CANBERRA - Nearly two decades after a bloody civil war ended, Papua New Guinea’s province of Bougainville is finally getting its promised referendum on independence.
The result is expected to be a clear signal that a majority want to establish a new nation. But the way forward after votes are counted in December is far from clear.
- Bougainville? What’s that?
A group of islands comprising a semi-autonomous region that is part of Papua New Guinea. Settled around 30,000 years ago, its name today comes from its first Western visitor, the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who arrived in 1768 (the flowering vine Bougainvillea is also named after him).
The bulk of its quarter of a million people reside on the main Bougainville Island, which is roughly the size of Jamaica. Although geographically part of the Solomon Islands, it became part of German New Guinea at the end of the 19th century under an agreement with the British, who created their own protectorate in the rest of the Solomons chain.
Australia began administrating Bougainville after World War I and (except for a brief Japanese occupation during World War II) played a role until PNG achieved independence in 1975.
- Why do they want independence?
The people of Bougainville have long claimed ethnic and cultural differences with people from the PNG mainland, about 900 kilometers to the west, and secessionist sentiment goes back more than a century.
A pro-independence movement lobbied the United Nations during the PNG’s formation but didn’t grab the world’s attention until 1988, when protests against the Australian-owned Panguna copper mine turned violent.
A decade-long civil war ensured that claimed as many as 20,000 lives. At the heart of the conflict was anger that local communities were absorbing the environmental damage and not receiving enough benefits from the massive copper resource, which was mothballed during the fighting and remains shut.
The rebellion ended in 2001 with a peace agreement that included the creation of the nation’s only provincial legislature, the Autonomous Bougainville Government -- and a promise of a referendum.
- How will the voting go?
It’s being organised by the independent Bougainville Referendum Commission, led by former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern. Starting tomorrow (23 November), people will have two weeks to vote either for greater autonomy, or for independence.
Citizens living abroad can mail in their ballot. If they go for more autonomy, prime minister James Marape has indicated he may be willing to consider providing more economic independence, including re-opening the Panguna mine.
But many locals complain that provincial legislature lacks the authority and funding for any real self-governance. Pro-independence officials such as Dennis Kuiai and James Tanis say they expect an overwhelming vote for independence; a Lowy Institute report in October estimated “perhaps three quarters or more.”
- So independence could come quickly?
No, it could take years, if it comes at all. If a majority votes for independence, representatives from the national and regional governments are to hold consultations that could result in draft legislation for Bougainville to secede.
But the bill would have to pass the national parliament in Port Moresby, the PNG capital, where there has been significant opposition.
Marape, who came to power in May, has been more conciliatory than his predecessor, Peter O’Neill, who had held up funding for the referendum and signalled his government would be loathe to ratify any vote. Still, Marape said in September he wants to “maintain unity” for the country.
- And in the meantime?
There’s concern that many Bougainvilleans, particularly in more isolated regions, assume that a win for independence will automatically and quickly lead to the formation of a new nation, and that they could react violently if that doesn’t occur.
Should opposition in Port Moresby become entrenched, it could result in disgruntled locals unilaterally declaring independence, as they tried more than once before. In a worst-case scenario, it could mean another war.
- Are there wider repercussions?
Independence for Bougainville could embolden other remote provinces to seek to cut ties. Instability in one of the South Pacific’s largest economies wouldn’t be in the best interests of an often impoverished region.
It also would jeopardize attempts to attract much-needed foreign investment and aid, including from China. It could also mean the redevelopment of the Panguna mine, one of the world’s largest resources of copper, is delayed indefinitely.