Bougainville to vote on whether to become world’s newest country

Referendum vote will continue until December 7 amid expectations territory’s 200,000 people will back independence.

Bougainville PNG
The waterfront of Bougainville's main town of Buka. The territory is voting in a referendum on independence [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – Eighteen years after a peace agreement brought a brutal civil war to an end on the resource-rich islands of Bougainville in the remote east of Papua New Guinea (PNG) people are going to the polls to make a historic choice on the territory’s future political status.

On the 23 November, more than 200,000 registered voters will begin casting their ballots to choose between greater autonomy within PNG or full independence. Voting will continue until December 7.

“The essence of what our people want is still empowerment of a Bougainville Government that can truly manage its own affairs … Just as we did when negotiating the peace agreement, the national government and Bougainville will have the rare privilege of developing something new,” Bougainville’s president, John Momis said in a speech to the PNG Parliament in August.

The referendum is the result of a 2001 peace agreement that brought an end to a conflict that started in 1989 when indigenous landowners took up arms and forced the shutdown of the Panguna mine – one of the largest in the world – in the central mountains of the island.

Their grievances centred on environmental damage to land and rivers from mine waste, and inequality in the distribution of profits.

PNG, for which the Panguna mine was a lucrative source of revenue, responded with a blockade around Bougainville and sending in the military to regain control of the islands.

Bougainville Panguna mine
The Panguna copper mine, located in the mountains of Central Bougainville, was at the centre of a decade long civil war in the 1990s [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

The conflict raged for nearly a decade until a ceasefire in 1998.

The peace agreement included not only the referendum – to be held between 10 and 15 years after an autonomous government had been established – but also disarmament.

Still, Peter Arwin, who lives in the central Bougainville town of Arawa near the mine, said that political aspirations in the region on the edge of the Pacific date back even further – to colonisation by Germany in the 1800s.

“This idea of self-determination for Bougainville, it has lived through the ages from our great-great ancestors up,” Arwin explained. “This time, for us, we want to prove it and we want to make sure we put to rest this issue of Bougainville’s independent ideas. The referendum vote, definitely it will be 90-percent-plus for independence.”

Legacy of conflict

Bougainville, which was administered by Australia as part of PNG from 1915 until 1975, is one of the poorest areas of the country and remains highly dependent on national support and international aid. 

Life expectancy in the region is 59 years, the under-five mortality rate is 74 per 1,000 live births compared with an average of 68 in low-income countries, and few people have access to reliable electricity or a road network.

While local leaders believe a return to large-scale mining would be the only way to finance nationhood, it would be a politically risky decision.

In January last year, the Bougainville government placed an indefinite moratorium on mining, saying that disputes among landowners in Panguna about the future of the mine, which still has sizeable deposits of copper and gold, carried a chance of renewed conflict.

The referendum date has already been postponed twice this year, from the 15 June to the 17 October and finally this month, to allow for verifying the electoral roll, a major challenge when most of the population lives in rural and remote communities.

A priority has been the completion of weapons disposal, which was only partially successful in the aftermath of peace, and outstanding reconciliation ceremonies involving Bougainville’s elected leaders and former armed groups.

A ceremony of unification between Bougainville and the Papua New Guinea state, including its military forces, took place in early November.

“Some of us were a little bit apprehensive about how it (the referendum) was going to be conducted. But recently when the ex-combatants came up with some reconciliation, having expressed that they will be fully supporting the process, we all felt a bit more relaxed,” Dr Cyril Imako, executive director of Health Services in Arawa told Al Jazeera.

Bougainville PNG
A pro-independence rally gets under way in Arawa, Central Bougainville in October [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Former civil war fighters, including the Mekamui Government of Unity, which is made up of former rebels in Panguna who did not sign the peace pact, held a summit in July and signed a declaration to surrender weapons and maintain stability throughout the polling and post-referendum period.

“I am very happy. Even if we are not part and parcel of the peace agreement, we already participate. That’s on the ground, because we have one common goal,” Moses Pipiro, a general in the former rebel Mekamui Defence Force, told Al Jazeera during an interview at the Panguna mine.

“That is why we put all of our weapons out there, to show our people and our leaders and, also, the United Nations and the international community, the war is over.”

Lengthy transition

The international community is likely to be watching the result closely – with China, Australia and the United States manoeuvring for influence in the Pacific – and national and international observers will scrutinise polling. Police will be backed up by an international regional support mission, led by New Zealand.

In a concession to the PNG Government, which was reluctant to grant a referendum to the former province, the outcome has been made non-binding, which could mean an extended period of uncertainty even if there is overwhelming support for full self-government as officials attempt to secure a “negotiated outcome”.

That decision will then need to be ratified by PNG’s parliament.

During a visit to Australia in October, Dennis Kuiai, acting secretary of Bougainville’s Department of Peace Agreement and Implementation, emphasised that there was no time restriction on the negotiations or ratification.

Prime Minister James Marape has been advocating for a ‘united PNG’ and there are concerns that any signs of reluctance to ratify the vote outcome could provoke local frustrations and unrest.

However, many people on Bougainville at the grassroots, as well as former fighters, still have vivid memories of suffering during the war and do not want a return to conflict.

Whether greater autonomy or independence is agreed, it is expected that any transition is likely to be lengthy, perhaps taking as long as 20 years.

The post-vote process could also be interrupted if talks have not concluded by the time Bougainville holds its next general election, which has to take place before June 2020.

Still, despite the challenges, as the vote looms there is a sense of excitement.

“We want to see where we are going, the destiny we wanted, what we fought for, the experience that we came through, this is the feeling,” Celestine Tommy of the Bougainville Women’s Federation told Al Jazeera in Bougainville’s principal town of Buka. “As you walk around the town, you see people there, they are excited. It’s a countdown.”

Source: Al Jazeera