Bougainville | 2019
Bougainville Referendum for Independence
On December 13th, 2019 the result of a referendum on independence for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (Bougainville) was announced with an astounding 98% of those who voted in favour of independence. Historically, the geography, the cultural diversity, European colonial interference and huge natural wealth from the Panguna Gold and Copper mine have caused problems for the island and its population. Of those that I spoke to, this felt like a historic moment to take control of their islands future.
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 not one dialect is spoken by more than 20% of the population, each differing enough to make communication 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, at one stage, generated 40% of PNG’s national income. The residents of Bougainville felt they were not receiving fair rewards from the mining efforts or fair recompense for the environmental destruction it caused to their lands and revolted.
The uprising lasted a decade, 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 potential revolution. 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 to witness ceremony. The central stage on the parade ground was adorned with garlands and decorations and hosted speeches from the Prime Minister of PNG (James Marape) and the President of Bougainville (John Momis). 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 by 2023.