Bougainville Referendum for Independence
On December 13th, 2019 Autonomous Region of Bougainville (Bougainville) took a step forward in their bid for regained independence. A referendum was held to try and break the political deadlock over the territories status, the result of which was 98% elected in favour of independence. Historically, the geography, the cultural diversity, the influence of European intervention and huge natural wealth from the Panguna Gold and Copper mine have caused problems for the island and its population.
Bougainville in Melanesia is the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago. Nestled to the north it is an unforgiving land of volcanoes, earthquakes, mud slides, razor sharp valleys and thick jungle; an island divided across many lines, making travel and integration difficult.
As a result of British intervention in the 1900’s Bougainville became part of Papua New Guinea (PNG). A strange twist of fate given the island’s proximity to the Solomon Islands and their ethnic and cultural similarities. The population speak multiple distinct languages and is comprised of many ethnological groups, all existing on a landmass roughly the same size as Cypress. Of the 250,000 inhabitants no one native language is spoken by more than 20% of the population and the languages are so different, communication can be a struggle.
In 1988 distrust of the elected powers led to societal fragmentation of Bougainville from the rest of PNG. The island had one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines which had generated 40% of PNG’s national income. The Bougainvillean residents believed they were not receiving fair rewards from the mining efforts or fair recompense for the environmental destruction it caused and revolted, leading to a decade of conflict. The uprising claimed at least 15,000 lives and led to the resignation of the Prime Minister after he was caught funding a South African lead mercenary operation designed to quash the uprising. The result was the closing of the mine, a UN peacekeeping intervention and an agreement from the national government to hold a referendum on independence.
It took a further 20 years for the referendum to occur but on December 13th 2019 the result was announced and a celebration was held in the war-torn mining town of Arawa. People spilled out of 4×4’s from all corners of the island and flooded the small town as everyone gathered to witness ceremony. The centre stage on the parade ground was adorned with garlands and decorations and hosted speeches from the Prime Minister of PNG and the President of Bougainville. Flags of both PNG and Bougainville were raised in unison and multiple dance and musical performances ensued. The whole process was presided over by the UN and New Zealand police force and was both peaceful and jubilant.
The result of the referendum is non-binding and subject to a majority vote by the government of PNG. A date for the debate has not been set but the newly elected President of Bougainville Ishmael Toroama has vowed to have an answer within by 2023.