The people of Bougainville have this week overwhelmingly voted to secede from Papua New Guinea (PNG). The non-binding referendum, which began in late November and concluded on 11th December, gave voters the choice of either increased autonomy or independence from the Pacific Ocean country. Astonishingly, almost 98 per cent of voters voted in favour of independence with only 2 per cent voting in favour of remaining part of PNG but with increased autonomy.
Despite the overwhelming majority of Bougainvilleans voting in favour of independence, the PNG government is not under any legal obligation to accept the result and it must be noted that the government is strongly opposed to an independent Bougainville. The vote on independence comes after decades of tension between the island of Bougainville and the rest of PNG that even led to a decade-long civil war between the late 1980s and 1990s. The secessionist conflict, which is one of the deadliest post-WW2 conflicts in Oceania, led to an estimated 15000-20000 deaths.
John Momis, the region’s President, stated that “It’s obvious that the people are now in the mood for celebration and I join them as they have every right to celebrate” and added that “at least psychologically, we feel liberated.” However, Puka Temu, the PNG’s minister for Bougainville, did not adopt such a celebratory tone and sought to remind Bougainvilleans that the final decision on independence still rests with the national parliament of PNG. He also called for patience, adding that the PNG would need time to “absorb this result.” There is inevitably a fear that the PNG will not respect the independence result, however Mr. Momis sought to allay those fears and stated that “We are all full of expectations and hope … if we work together the outcome will be good and official… and most importantly will produce lasting peace.”
Peace has been elusive albeit hard sought after in Bougainville. PNG has, in the past, been guilty of severe human rights violations against the people of the island of Bougainville and during the civil war in the late 20th century, their actions cost the lives of thousands of Bougainvilleans. The source of the tensions is partially to do with ethnicity; in fact, Bougainvilleans have always claimed cultural and ethnic uniqueness, however the tensions largely arise from mining in the region.
This led to an influx of migrants from both the rest of PNG and from Australia, environmental degradation and mine profits going overseas. The opening of the mine did stir up ethnic tensions on the island as the influx of white Australians and Papuans, which Bougainvilleans refer to as “red-skins,” was opposed by the ethnically black local population. Tensions surrounding the mining operation caused local violence, which in 1988 eventually led to civil war. Since the end of the civil war in 1998, Bougainville has witnessed the foundation of an autonomous local government and increasing devolution. The island has become gradually more independent and more autonomous in the 21st century and should the result of the referendum be respected, Bougainville will soon become a fully independent state.
Bougainville’s relationship with the rest of PNG has often been fraught and tense. The democratic will of the people of Bougainville must now be implemented and a new relationship between the region and the rest of PNG can then be forged.
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