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Bougainville’s long quest for independence


Bougainville’s long quest for independence


Residents on the South Pacific island of Bougainville have begun to vote in a referendum for either greater autonomy or independence from Papua New Guinea.


– The referendum fulfills the third pillar of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed following a ten-year conflict in which up to 20,000 people died
– While indicators suggest that Bougainvilleans will resoundingly vote in favour of independence, PNG’s parliament in Port Moresby must ratify the referendum’s outcome
– There are concerns about the financial capacity of an independent Bougainville as well as security implications if Port Moresby refuses to ratify the result

Over 200,000 people on the South Pacific island of Bougainville have begun voting in a long-anticipated referendum on independence. The requirement to hold a referendum was part of a peace agreement brokered in 2001 that brought an end to a bloody decade-long civil war that killed up to 10% of Bougainville’s population. After years of planning under a commission chaired by former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Bougainvilleans are being presented with two options — for the island to remain a part of Papua New Guinea with gain greater autonomy, or to seek independence. Holding the referendum has been particularly difficult given the region’s high illiteracy rates and limited communications and infrastructure. Nevertheless, Bougainvilleans are expected to overwhelmingly vote in favour of independence from PNG, from which it is ethnically, geographically and ecologically distinct; Bougainville is almost 1,000 kilometres distant from PNG’s capital, Port Moresby.


The spark of the Bougainville conflict was the Rio Tinto-operated Panguna copper mine, which tapped into one of the largest copper reserves in the world. Open between 1972 and 1989, the Panguna mine drew increasing hostility from locals over its management. Residents saw few economic benefits from the mine. Rio Tinto employed many mainland Papuans rather than Bougainvilleans and provided limited taxes and royalties to Bougainville; the majority of the royalties went to Port Moresby. Meanwhile, the environmental devastation of millions of tonnes of tailings being dumped into local rivers was causing irreparable damage to the island’s pristine ecosystem.

The mine itself was critical to PNG’s economy — it constituted close to 50% of GDP — and national politicians were keen for it to remain operating despite growing anger. Lacking political representation and a mine operator that refused to compensate landowners for the environmental damage being wrought, Bougainville residents eventually formed militia groups such as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army that conducted guerrilla attacks against the mine. The conflict soon spiralled out of control, with the militias facing off against PNG police and defence personnel and government-backed rebel groups such as the Bougainville Resistance Force. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people were killed in the ensuing war. The majority of these lives were lost due to disease; a naval blockade enforced by PNG’s government prevented the import of medicine or evacuations to the nearby Solomon Islands.

The conflict took a decidedly harsh turn after the 1992 election of Prime Minister Paias Wingti and his foreign minister, Sir Julius Chan, who sought to retake the mine by force. In 1996, following failed peace negotiations, Chan — by that time prime minister — attempted to bring in private military contractors to end the conflict. The decision sparked fierce international condemnation and opposition from PNG’s defence force commander. At that point, with the PNG government on the brink of being overthrown in a coup known as Operation Rausim Kwik (Tok Pisin for ‘quickly get rid of them’), Chan was forced to resign.


Photo: Vlad/Pexels

The near-collapse of the PNG government and the conflict’s effective stalemate brought rebel groups and the government back to peace negotiations. Following rounds of talks and ceasefire agreements, in 2001 the New Zealand-brokered Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) was signed. The BPA stipulates three key pillars for peace: the establishment of an Autonomous Bougainville Government (which was achieved in 2005), weapons containment and disposal supervised by the UN, and ultimately the holding of an independence referendum before 2020.

While most indicators suggest the referendum that is underway will result in a sweeping vote for independence — support may be as high as 90% — the BPA added a final complicating factor to any effort to become an independent nation. A vote for independence must finally be ratified by PNG’s parliament after a ‘negotiated outcome’ is reached between the parliament and the ABG. Many of PNG’s political heavyweights are in favour of Bougainville remaining a part of PNG. Former prime minister Peter O’Neill was skittish about an independence vote and failed to provide necessary budget requirements for the referendum, justifying his actions by claiming that Bougainville had not met its obligations under the BPA. Current Prime Minister James Marape has endorsed “a nation together but in a shared arrangement, greater autonomy arrangement.” As a result, ratification by parliament could take many years.

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Photo: Cpl. Devan K. Gowans/U.S. Marine Corps

An independent Bougainville would face several pressing issues, not least its economic capacity for self-reliance. At least in the short-term, an independent Bougainville could be heavily reliant on development assistance from Australia, New Zealand or other partners like China. While it is rich in minerals like copper and gold, as well as other valuable products like cocoa and fish, proposals to capitalise on its main source of potential income — the Panguna mine, which has been closed since the outbreak of the war — are still extremely divisive. Even if Bougainvilleans accepted the reopening of the mine, it may not be operational until 2025, and there is some concern that Bougainville would not see revenue gains until at least five years after that.

Strategic factors would also complicate the new country’s foreign relations. Canberra and Wellington would be concerned that an independent, possibly unstable and financially dependent Bougainville could be approached by players such as China with development and infrastructure aid in return for access to the island; Bougainville is in a strategically critical area given its proximity to mainland Australia and to the site of the future Lobrum naval base to be built by the US, PNG and Australia. Bougainville’s new government could also be tempted into chequebook diplomacy actions fuelled by other nations such as Taiwan, which until recently enjoyed diplomatic recognition from neighbouring Solomon Islands and Kiribati.

The region could yet fall back into a security crisis. While Bougainville has enjoyed years of peace, if PNG’s parliament vetoes the vote for independence or if a ‘negotiated outcome’ cannot be reached, the ABG may unilaterally declare independence. Bougainvilleans opposed to independence or the potential reopening of Panguna, which the ABG has recently floated, may also resort again to violence. The region’s primary security guarantors, Australia and New Zealand, would be important in preventing or containing such a crisis — both have previously funded peacekeeping operations in Bougainville. At the same time, a successful transition to independence would pose a significant concern for PNG — other provinces, such as East and West New Britain, may well seek greater autonomy, while further abroad, Indonesia’s West Papua Province could resume its push for greater autonomy or independence from Jakarta.

Years of conflict followed by years of discussion have brought Bougainvilleans to the ballot box. With residents all but certain to seek independence from Papua New Guinea, many other nations — Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, China — will be watching the results and the subsequent negotiations closely. One dark chapter in the Pacific may be ending, but many simmering issues have yet to be brought to a close.

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