By Jamie Spiteri
Independence campaigners with the Bougainville Flag.
In November 2019, the autonomous region of Bougainville held an independence referendum to ask its population if they desired greater autonomy from Papua New Guinea (PNG), or complete independence; over 97% of the population voted for complete independence. Despite the overwhelming nature of the referendum, the government of PNG have yet to ratify the result to make it legally binding. This delay is problematic in a country with a violent political history linked with the struggle for independence.
This is not the first time that Bougainville has attempted to establish independence. The islands have a long and storied history of independence and post-colonial conflict which is fuelled by a vast array of ethnic and cultural diversity. Indeed, one of the key drivers for the independence movements in Bougainville is that its people - whose population of only 300,000 speak around 25 different languages - are closer in both ethnicity and culture to the people of the Solomon Islands, although they are a PNG territory.
In many ways, Bougainville’s history is linked with that of Australia and PNG in the Pacific. During World War II, Bougainville periodically fell under German control. At the conclusion of that war, the administration of PNG (and Bougainville) as a province fell back under Australian control, until PNG was awarded independence in 1975, at which time the PNG Government assumed administrative control of Bougainville. That arrangement continues to this day. Secessionist sentiment in Bougainville has existed for many years, however, with the first demands for independence in the late 1960s which culminated in a decade-long bloody armed conflict brought only to an end by the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA). The emphatic nature of the 2019 referendum vote clearly underscores the ongoing desire for independence and change at all levels of society in Bougainville.
The rules of the referendum, as outlined in the BPA, requires the government of PNG to ratify any referendum on independence for it to be binding. Alas, despite the result, the referendum itself cannot be binding until the government of PNG agrees to a transition.
An additional requirement of the referendum was that it must have been found credible and free-and-fair, which several international observer groups attested to following the close of voting on the 7th of December.
The BPA also outlines a mandatory consultation period following the referendum, although there is no specific timeline in which this must occur. As such, despite the overwhelming sentiment of the population and despite being an objectively free-and-fair process, the PNG government has not yet put in place concrete steps to consider ratification, nor to indicate a period in which it may do so.
Despite the delay, representatives of both Bougainville and the government of PNG have agreed to terms for a political settlement, outlining in a joint statement that this will be achieved by “no earlier than 2025, and later than 2027.”
Considering the result, it is understandable that Bougainville is pushing hard for independence as early as possible, with the government of PNG being considerably more conservative. However, both outcomes present challenges.
As the BPA requires the PNG government’s ratification, the PNG Prime Minister needs to be willing to concede territory which is rich in natural resources. Also, the current PNG Prime Minister, James Marape, has discussed his opinion that independence for Bougainville should not be ratified into law before Bougainville is ready to govern, nor should it occur without proper consultations. While possibly a delaying tactic, Marape’s sentiment remains valid.
States that are not governed well suffer from endemic issues. Consider the Marape’s own country, PNG itself. A vibrant, diverse, naturally rich postcolonial country. It is also wracked by myriad societal and political problems, including absolute poverty, rampant gender inequality, and continued reliance on subsistence farming and corruption. These are all problems that Marape himself has been unable to eradicate.
While this is an immense oversimplification of the challenges that underdeveloped countries in the Pacific face, it does illustrate that the governance of a developing, post-colonial country presents varied social and political problems. Gaining independence prior to implementing adequate institutional resilience will likely hamstring development in the country for many years into the future.
In addition to becoming independent too soon, delaying independence creates its own issues, and such a resounding result brings with it some other profound challenges. Firstly, the country has shown a historical proclivity for violence in support of independence. If the government of PNG is perceived as delaying unnecessarily with no good reason, the pro-independence sentiment would not be difficult to mobilise. The strength of the referendum result suggests that many thousands of people in Bougainville would be willing to fight for independence.
When similar sentiment fuelled the conflict of 1988-1998, an estimated 20,000 people were killed, with many more displaced. Any comparable conflict scenario would be catastrophic both for its human toll and to the independence movement requiring PNG support. It would destabilise Bougainville society and likely draw out PNG ratification further. It would be costly in human lives, people displaced, and create further regional instability in the South Pacific.
In future, delaying such an overwhelming majority in a free-and-fair election brings democracy into disrepute. This may leave a negative legacy for any new leader of Bougainville looking to consolidate their power. Other undemocratic countries such as China looking to gain a foothold in the Pacific may be able to exploit. If this were to occur, it would put a diplomatic strain on a new government in Bougainville attempting to navigate great power tensions in the Pacific during its fledgling, and most vulnerable years.
While the path forward for Bougainville independence still presents many challenges, such a strong result in favour of independence would indicate that at some point soon, the South Pacific will be welcoming its newest sovereign state.