In the Pacific Ocean, the island of Bougainville, currently part of Papua New Guinea (PNG), is poised to become the newest nation in the international system since South Sudan in 2011. On November 23 of this year, citizens of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) will be voting in a non-binding referendum that offers two options to Bougainvilleans: simply greater autonomy or full independence. The question headlining the referendum reads verbatim: “Do you agree for Bougainville to have: (1) Greater Autonomy (2) Independence?” The results for this election are most likely going to be available by mid-December.
If the citizens of the ARB vote for independence, which experts familiar with region argue will be the case, then it will most likely initiate negotiations between the PNG government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) to determine the manner and conditions upon which the ARB will become the sovereign nation of Bougainville. This referendum, which is basically unknown to the US public, is nevertheless an extremely salient issue to the inhabitants of the PNG and ARB, and has the unfortunate potential to incite conflict in the region.
The US policy towards Bougainville and the referendum should be about preserving peace and trade in the region. Firstly, the US government should accept the decision the people of Bougainville ultimately make.
Furthermore, it should involve itself in the mediation process, if needed, and work with our Australian and New Zealander partners to help create a more effective agreement that serves to benefit both the PNG and ABG.
Additionally, China’s increased involvement in the region should be met with some form of a US response, whether that be a conflictual or cooperative one. The goal in this case shouldn’t be to block China from the region, but to prevent it from becoming the dominant great power in the Southwest Pacific region.
Finally, US foreign policy should involve pushing both governments to reduce and combat nontariff barriers to trade and economic development such as corruption, inadequate infrastructure, ineffective regulatory legislation, and weak governing institutions.
Humans have been part of the Bougainville story for at least 33,000 years, when Austronesian explorers settled on the island. In the 1880s, Bougainville became a German colony as Germany expanded its colonial holdings in the Pacific. During World War I, Australian (ANZAC), British, and Japanese forces quickly conquered the area; crucially, German territories in northern Papua New Guinea and in the Northern Solomons (i.e. Bougainville) became part of Australian-administered League of Nations Mandates in 1920. During World War II, American and ANZAC soldiers defeated Japanese forces on the island as part of a broad campaign to liberate the Southwest Pacific from Japanese occupation.
From World War II to Australia’s withdrawal from Bougainville and PNG in 1975, two key developments would occur: first, the strong emergence of the Bougainvillean identity, and second, the opening of the Panguna mine.
Both Bougainville and PNG are extremely diverse. Both areas have among the largest densities of tribal and linguistic groups in the world. However, in response to colonialism, Bougainville’s ethnic groups developed a loose unity to amplify their voice against the presiding European and imperial Japanese governments. This island nationalism came to the fore when PNG gained independence in 1975.
As Australia left the region, Bougainvilleans declared their independence, christening their state at the Republic of the North Solomons. The framers of the independence movement, and activists for independence today, stressed that Bougainville’s geographical and cultural background was much more in line with the Solomon Islands, but their colonial history was with PNG, thus necessitating their independence. The movement completely failed, nobody recognized Bougainville’s sovereignty, and the territory was incorporated as an autonomous territory in PNG.
The other key player that served as an impetus for the Bougainville independence movement and the PNG government’s desperate attempts to quell the movement was the power of the Panguna mine. Bougainville is home to extremely large copper and gold deposits. In the 1960s, with the discovery of massive copper deposits, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a company owned by the Australian subsidiary of the British multinational corporation Rio Tinto, constructed the Panguna mine. It would quickly become one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world.
After Bougainville became an autonomous part of PNG when Australia left in 1975, the Panguna mine became a great source of tension between the PNG government in Port Moresby and the ABG. The mine enriched the area, making the region around the mine one of the richest regions of PNG.
However, residents felt the profits from the mine were distributed unfairly. Bougainville received only five percent of the mine’s profits while most jobs went to foreigners from New Guinea and elsewhere. This further intensified Bougainvillean nationalism. Additionally, the island had to deal with the massive ecological damage caused by the mine. Waste dumped from the mine into the Jaba River colored the river into a toxic cyan blue devoid of life, and dangerous to those who relied on its stream.
These injuries, both perceived and real, culminated in a violent uprising in 1989 lead by disgruntled landowner Francis Ona and his movement, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The PNG government responded by sending in the army, the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF). The government wasn’t going to easily give up access to a mine that “produced 14 percent of PNG’s national income and 45 percent of its exports,” according to a World Bank economic review of the region. There is also some speculation and evidence that the PNG government was ordered to militarily quell the revolt by the BCL corporation that controlled it. However, that theory isn’t widely accepted among politicians and historians.
For 10 years, the BRA successfully repelled the PNGDF and the Bougainville Resistance Forces (BRF), a local collaborationist group that fought the BRA in response to violent actions it had committed on Bougainvilleans, while simultaneously circumventing a PNG imposed blockade through a mix of blockade running and an extremely creative reuse of materials from the island and the Panguna mine. Nevertheless, the conflict christened the Bougainville Civil War, and exacted a massive human cost on the island population. Roughly 10 percent of the island (around 15-20,000 people) died as a result of the conflict. Most of the deaths weren’t in battle but rather due to a lack of medical infrastructure. The war holds the unenviable title as the deadliest conflict in the Pacific region since World War II.
By 1998, the will to fight among all parties was nearly sapped. In particular, the PNG government’s attempt to hire mercenaries to defeat the BRA, an effort that was rejected by the PNGDF, marked the final straw that exhausted the PNG government’s will to fight the war. In 2001, after three years of negotiations, the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) successfully brought peace to the island. The Panguna mine, which played a key part in bringing conflict to the region, was successfully closed. Despite attempts by various parties in Bougainville and abroad, the mine has remained closed.
The BPA consists of three core pillars: increased autonomy for Bougainville, a weapons disposal plan, and most relevantly, a referendum on Bougainville’s independence. The referendum, which was supposed to occur in 2018, has been pushed back several times due to funding gaps. The current date, November 23, is a final date and will not be pushed back.
Roughly 200,000 citizens, 80 percent of the total population, of the ARB have been enrolled to vote in the referendum. This high number of voters indicates that the Bougainville populace is determined to participate in the referendum and that the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC) has been able to overcome extremely poor infrastructure and mobilize voter registration. The BRC, chaired by former Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahren and operationally overseen by the experienced american electoral advisor Mauricio Claudio, has run the elections process effectively and transparently. Scrutineers and international observers have been recruited to ensure that the vote reflects the people’s will.
At polling booths across the region, voters will decide whether to vote for independence, or for greater autonomy. Advocates for independence argue that Bougainville is culturally unrelated to a Port Moresby government that cares more for the island’s resources than for the welfare of its citizens. Critics respond that Bougainville is woefully unprepared for statehood, and that greater autonomy gives the ARB time to grow its economy before declaring independence. According to a report by the PNG National Research Institute, the ABG has only made 6 percent of the revenue required for self-sufficiency. This number could increase as the ABG will have to rely on less aid from PNG, can promote efficient fishing practices, and build new mines on the island. However, an independent Bougainville will most likely have to rely on some form of foreign aid to function. Nevertheless, a majority of experts believe that citizens will vote for the former option.
Bougainville wouldn’t initially become a state even if it voted for independence because the referendum is non-binding. For Bougainville to become independent, the PNG parliament must accept the referendum result, something that may not happen. Furthermore, the ABG and the PNG government would have to negotiate an agreement that would dictate the terms under which Bougainville would transition towards statehood.
The current PNG PM, James Marape, has said on several occasions that he will comply with the results of the referendum, giving hope to Bougainvilleans that a vote for independence will result in legitimate independence.
U.S. Foreign Policy Towards the Referendum
Thematically, the US should increase its involvement in the region to foster good governance, promote trade, and either work with or combat Chinese attempts to become an important actor in the region.
While the US hasn’t done much in the region, the few steps it has taken have generally been positive. The US was among the nations that helped make the referendum happen by funding it, and the US has vaguely supported the peace process in the region. Still, US policy has solely been focused on promoting democracy and economic development in the Solomon Islands and PNG while Bougainville is essentially never mentioned.
In the short term, it is imperative that the US tacitly support the referendum result and the principles of the BPA. If Bougainville votes for independence, the US should only recognize the new nation once the PNG parliament endorses the referendum result and reaches an agreement with the ABG over the terms of independence. The US enjoys positive relations with PNG in the form of large investments, military cooperation, and disaster relief efforts. The US shouldn’t jeopardize these relations.
Furthermore, the US, alongside with the UN, Australia, and New Zealand can serve to mediate an agreement between Bougainville and PNG. Arguably, the US can be a more effective mediator than Australia or the UN because the US hasn’t done anything specific in the region that would garner ill will towards Washington. Australia participated in the PNG lead blockade of Bougainville that indirectly lead to many deaths during the civil war, and the UN has failed to live up to some of their commitments to the islands. In terms of Bougainville policy, the US has done next to nothing, meaning that Bougainville and PNG could look favorably on a US-led mediation effort if conflict arises.
The possibility for violence is unlikely, but has the greatest chance of occurring if Bougainville votes for statehood and the PNG government decides to do nothing or reject the vote. Several factions on the island, remnants of the BRA, are armed and may be induced towards violent revolution viewing the PNG government as reneging on the BPA. If that were to happen, the US should pursue a policy of active neutrality, condemning both sides for spurning the BPA in an international fora while working with our partners in the region to foster a renewed peace agreement that at a minimum guarantees Bougainville greater autonomy.
If the US fails to involve itself in the region and work with our allies, it could lead to increased Chinese expansion in the region. China wants to include the Southwest Pacific in its massive Belt and Road initiative and has already proposed large infrastructure investments in Bougainville. The nearby Solomon Islands cut ties with Taiwan after Chinese money and pressure convinced the government to take such an action.
That isn’t inherently bad, the international community should welcome South-South cooperation. However, China’s approach towards its Pacific neighbors has been more coercive than cooperative. Critics have argued that Chinese investments in island nations have often resulted in predatory lending practices, such as seizing physical assets of the targeted nation.
China could also challenge the geopolitical dynamic of the region. In a worst case scenario when Port Moresby rejects a vote for independence China could make the situation worse by recognizing Bougainville, throwing a wrench in international relations and increasing domestic and great power tension in the Pacific.
The Future for Bougainvilleans
The Bougainville referendum has been the culmination of a hundred years of colonialism, ten years of conflict, and one definitive peace agreement. This referendum has the possibility of turning violent, as the issues that plague the island and PNG haven’t been completely resolved.
The most likely outcomes are that Bougainville will vote for independence, and then there’ll be an agreement in which Bougainville will either gain greater autonomy, slowly transition towards statehood, or be stuck in a Brexit-style situation. However, all possibilities should be accounted for when deciding upon policies for the region. A successful resolution to this conflict can bolster the success of US based international order and improve the lives of 300,000 individuals who call Bougainville home.
David Leshchiner is a first-year International Relations major in the School of International Studies. He serves as an Editor-at-Large for the Agora.
Photo Courtesy Ness Kerton (AFP), Creative Commons