When on January 23, a 40-day petition period elapsed with no complaints submitted, a sigh of relief could be felt across the Melanesian region of Bougainville. The island group, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, had recently participated in a long-awaited independence referendum. The result was resoundingly in favour of independence, with 97.7% of voters seeking independence from Papua New Guinea. Legitimising the vote was a record turnout of 87.4%. It has been widely defended as legitimate, transparent, and inclusive

A long-awaited vote

The Bougainville referendum was a long time in the making. A bitter 9-year civil war between 1988 and 1997 killed up to 20,000 people, or 10% of the population. Most infrastructure in the region was severely damaged or destroyed, and the economy has still not fully recovered. The human costs of the conflict were even higher, with the death count accompanied by a generation of Bougainvilleans deprived of education and economic opportunity. Furthermore, the conflict resulted in no long-term solution. Battle weariness led to a peace agreement in 2001 that guaranteed a referendum on independence to be held between 2015 and 2020. The peace agreement may have stopped the violence, but it left a region and a people in limbo for two decades.

The referendum held over November and December of last year was therefore a momentous occasion many years in the making. Excitement and hope for the future was met in equal measure with fear of renewed violence or anxiety that a vote for independence might be rejected by the Papua New Guinean parliament anyway. 

Whilst Bougainvilleans still await a decision from the Papua New Guinean parliament, the referendum itself was a resounding success. A celebration of Bougainvillean identity and culture, the referendum resulted in unprecedented local and global media coverage. It was a chance for Bougainvilleans to show they are ready to become the world’s newest sovereign nation. 

What happens next?

However, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, the government sees no need to rush. Whilst the decision on Bougainvillean independence will ultimately be made by the Papua New Guinean parliament, the government will have a leading role in consultations between Papua New Guinea and Bougainvillean representatives over the coming months. James Marape, the prime minister, reiterated that he “must honor both flags, both people”. With no specific progress outlined in the 2001 peace agreement (nor a guarantee that the parliament will vote in favour of independence), there remains no immediate certainty on the future of Bougainville. 

Nonetheless, John Momis, the president of the autonomous region of Bougainville, has spoken about the importance of the referendum as both a symbolic act, and as a legal path to independence. Even if there is still much work to do, Momis believes that the referendum marks a turning point in the history of Bougainville. “We are liberated. Even though roads, bridges, hospitals and our schools are not good, at least psychologically we feel liberated, and that is important.” 

Not just an island

Whilst Bougainvilleans continue to celebrate the successful referendum, and advocate for a smooth transition to independence, other actors in the region are increasingly taking an interest in Bougainville. China and Australia are both significant powers in the South-Pacific region, and regional competition between the two countries is likely to continue over access to economic opportunities in a newly independent Bougainville. 

Economic interest in Bougainville centers around the Panguna mine. The mine once produced up to 45% of Papua New Guinea’s export income, but has been abandoned since control over its resources played a central role in the 1988-1997 conflict. Today however, many people in both Bougainville and further abroad see the mine as integral to Bougainville’s economic future. A newly independent Bougainville would require new economic growth and capital investment if it was to develop independently from Papua New Guinea, and the mine provides an appealing option. Numerous Australian mining companies have expressed interest in the mine, and have led to confrontation with the Bougainvillean authorities in recent weeks. 

China has also shown an interest in strong political and economic relations with an independent Bougainville. China is said to have been developing relationships with a number of Bougainvillean leaders in recent years, and has focussed on accessing opportunities in fisheries and extractive industries. Whilst neither the Chinese government nor Chinese companies have made an official statement indicating interest in the Panguna mine, conservative media outlets in Australia have maliciously discussed rumours of Chinese interests in Bougainville. These accusations are mostly unfair. Fortunately, there has been nuanced coverage (see here, here, and here) of both the economic and political challenges an independent Bougainville will have to navigate in an increasingly strategic South-Pacific political landscape. 

An Uncertain Future

No matter what the future holds for Bougainville, it is to be one of greater independence from Papua New Guinea. As Bougainvilleans head into this new era, they will need support from friends and partners across the region, and all countries should be prepared to help in this role. It will be lamentable if broader strategic competition makes Bougainville a new theatre in political and economic gamesmanship, which would be to the detriment of the Bougainvillean people. An independent Bougainville will be free to pursue political, economic and cultural relations with whomever it pleases, and no country should expect Bougainville to be a friend-for-purchase. All countries should approach Bougainville with the aim of contributing to the development of a successful, prosperous and stable society for many years to come.

As in most of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought daily life in Bougainville to a halt, and acutely threatens the region. An underfunded and under-resourced health care system, as well as a culture where close physical contact is common, makes Bougainville highly susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak. In order to avoid such an outbreak, which would cripple the region’s struggling economy and healthcare system, a state of emergency was declared, and has recently been extended until the middle of June. Despite the state of emergency, many Bougainvilleans are not taking social distancing measures seriously, according to local business owner Andrew Kilvert. 

Next week the Bougainvillean parliament will decide when to hold the 2020 general election, after already delaying the election for one month due to Covid-19. The delaying of the election also delays the commencement of negotiations with the Papua New Guinean government regarding independence, and will ultimately delay Bougainville’s independence as well. The most important priority for Bougainville, however, is to ensure the SARS-Cov-2 virus does not get a foothold in the region.