2019 Bougainvillean independence referendum
|Location||Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea|
Part of a series on the
|History of Bougainville|
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.
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.
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.
- United States – The U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea wrote on Twitter, congratulating Bougainville and Papua New Guinea for "a well-run and peaceful referendum process" and tweeted that "we stand ready to support all of our partners with the next phase of this process".
- 2019 in Oceania
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