A non-binding independence referendum was held in Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, between 23 November and 7 December 2019. The referendum question was a choice between greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea and full independence; voters voted overwhelmingly (98.31%) for independence.
|Location||Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea|
The referendum was a result of a 2001 agreement between the government of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Bougainville Government that ended a civil war fought from 1988 to 1998. The vote is non-binding and the government of Papua New Guinea has the final say on what becomes of Bougainville. Observers have said that the clear result makes it difficult for Papua New Guinea to ignore or delay the result, but that independence could take years to achieve.
In July 2021, an agreement was reached between the governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, in which Bougainville will gain independence by 2027 if it is ratified by Papua New Guinea's parliament.
Discussions about an independent Bougainville had been held as early as 1968. Following a meeting in Port Moresby between the two Bougainville MHAs (Paul Lapun and Donatus Mola) and around 25 Bougainvilleans, a proposal was put forward in the House of Assembly to hold a referendum to decide whether the island should remain part of Papua New Guinea, join the Solomon Islands, or become independent. However, no vote was held. After Papua New Guinea became independent from Australia in 1975, Bougainville was given provincial status in 1976.
In 1988, tension erupted into a civil war between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and Papua New Guinea government forces. One key issue of conflict was the Panguna mine, which was closed in 1989. The civil war ended with a ceasefire in 1998, that was followed with the Bougainville Peace Agreement from 2001. The agreement established the Autonomous Bougainville Government, and mandated a referendum on the independence of Bougainville to be held 10-15 years later than the election of the first Autonomous Bougainville Government, which is June 2020 at the latest. The referendum would be non-binding, and the final say would rest with the Papua New Guinean government.
In November 2019, Raymond Masono, Vice-President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, campaigned that he would plan to reopen the Panguna mine if the referendum resulted in a vote for independence. Panguna closed in 1989 due to the civil war and is now estimated to hold copper worth up to $60 billion. With independence, all of Papua New Guinea's interests in the mine would transfer to Bougainville, giving it a 60% share in all projects and retaining all mining licences. The remaining 40% would be left for investors to bid on.
The vote was originally scheduled for 15 June 2019, but was delayed to 17 October amid allegations that the national government was slow to provide most of the promised funding for the referendum. The referendum was delayed again to 23 November at the request of the Bougainville Referendum Commission to ensure the credibility of the referendum roll so more people can vote. Both governments said this delay would be the last. Voting was planned to take place over two weeks, from 23 November to 7 December.
The vote faced a high degree of difficulty to organise, with most of the population in small hamlets and villages, and about half the population being illiterate.
In November, the BRC completed the official "certified voter list" to be used in polling for the referendum. The final number of eligible voters was 206,731, out of a total population of nearly 300,000. Males undergoing the upe rite of passage were allowed to vote at special male-only polling stations. Bougainvilleans living in other parts of Papua New Guinea, or in Australia and Solomon Islands, were also allowed to vote.
|Voting District||Men||Women||Unknown gender||Total|
|Voters residing in Bougainville||98,565||95,371||80||194,016|
|Voters outside Bougainville||6,846||5,844||25||12,715|
The question put to voters was:
Do you agree for Bougainville to have: (1) Greater Autonomy (2) Independence?
The results of the referendum were announced on 11 December. Over 98% of valid ballots were cast in favor of independence. Prior to the election, it was widely expected that the independence option would win, with The Guardian reporting an estimate of 90% in favor of independence.
An official reported that the referendum went "better than we expected," and that voters were enthusiastic, while observers from Divine Word University said that the voting took place in an atmosphere of celebration.
|Invalid or blank votes||1,096||0.61|
|Registered voters and turnout||206,731||87.59|
|Source: Bougainville Referendum Commission|
On 24 January 2020, the result was declared "Petition Free", confirming that no appeals had been received within 40 days against the conduct or the result of the referendum and that none could be accepted in future. On the same day, the December result was commended by the Referendum Commission to the governments and the referendum process formally closed.
Following the announcements of the result, John Momis, President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, said, "at least psychologically, we feel liberated." Papua New Guinea's Minister for Bougainville Affairs Puka Temu said, "the outcome is a credible one," but also stated that Papua New Guinea should have time to absorb the result. As the referendum was non-binding, independence will need to be negotiated between leaders from Bougainville and Papua New Guinea. The final decision on Bougainville's status depends on the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea. Rod McGuirk of Time noted that "the process of becoming a separate nation could take years to achieve."
Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape acknowledged the referendum results and stated that he would only commit his government to develop "a road map that leads to a lasting peace settlement" in consultation with Bougainville authorities. Papuan New Guinean officials were concerned that Bougainvillean independence would set a precedent for copycat secession movements in other provinces such as East New Britain, New Ireland, and Enga.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, stated that the referendum's results were disadvantageous for Papua New Guinea, adding that, "[i]f there were to be a smaller majority, say 55 or 65 percent, the PNG government could have found a way to justify really stretching this out and having a period of negotiation that could last years or decades. Now with such a phenomenal majority, it’s much harder for them to do that."
Damien Cave of The New York Times reported that the referendum would serve as an inspiration for West Papua separatists in Indonesia and for voters in the 2020 New Caledonian referendum for independence from France. Cave noted that, as with other Pacific countries, Bougainville will likely make pleas to Australia and New Zealand for assistance in developing its institutions while China and potentially the United States may offer diplomatic and economic partnerships once independence is achieved. China is seeking to incorporate an independent Bougainville into its Belt and Road Initiative.
Negotiations on the outcome of the referendum began on 17 May 2021. Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama, who took over from Momis in 2020, stated his wish to see Bougainville become independent by June 2025. Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape for his part cautioned against setting a specific timetable. While Marape and his government have recognized the results of the referendum, he has expressed reluctance at granting Bougainville independence for fear it will potentially result in the breakup of the country. Toroama warned that anything short of independence was not an option for Bougainville.
In the meantime, Toroama launched the Independence Ready Mission to prepare the region for independence. He expressed hope of obtaining self-government by 2022, a prelude to full sovereignty. On 7 July 2021, Toroama and Marape announced that the region will become independent by 2027. However, the agreement requires ratification from Papua New Guinea's parliament before the region is granted independence.
- Connell, J. (2020). "Bougainville : a new Pacific nation?" Small States & Territories, 3(2), 375-396.
- Lyons, Kate (11 December 2019). "Bougainville referendum: region votes overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 11 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
- "PNG, B'ville agree on latter's independence". Post Courier. 7 July 2021. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
- Mckenna, Kylie; Ariku, Emelda (19 November 2021). "Bougainville independence: recalling promises of international help". The Interpreter. Retrieved 3 December 2021.
- There's a 'right of self-determination' Pacific Islands Monthly, November 1968, p26
- Lyons, Kate (19 November 2019). "Birth of a nation? Bougainville's independence referendum explained". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 21 November 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- "51. Papua New Guinea/Bougainville (1975-present)". University of Central Arkansas. Archived from the original on 11 December 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- Jorari, Leanne (21 November 2019). "'We've wanted this for a long time': Bougainville prepares for independence vote". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 23 November 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- "Bougainville referendum: PNG region votes overwhelmingly for independence". BBC. 11 December 2019. Archived from the original on 12 December 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- "Bougainville referendum not binding - PM". Radio New Zealand. 11 March 2019. Retrieved 18 March 2019.
- Amanda Stutt (11 December 2019). "Bougainville independence could revive one of world's biggest copper mines". Mining.com. Glacier Media. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
- "Bougainville and Papua New Guinea set target date for independence referendum". ABC News. 23 May 2016. Archived from the original on 22 October 2017. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
- "Independence vote delayed for Papua New Guinea's Bougainville". France 24. 1 March 2019. Archived from the original on 1 March 2019. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
- Gorethy, Kenneth (5 August 2019). "B'ville referendum dates changed". Post Courier. Archived from the original on 4 August 2019. Retrieved 5 August 2019.
- "Bougainville set to hold long-awaited independence referendum". France 24. 27 September 2019. Archived from the original on 6 October 2019. Retrieved 6 October 2019.
- Lyons, Kate (19 November 2019). "Birth of a nation? Bougainville's independence referendum explained". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 19 November 2019. Retrieved 20 November 2019.
- "Bougainville 'very happy' to have Bertie Ahern involved". Radio New Zealand. 17 October 2018. Archived from the original on 19 October 2018. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
- "Referendum Roll Completed". Bougainville Referendum Commission. 6 November 2019. Archived from the original on 11 December 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- "Photo essay: Bougainville's historic independence referendum". RNZ. 6 December 2019. Archived from the original on 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
- Perry, Nick (3 December 2019). "Bougainville independence referendum ends". The Canberra Times. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
- "Question agreed for Bougainville's independence referendum". Radio New Zealand. 13 October 2018. Archived from the original on 19 October 2018. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
- AFP. "Bougainville voters back independence by landslide". The Standard. Archived from the original on 11 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
- Yeung, Jessie; Watson, Angus (11 December 2019). "Bougainville independence vote delivers emphatic demand to become world's newest nation". CNN. Archived from the original on 11 December 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- "Polls close in Bougainville referendum on independence from PNG". www.aljazeera.com. Archived from the original on 8 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
- "PNG leader apologises to Bougainville for bloody 1990s civil war". Australian Associated Press. 29 January 2014. Archived from the original on 3 April 2019. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
- "The celebratory Bougainville referendum – stories from Siwai". www.lowyinstitute.org. Archived from the original on 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
- "Referendum Declared 'Petition Free'". Bougainville Referendum Commission. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
- "Chair – Commends Referendum Result to two Governments". Bougainville Referendum Commission. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
- Rod McGuirk (11 December 2019). "Seeking Independence From Papua New Guinea, Bougainville Votes to Become World's Newest Country". Time. Archived from the original on 12 December 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- Alan Boyd (11 December 2019). "China has big stake in Bougainville independence". Asia Times. Archived from the original on 12 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
- Damien Cave (11 December 2019). "Bougainville Votes for Independence From Papua New Guinea". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 11 December 2019. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- Mercer, Phil (17 May 2021). "Papua New Guinea Begins Breakaway Talks with Bougainville Leader". Voice of America. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
- "Bougainville president wants independence from PNG by 2025". ABC Online. 19 May 2021. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
- "Bougainville's president seeks independence by 2025". Radio New Zealand. 19 May 2021. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
- "Bougainville eyeing self government in 2022". Radio New Zealand. 9 June 2021. Retrieved 12 June 2021.
- "Toroama Ends Trip on High Note". Post Courier. 9 June 2021. Retrieved 12 June 2021.
- "Bougainville sets 2027 deadline for independence from Papua New Guinea". France 24. 6 July 2021. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
- "PNG, B'ville agree on latter's independence". Post Courier. 7 July 2021. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
- @USEmbassyPOM (11 December 2019). "Congratulations to #Bougainville and #PapuaNewGuinea for a peaceful referendum process. We applaud #Bougainville for positively upholding democratic traditions. We stand ready to support all of our partners with the next phase of this process. #AMBMcKee #Pacific" (Tweet) – via Twitter.