An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
BETWEEN 1861 and 2011, the world experienced 49 independence referendums and Bougainville’s coming referendum – due at some time before 2120 – is to join this significant line.
In the first three referendums of 1861, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia voted for independence but the majority voted to form the United States – and that is what happened.
A referendum is a direct vote by the people to decide upon or advise on a specific issue. Bougainvilleans will be voting to decide whether they want to create an independent state of their own or remain with Papua New Guinea.
Then it will be up to PNG to decide whether it regards the referendum result as binding or not.
For the Bougainville people, referendums held in East Timor, the Federated States of Micronesia, South Sudan and one due for New Caledonia all carry lessons for Bougainvilleans to consider.
Colonised by the Portuguese in 1769, East Timor (now the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste) was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and declared its 27th province. The East Timorese fought the occupation resulting in more than 100,000 deaths until independence was finally achieved in 1999.
The economy of East Timor is slowly improving – the country being ranked 128th on the United Nations’ human development index (PNG and the Solomons are equal 157th).
The Federated States of Micronesia was ruled from the 1800s by Portugal, Spain, Germany, Japan and, following World War II, the United States under UN auspices as a trust territory.
It was given the right to a referendum in 1975 where voters opted for independence in free association with the United States. Ranking 124th on the human development index, economically the scattered atolls of FSM are significantly dependent on US support.
New Caledonia is a French territory which rejected independence at a referendum held in 1987. Another referendum is due before 2018, in almost the same timeframe as Bougainville. The collectivity is moving gradually in the direction of self-determination although there are still deep divisions on the issue.
With the current fragmented political groupings and continuing stock of weapons on Bougainville, Bougainvilleans could perhaps look at South Sudan and the outcome of its independence referendum in 2011.
South Sudan remains divided by numerous conflict-prone tribal groups, a hangover from successive waves of colonisation. Geographical barriers prevented Islam spreading into the area thus the tribes have retained many of their traditions.
Prior to independence from Sudan, more than 2.5 million people died in two long and bloody civil wars over 20 years. Needless to say the economy was shattered.
In 2011 a referendum was held to decide the political future of South Sudan and the people voted for nationhood.
But disputes with Sudan over resources continue as do internal South Sudanese tribal conflicts. The government is at war with seven rebel groups led by warlords who hold power over their spheres of influence.
Bougainvilleans should learn something from these four examples of people who have already held or are yet to experience independence referendums.
All these places have a story to tell as Bougainville enters the window of its 2015-2020 referendum to decide its political future after the political, economic and social struggles that began in the 1960s.