In January 2017 PaCSIA and the Department of Peace Agreement Implementation (DPAI) of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) jointly launched the Bougainville Referendum Dialogues (BRD) to assist with preparations for the 2019 referendum on Bougainville’s future political status. The project is funded by Misereor e.V. in Germany. It is time to reflect on the first year of the BRD and to report on the progress made so far.
The Bougainville Referendum Dialogues are engaging communities all over Bougainville in meaningful exchange of information and discussions about all aspects of the referendum, the process towards the referendum and implementation of referendum results. Dialogues not only provide information about the legal and political processes and potential future impacts of the referendum, but most importantly create opportunities for community members to express their own concerns, hopes and ideas about a more peaceful and prosperous future for Bougainville, in connection with the referendum. They also give participants the opportunity to discuss local issues in ways that enable building stronger communities and to establish closer links with the ABG. This helps lay firm foundations for post-referendum peacebuilding processes.
DPAI and PaCSIA have recruited a team of more than 80 facilitators, women and men, from nearly all of the constituencies of Bougainville who travel through their constituencies and organise referendum dialogues in schools, market places, churches and community government offices. Referendum dialogues provide an opportunity to hear from the ABG and knowledgeable Bougainvilleans about ongoing preparations for the referendum and to voice questions, concerns and hopes. Examples of issues raised include the following:
• Which question will be on the ballot paper?
• What happens after the referendum vote? Will there be a transition period and what does this entail?
• What is the ABG doing with regards to weapons disposal in Bougainville? Are weapons still a problem for the referendum?
Referendum dialogues provide an opportunity for community members to have input and to make their voices heard by the ABG and the Bougainville Referendum Commission. BRD facilitators take notes during dialogues and report questions and feedback to the ABG and to PaCSIA.
BRD makes use of innovative information materials approved by the ABG. These include a video documentary about the referendum filmed by the Bougainvillean radio station New Dawn FM in 2015 and video updates from the Secretary of the DPAI, Mr James Tanis. Additionally, BRD facilitators sometimes distribute awareness materials developed by the ABG Media Bureau and the DPAI. BRD facilitators are not experts with regards to the technical issues regarding the referendum. They facilitate discussions and write down questions so that officers of the ABG can answer them later.
At the end of 2017 14 out 33 constituencies have submitted final reports for completed project activities in their constituencies. Most of the other constituencies are due to present their reports within the next months. Given the sheer scope of the project we are very pleased with this outcome and also the amount and quality of information that is reported back from the communities.
Feedback from community participants unanimously indicates that they feel much better informed through the participation in the BRD. While some communities point out the need for further information and ongoing dialogue, all agree that the BRD significantly increases their understanding of the referendum and helps them to make better informed decisions.
In 2018 the BRD facilitators will return to their constituencies with updated information materials from the ABG and will further engage their people in discussing different views, hopes, concerns and questions regarding the future of Bougainville. PaCSIA will visit Bougainville at least twice this year to reflect and debrief with the local teams and to help them plan their new project activities.