Keeping an Eye on Bougainville's Independence Referendum

Keeping an Eye on Bougainville's Independence Referendum

September 5, 2019

Map of Bougainville

Situated 560 miles east of the Papua New Guinea mainland sits the small island of Bougainville. For the moment, it's still part of Papua New Guinea, but later this year, the residents of that small island will vote on whether it should become an independent nation.

In the 1800s, colonial activities of Britain and Germany split Bougainville away from nearby southern islands with which it shares cultural and linguistic connections. The archipelago became a disputed region. The British took control of the southern islands, but the Germans controlled Bougainville.

Later, during World War I, Australia occupied Bougainville, and after the war, it became property of Papua New Guinea.

The relationship between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea was never good, and, in the late 1980s, environmental and economic concerns related to the mining industry on the island led to a revolt by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army against the national government of Papua New Guinea. A ten-year civil war was the result.

In 1997, peace talks resulted in a truce, with one outcome of the agreement being the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government. This was a unique arrangement, as no other province of Papua New Guinea has its own legislature.

Bougainville has sought independence for years, with lingering bitterness over the civil conflict that claimed between 10,000 and 20,000 lives.

In October 2018, the question that would be posed in the referendum was made official, giving voters the choice between greater autonomy or independence, with no option to maintain the status quo. The long-awaited Bougainville independence referendum was scheduled for June 2019, then October, and now it's slated to happen on November 23rd, 2019.

Meanwhile, the Papua New Guinea's leadership is taking the position that the referendum is nonbinding. They plan to allow their parliament to debate the results and determine if Bougainville should be independent.

The autonomous status granted to Bougainville after the civil war allows for the state to strive for economic independence, but major political unrest and environmental concerns over the island's mining operation have crippled efforts to effectively build up the economy through internal revenue generation.

For the 250,000 inhabitants of Bougainville, the question of independence will be tied to environmental and economic worries, and to sensitive geopolitical factors. The prospect of Bougainville transitioning from its current status to one of greater autonomy or independence is challenging, and the results of the upcoming referendum may have a ripple effect across the region.

At Seterra, we want to ensure that our maps are current, so, if Bougainville becomes the world's newest independent nation, we'll be sure to update the affected quizzes immediately!

Flag of Bougainville