14 Jul 2020
The people of Bougainville, an island group in Papua New Guinea, held a referendum for independence recently.
- The referendum saw 85 per cent voter turnout during three weeks of voting, with 97.7 per cent of voters choosing independence from Papua New Guinea
- The referendum, however, is non-binding. The ultimate outcome will be determined by a vote in Papua New Guinea’s National Parliament following negotiations between the Papua New Guinean government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government.
History of the Bougainville and its referendum
- Though the islands had attempted to declare independence during the formation of PNG in 1975, they were ignored.
- When PNG was granted independence in 1975, Bougainville became a province.
- Though there was a declaration of independence shortly before PNG was formed, it was ignored by both Australia and PNG.
- The declaration was the manifestation of a Bougainville identity which developed during the 20th Century.
- The primary marker of that identity was a dark skin color of most Bougainvilleas’s compared to people from elsewhere in PNG.
- After the failed independence declaration, in 1988 the nine-year separatist war began in which around 12-13% of the islands’ population was killed.
- The fighting came to an end in 1997 with help from international mediators.
- The result was the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA), the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government in 2005, and the promise of a non-binding referendum on independence.
- Now as the referendum was non-binding, independence won’t happen automatically. Discussions will take place with the PNG government to decide when or if, the transition to full independence can begin.
- The new country would be small, with a landmass of less than 10,000 sq km (slightly larger than Cyprus, and slightly smaller than Lebanon). Likewise, its population would be one of the world’s smallest.
- Bougainville is the largest island in the Solomon Islands archipelago. It is part of the Solomon Islands rain forests Eco region.
- Bougainville and the nearby island of Buka are a single landmass separated by a deep 300-metre-wide strait.
- There are several active, dormant or inactive volcanoes which rise to 2400 m. Bagana (1750 m) in the north-central part of Bougainville is conspicuously active, spewing out smoke that is visible for many kilometres.
- Earthquakes are frequent but cause little damage.
Implications of independence for Bouganville:
- An independent Bougainville sends a strong signal for other self-determination movements across the Pacific, including in New Caledonia which will hold a second referendum for independence in 2020.
- Though the referendum has raised hopes for a better future among Bougainville’s “lost generation” of youth, it has also sparked a scramble for political influence among foreign mining companies, which want to establish operations in an area that contains copper and gold reserves.