On December 13th 2019 Bougainville took a huge 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. An overwhelming outcome, the desire of which has helped bring these peoples together. Historically the geography, the cultural diversity, the influence of European intervention and huge natural wealth has divided the island and its population. Thankfully the united stance around independence has brought these historically fractious islanders together for what they believe will be a brighter future.
The Autonomous Region of Bougainville (Bougainville) in Melanesia is the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago. Neselled 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 ethnic and cultural similarities and proximity to the Solomon Islands. Although initially strenuous, the decision ultimately helped centre the divided tribal groups around the idea of belonging to the nation of Bougainville.
It is one of the most culturally rich islands in the world, with multiple distinct languages and ethnological groups 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 is a struggle resulting in a fractious society where deep tribal suspicion still prevails. Thankfully their long campaign for independence and their united sense of what it is to be a Bougainvillean has helped bridge these differences and ease long standing social rifts.
In 1988 distrust of the elected powers led to further societal fragmentation, this time of Bourgainville from the rest of the PNG. The island has one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines which at one time generated 40% of PNG’s national income however the locals felt they were not receiving fair rewards from the mining efforts 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 revolt. The result was the closing of the mine, a UN peacekeeping intervention and an agreement from the government to hold a referendum on independence.
It took a further 20 years for the referrendum to occur but on December 13th 2019 the result was announced and a celebration was held in the war torn mining town of Arawa. Tribes from
all corners of the islands came to represent dressed in their finest traditional costume. The stage on the parade ground where the gathering occurred was adorned with garlands and decorations and the static buzz of excitement audibly crackled in the ears of every Bougainvillean who had been waiting a lifetime for this day. The fervor was so intense and organisation so acute that each group broke into song upon arrival and didn’t stop – even for the official ceremony – until just before nightfall. The searing heat and lack of shade didn’t register in the minds of any participant.
It was a day like no other in history and hopefully the penultimate chapter in Bougainville’s bid for independence. The result of the referendum was non-binding and is subject to a majority vote by the government of PNG however its overwhelming result should make anything but writing their free status into law difficult. For an island divided in so many ways it is utterly beautiful and inspiring to see these people united by a cause, a conviction, an identity.