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Bougainville is the largest island in the Solomon Islands chain to the north-east of Queensland, with a population of around a quarter of a million people. The island is presently an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea, with a referendum on full independence due to take place in 2019.

In October Bougainville is to hold a vote in which its people will choose between greater autonomy or independence from PNG. A tentative date of 15 June 2019 had been set for a referendum on possible independence in the Autonomous Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville. But in May 2019 an agreement was reached last month by President John Momis and the then PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

They agreed greater autonomy would be "a negotiated political settlement that provides for a form of autonomy with greater powers than those currently available under constitutional arrangements". And independence means an "independent nation state with sovereign powers and laws, recognised under international law and by other sovereign states to be an independent state, separate from the State of Papua New Guinea".

The Papua New Guinea and Bougainville governments could't agree just what question to ask in the Bougainville referendum on possible independence. The indecision delayed preparations for the referendum, which Bougainville has tentatively planned to hold on 15 June 2019.

Decisions were meant to be formally agreed at the Joint Supervisory Board, or JSB, which is headed by the respective leaders of PNG and Bougainville, Peter O'Neill and John Momis. But meetings of the JSB have been delayed several times in late 2018.

The deputy opposition leader in the PNG parliament, and member for South Bougainville, Tim Masiu said he questioned Mr O'Neill in parliament about the continuing delays. "Now the Prime Minister answered my question in parliament and said he was given four questions by the technical team, the government technical team, and he threw it back to them and them he only wants one question. I am not really sure about that, but, question or questions, that is something the Bougainville leaders and the national government will have to decide on that."

The JSB must also determine funding, with Bougainville president John Momis recently saying hundreds of millions of kina in constitutionally guaranteed payments from the national government were outstanding.

The JSB's role is to oversee the implementation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement as preparations continue for a planned referendum on possible independence by June 2019.

Following dialogue between key ministers of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and their national government counterparts in Port Moresby last week, the ABG Minister for Peace Agreement Implementation, Albert Punghau, said progress had been made to ensure there was meaningful discussion and a more successful outcome compared with the last JSB meeting in June. The nine issues identified for discussion are:

  1. The referendum question(s) to be discussed/endorsed including the National Government to forward any alternative options.
  2. The engagement of an international security force through regional approach to increase the credibility of the referendum process in the eyes of the international community.
  3. Official gazetting of the Chair of Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC) including the two PNG members for the BRC.
  4. Further payments of the Restoration and Development Grant.
  5. Further funding for Bougainville Referendum Commission.
  6. Funding for jointly approved Weapons Disposal Plan.
  7. National Government commitment to transfer BCL shares (19%) to the ABG.
  8. Unspent salaries savings to be transferred to ABG.
  9. Appointment of two National Government representatives for the Bougainville Senior Appointments Committee.

Speculation about the future of the Panguna copper mine in Papua New Guineas autonomous region of Bougainville, which ignited a decade long civil war in the 1990s, peaked late last year when an application for exploration by former Rio Tinto subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), was put to a local vote. The outcome revealed that the mine remains a contested site and that a new battle for its riches is deepening divisions among traditional landowning groups. The mine still stands in ruin.

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