Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville Province—an autonomous region encompassing some of the country’s easternmost islands—will begin a two-week referendum on its
Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville Province—an autonomous region encompassing some of the country’s easternmost islands—will begin a two-week referendum on its independence today.
The vote is the result of the Bougainville Peace Agreement—a deal that brought the region’s bloody 10-year civil war to a close. Sparked in 1988, the conflict erupted when landowners, frustrated with Rio Tinto’s management of the Panguna copper mine, violently sought its closure.
The island’s inhabitants will likely favour independence. However, a transition to sovereignty is unlikely to be smooth, as the peace agreement obliges Papuan and Bougainville authorities to discuss, but not necessarily enact, the referendum’s result.
Indeed, Port Moresby remains in a strong position. In 2016, the national government contributed almost all of the region’s funding—only 6% was sourced from Bougainville. If the autonomous region were granted statehood, the two sides would also need to negotiate the rights to Bougainville’s lucrative copper and gold deposits.
With Papua New Guinea reluctant to cede control of the islands it fought so hard to govern, do not expect independence over the medium-term. However, the referendum could generate momentum for the re-opening of the Panguna mine, which would help Bougainville transition towards self-reliance.
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