“It has become clear now why our requests for resources and assistance for independence preparatory related activities such as the Bougainville Constitutional Planning Commission have been ignored,” he said.

“The statements by the Australian defence minister, Richard Marles, are in my view veiled threats being issued to the government and people of Bougainville as he boasts about the military cooperation between the two countries.

“We have remained passive recipients of piecemeal contributions and boomerang aid from the Australian government but Mr Marles’ sentiments have now shown Australia’s true intentions for Bougainville.

“What we are witnessing right now is simply history repeating itself where the Australian government throws its support behind the government of Papua New Guinea to destabilise yet again Bougainville’s right to self-determination.”

Concerns have been raised in Papua New Guinea that if Bougainville gains independence other provinces in the country will also want it. Australia has been concerned that the breakaway of Bougainville, which is 600km from the Solomon Islands, could be a security issue for the region.

In 2021, during the joint-government consultation meeting between PNG and Bougainville, Marape said that a political settlement could only happen for Bougainville when all parliamentary processes had been complied with, including a wide national consultation and constitutional amendments reflecting the result of that consultation.

Marape said during that meeting that while it was important to pay heed to the plight of Bougainville, it was equally important to also pay attention to the implications secession would mean to the rest of the country.

He said that this was no small matter as it involved the sovereignty of PNG and also involved changes to its borders.

Marles said that Australia and PNG have close defence ties and they were looking at how they could strengthen the two countries’ military co-operation.

Toroama said the concerns raised by Marles on regional security and the increasing Chinese presence in the Pacific region was “a moot point to the 97.7 percent of Bougainvilleas who voted for independence in the 2019 Bougainville referendum”.

“My government and my people do not take kindly to threats and we will never kowtow to neo-colonists that seek to usurp the sovereignty of Pacific island nations with their bullying tactics and intimidation.”

Toroama called on Marape to continue to implement the Bougainville peace agreement and to honour the provisions of the Era Kone Covenant as they prepare for the next stage of the joint negotiations.

Marles’ office was contacted for comment.

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS