In 1989 a civil war began in Bougainville, which had long wanted independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). A ceasefire occurred in 1998 after about 20,000 of the 200,000 residents of Bougainville were killed. In 2001 the government of PNG, wishing to maintain the peace, signed into law the Bougainville Peace Agreement which established the Autonomous Bougainville Government and promised an independence referendum no later than June 2019.
This referendum finally happened November 23-December 7, 2019. Residents were offered two options: greater autonomy or full independence. Nearly 98% of the 180,000 Bougainville residents who voted in the referendum (176,928 people) voted in favour of independence from PNG. After the results were announced on December 11, a crowd attending the vote announcement broke into song as the writs were signed by the commissioners.
However, this is only the first step to becoming independent. The referendum is non-binding, so Bougainville is now in the process of negotiating with the leaders of PNG. The national parliament of PNG has the final say on whether or not Bougainville will in fact become the world’s newest nation. An issue for PNG is that, on the one hand, it doesn’t want to lose part of its nation or encourage other provinces to secede, but on the other hand, a long process could result in civil unrest. According to Australia’s Lowry Institute, Bougainville independence is optimistically still years away. While the province has substantial natural resources, particularly copper, mining was crippled by the war and they estimate that it has 56% of the resources needed to be independent. It appears likely that the resumption of mining would be a necessary step to become self-sufficient.
There was no appeal during the 40-day petition period where an appeal was possible, and the results were closed January 20, 2020. When PNG Parliament reconvened on February 18, 2020, it was officially furnished the results. Bougainville Affairs Minister, Sir Puka Temu, in his ministerial statement declared that the national and Autonomous Bougainville Governments are expected to offer guidance going forward. He noted that while the result unified Bougainville, “it has also caused most learned and informed Papua New Guineans, including leaders, to have preference for a united country’. He stressed that Parliament is not duty-bound to immediately accept the outcome but must receive the result, consider it, and then decide.
So, with Parliament only having been furnished the results weeks ago, it is highly unlikely that anything will happen immediately, but PPP will continue to monitor the independence process. Whatever happens next, there can be no doubt that Bougainville wants its independence.
Prepared by Andy E. Nystrom, PPP Archivist & Research Assistant
February 19, 2020