In Depth

What the Bougainville referendum means for the world

The tiny island nation is expected to vote for independence from Papua New Guinea

The South Pacific island chain of Bougainville is gearing up for an independence referendum that could see the region break away from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and become the world’s newest nation.

The vote, which will run from 23 November to 7 December, is the culmination of decades of tension between Bougainville and PNG following a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

The Lowy Institute think-tank predicts that 75% of voters will choose independence, driven by a “long-standing sense of separate ethnic identity” and the “perceived failure of the current model of autonomy”, as well as “residual animosity from the war years”.

But having failed to rebuild a self-sustaining economy after the conflict - and with China looking to expand its influence in the Pacific - is the future really bright for Bougainville?

Background

Bougainville is a small group of islands with a total population of around 250,000 that has been part of PNG since gaining independence from Australia in 1975.

The region became what Reuters describes as the “economic powerhouse” of PNG in the years following independence, owing to its abundance of gold and copper. But a dispute over mining rights eventually led to the outbreak in 1988 of a war between Papuan security forces and the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) that raged on for almost a decade.

A peace agreement signed in 2001 saw Bougainville given greater freedoms, and also contained a provision guaranteeing the region the right to hold a referendum on independence by 2020, with the vote eventually scheduled for 2019.

What’s happening now?

The people of Bougainville will be asked whether they want greater autonomy or full independence - and the majority of the 200,000 people registered to vote are expected to opt for the latter.

To come into effect, the vote outcome has to be ratified by PNG’s parliament, and is expected to be subject to a negotiation process that could take months or even years.

According to the Radio New Zealand site, independence would give Bougainville new powers on issues including industrial relations, foreign aid and investment, international trade and civil aviation, as well as control over “migratory and straddling” fish stocks.

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What does it all mean for PNG?

With Bougainville expected to vote to secede, commentators are warning that PNG needs to tread carefully. Denying the islands their independence could pose a “major security challenge” and the potential for a return to regional instability, The Guardian reports.

The Lowy Institute says that PNG is “ill prepared for military action in Bougainville” should violence break out.

Bougainville expert Thiago Cintra Oppermann warns that PNG made a huge tactical mistake in agreeing to the referendum in the first place.

“PNG government has approached the issue of Bougainvillean independence as if it were to only affect Bougainville,” he writes in an article on the East Asia Forum. But granting that independence would be likely to lead to the “destabilisation of the entire nation state”, as other provinces also push to go it alone. 

Independence could have negative repercussions for Bougainville, too. The region is economically dependent on PNG and may struggle to establish all the necessary resources to become an economically viable, self-sustaining nation.

“The larger question is whether Bougainville itself is ready for independence,” says the Lowy Institute. “The short answer is no, but most Bougainvilleans see no alternative to independence, despite the obstacles.”

What about the repercussions further afield?

Along with PNG, three other countries are keeping an especially close eye on the outcome of the vote: China, Australia and Indonesia.

Until recently, Australia was the primary outside investor in developing Pacific Island nations, but has been usurped on a number of fronts by China, which is ploughing money into multiple economies worldwide.

Both nations would be likely to offer financial assistance to a newly independent Bougainville - China in order to increase its reach and Australia to “preserve its role as trusted partner to both Bougainville and PNG”, the Lowy Institute says.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is likely to be concerned by the referendum owing to a violent separatist insurgency in West Papua, which borders PNG.

West Papua has been embroiled in a long-running struggle for independence from Indonesia, and the precedent set by an independent Bougainville could fuel that push for more autonomy.

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