Monday, November 18, 2019

Bougainville Voting on Independence from Papua New Guinea

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Bougainville island and its surroundings could become the world's next independent country (public domain UN map).
This week, voting will begin in a referendum that could lead to the creation of the world's first widely-accepted new country in almost a decade. Bougainville, a group of islands in the South Pacific, will be voting on independence from Papua New Guinea.

Where did this come from? Is the referendum expected to pass? Will Bougainville really become independent? Read on for all the answers!

What is Bougainville?

The region of Bougainville (pronunciation: boo-gan-VEEL) is made up of Bougainville Island and several smaller islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It's named after the French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who's also the namesake of the South American bougainvillea flower.

Bougainville is currently part of the country of Papua New Guinea, though in terms of physical geography it's not in New Guinea but in the Solomon Islands chain (the rest of which forms the independent country of Solomon Islands). It's also part of the greater cultural region known as Melanesia, and is the second Melanesian area to vote on independence in just over a year, after New Caledonia's referendum last November.

Crash Course: History of Bougainville Independence

Though Bougainvilleans generally feel more historically connected to the Solomon Islands, they were grouped with northeastern New Guinea after Germany took over the area in the late 1800s. Australia captured the German colony in World War I, and governed the whole of what's now Papua New Guinea for the next 60 years.

Where is Bougainville island located? Map of Bougainville's location within Papua New Guinea.
Bougainville (in red) is currently part of Papua New Guinea.
(modified from a public-domain UN map)
Two weeks before Papua New Guinea was scheduled to gain independence from Australia in 1975, leaders in Bougainville tried to opt out by declaring their own independent Republic of the North Solomons.

Their defiance was quickly suppressed, and the region was incorporated into independent Papua New Guinea, but by the end of the 1980s, tensions related to Bougainville's enormous copper mine broke out into what would become a 10-year civil war.

In 1990, when Bougainville came under full rebel control for a time, rebel leader Francis Ona declared the region independent as the "Republic of Me'ekamui", but the declaration was again ignored by world leaders. Foreign mediation eventually led to a peace agreement in 2001, creating a Bougainville Autonomous Region, with more self-governance powers than other Papua New Guinean provinces, and promising a vote on independence by the year 2020.

Most Bougainvilleans accepted the terms of the peace agreement, though Francis Ona himself resisted, holding onto control of the land around the copper mine and declaring himself king. He died in 2005, but his one-time compatriot Noah Musingku claims to this day to control what he calls the "Twin Kingdoms of Papala and Me'ekamui", funded by an infamous "pyramid scheme" called U-Vistract. He has refused to hand over his group's weapons as part of the peace process, but does now say he's on board with the referendum process.

Flag of Bougainville
Short Name:
• Bougainville (English) 
• Bogenvil (Tok Pisin)
Full Official Name:
• Autonomous Region of Bougainville (English) 
• otonomos region bilong Bogenvil (Tok Pisin)
Capital:  
Buka (interim)
• Arawa (traditional; inactive)
Status: Autonomous region within Papua New Guinea
For more on the history and politics of Bougainville's independence movement, check out this in-depth report from Australian think tank the Lowy Institute. For the most serious scholars, there's also a whole 168-page book about the referendum available as a free download!

When is the Bougainville referendum?

The start date for the Bougainville independence referendum has finally been set for November 23, 2019, after being delayed twice. It was previously scheduled for June 15, then October 17, with the final deadline under the peace agreement being June 2020.

Wait, "start date"? Yes, you read that right - unlike most votes around the world, which take place mainly on a single election day, the Bougainville referendum will stretch over a period of two weeks, ending December 7. But none of the polling stations will be open for the whole two weeks - instead, different stations will open on different dates, with each operating for "a few days to a whole week".

Will the vote be free and fair?


Despite the unusual schedule, Bougainville's independence vote is designed to be a world-class free and fair election by an independent commission chaired by the former prime minister of Ireland. There's even postal voting for residents who live in remote places or are away during the referendum, as well as special polling stations in Australia, the Solomon Islands, and other parts of Papua New Guinea for Bougainvilleans living or working there.

Who's paying for all this? The government of Papua New Guinea is footing largest chunk of the bill, but major contributions have also come from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the US. China, which has been investing heavily in neighboring Solomon Islands, was conspicuously not asked to pitch in.

The results will be announced all at once after counting is complete. The deadline is December 20, but the commission expects to complete the count "well before" that. 

What exactly is the Bougainville referendum question?

Interestingly, the question on Bougainville's ballots leaves no option to keep things as they are now. It asks:

Do you agree for Bougainville to have:
(1) Greater Autonomy; or
(2) Independence


That's different from other recent independence referendums, like Scotland's in 2014 or New Caledonia's last year, both of which just called for a YES or NO vote on independence. The two options on Bougainville's referendum have been described in detail in a document for voters - in short, "Greater Autonomy" means staying part of Papua New Guinea but getting even more self-governance powers, while "Independence" means becoming a completely separate country with the right to join the UN and participate as an equal in international organizations.

The ballot question is apparently only in English, despite Bougainville's constitution giving nearly equal importance to Tok Pisin and the various Bougainvillean languages.

Will Bougainville become independent if Option #2 wins?

Unlike the controversial referendums in Kurdistan and Catalonia two years ago - which were held in defiance of the governments they were voting on breaking away from - Bougainville's referendum has been planned in coordination with Papua New Guinea, which considers it fully legal. However, the referendum isn't technically binding - that is, a vote for independence won't automatically result in independence.

That's because the 2001 peace deal that promised this referendum also gives the parliament of Papua New Guinea (PNG) a final vote on whether to follow through on the results. The PNG government is required to first hold consultations with the Bougainville government, and a landslide vote for independence could create a lot of political pressure for the parliament to approve it - but there's no guarantee.

Bougainville's location on the globe (circled in red).
(Modified from this map by Zuanzuanfuwa; CC BY-SA)
Papua New Guinea's prime minister and his government strongly prefer for Bougainville to stay in exchange for more self-rule, but he's also promised not to "deviate from the spirit of" the peace agreement, which might imply he would accept independence if the results are clear. And there are elements of both the PNG parliament and the country's military that would rather just let Bougainville go and get it over with (for one thing, Bougainville independence would mean the PNG military never has to deal with fighting rebels there again).

If Bougainville does vote for independence and get approval from the PNG parliament, the cooperative nature of the decision would just about guarantee that it's accepted by most of the world's countries, and it should have no problem getting into the United Nations (UN). But it's hard to say how long it would take to actually declare independence. A gradual process over several years might be an attractive option, since a lot of Bougainville's government institutions would have to be set up from scratch, and funding will also be a challenge.

Even liberal estimates suggest that today the Bougainville government is only taking in about half the money it will need to run independently, meaning that after independence it would probably rely on aid from other countries. Reopening the main island's massive copper mine could solve that problem, but it would risk reigniting the same controversies that led to the civil war in the 1990s.

What if Bougainville votes against independence?

If Bougainvilleans instead vote for "greater autonomy", Papua New Guinea's parliament would be even more likely to cooperate, since that's its preferred outcome anyway. It's even been granting increased self-rule to some other provinces without requiring referendums. But when it comes to full independence, Bougainvilleans might never get a second chance - unlike the case of New Caledonia, Bougainville's deal with Papua New Guinea makes no promise of additional referendums.

Predictions: Will Bougainville vote for independence?

So what are the results expected to be? Well, Bougainville has very minimal infrastructure, so there aren't any reliable opinion polls available - but analysts say it's very likely that the people will choose independence, maybe with 75% or more of the vote. We'll find out for certain once all the votes are in next month!


Stay tuned to PolGeoNow for more Bougainville referendum news as it happens! You can check for new articles by viewing all Bougainville updates.


Graphic of the Bougainvillean flag is in the public domain (source).