A long time coming . . .
Bougainville Island, an autonomous region of approximately 350,000 people in Papua New Guinea (PNG), will be voting on the question of its independence in a referendum from November 23 to December 7. This referendum has been a long time coming for Bougainvilleans, many of whom remember the trauma of civil war from 1988 to 1997. Voters will be presented with the choices of ‘greater autonomy’ and ‘full independence.’ Analysts expect a large majority to vote for the full independence of the island.
A bloody history of civil war . . .
The referendum follows a devastating conflict centred on the island’s now closed Panguna gold and copper mine, which had constituted 45 per cent of PNG’s export income during its years of operation. After PNG’s independence from Australia in 1975, residents of Bougainville began to consider their own autonomy, given the abundant resource flow from the mine. Tensions heightened in 1988, leading to a civil war between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and PNG government forces. An estimated 10 per cent of the island’s population was killed. The conflict ended in 1997, and the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement promised an independence referendum to be held 10 to 15 years after the first election of an Autonomous Bougainville Government. This vote, however, remains subject to the ratification of the PNG government.
Funding influence in the Pacific . . .
One critical issue that threatened the referendum was funding. PNG is the largest contributor to the Bougainville Referendum Commission and has provided C$7.2 million for the vote. However, there was a shortfall of C$2.6 million that many feared would disrupt the vote. The U.S. has contributed funds to fill this shortfall – alongside Australia, New Zealand and Japan – in a move that many analysts see as blocking further Chinese influence in the region. Two of PNG’s neighbours, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, recently switched their diplomatic recognition away from Taiwan and towards mainland China, and China has also reportedly offered Bougainville C$1.3 billion worth of infrastructure funding. The Chinese government has yet to comment on its involvement in the referendum.