By KATE LYONS
TODAY, the people of Bougainville – a small archipelago of islands flung 700km off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea – will begin voting in a referendum that will determine if their beloved homeland will become the world’s newest nation.
It is a vote that has been nearly 20 years in the making.
In 2001, as part of a peace agreement to end a devastating decade-long civil war, the government of Papua New Guinea promised the population of Bougainville, then about 200,000 people, that they would one day be able to cast a vote to decide their future.
The results will be announced in December.
It is expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of independence, with some observers anticipating a “yes” vote of more than 90%.
But the road to this point has been long and tortured and the path ahead could be just as problematic, even if the result is as emphatic as predicted.
Gold, copper and war
At the heart of the story of Bougainvillean independence is a mine, which lies at the centre of the main island.
Panguna mine, a huge open-cut gold and copper mine, provided 45% of Papua New Guinea’s export income in the years after it opened in 1972.
As Papua New Guinea became independent of Australia in 1975, Bougainvilleans began to ask whether or not Bougainville would fare better on its own, rather than having its resources cut out and used to prop up a bigger nation.
“[Panguna] led to many Bougainvilleans asking what was in it for them.
“Their resources were being exploited for the benefit of Papua New Guinea,” says Anthony Regan, who is a legal adviser to the Bougainvillean government, in a position funded by the Australian government.
In 1988, tensions over the mine escalated, causing Papua New Guinean police and defence force officers to be deployed on the island.
Fighting between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and PNG government forces developed into a full-blown civil war, which saw an estimated 20,000 people, out of a population at the time of 200,000, killed.
“The fighting stopped in 1997, because leaders on all sides were recognising it was going nowhere,” says Regan.
“Even the moderates in the Bougainville government could see they might be left with a Pyrrhic victory where Bougainville won, but Bougainville was left so divided that it would be no victory at all.”
Over two years Bougainvillean leaders thrashed out a deal with the Papua New Guinean government, coming up with a Bougainville Peace Agreement.
The thorny issue of independence was dealt with by both sides agreeing that an independence referendum must be held 10 to 15 years after the first Autonomous Bougainville Government was elected (by June 2020), but that the vote should be non-binding.
The final say as to whether Bougainville will become an independent country rests with the PNG government.
‘A tremendous effort’
The effort required to conduct a vote like this in Bougainville, an autonomous region where 90% of people live in rural hamlets and villages, where roughy half of the population are illiterate, which has no radio or television network that covers the entire population, where just a few hundred copies of Papua New Guinean newspapers are brought from the mainland each day, and where the scars of a brutal war are still felt, is “tremendous”, says Mauricio Claudio, the chief referendum officer of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC), which has been set up to administer the vote.
“The primary challenge was the lack of time the BRC was given to implement this referendum,” says Claudio, an American, who was only appointed to the role and arrived in Bougainville at the beginning of the year.
Funding for the BRC came in late, as did the appointment of a chair of the BRC, the former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
But Claudio also names issues with: “Communications, infrastructure, inclement weather, unreliable power and just the propensity for natural phenomena and catastrophe. It’s a tough environment.”
Despite this, in less than a year, the BRC has conducted the most comprehensive electoral enrolment process in Papua New Guinea’s history, with an electoral roll that has 20% more names on it compared to the roll used in the 2015 ABG elections.
At the close of the enrolment period 205,731 voters were registered to vote, with close to a 50-50 gender split.
As part of the peace agreement, the ABG has conducted significant reconciliation work between groups who stood opposed during the conflict, as well as a large-scale gun collection program.
Though the preparation has been frantic, the BRC believes it is ready for the vote.
“Our assessment is the referendum will be a peaceful one and a credible one,” says Claudio.
‘We want to be free’
Over the course of the next two weeks, starting in the larger townships of Buka and Arawa, and then moving to more remote areas, voters will be able to attend one of 829 polling stations – 800 of which are in Bougainville, 25 in PNG provinces and four in remote mining locations – to cast their vote.
Bougainvilleans living abroad have also been able to vote, with two polling stations in Australia and two in the Solomon Islands.
They will be asked whether they wish to vote for greater autonomy from PNG or for independence from it, but there is little question about which way the vote will go.
“People are not divided,” says Helen Hakena, a peace and women’s rights campaigner in Bougainville.
“The majority of Bougainvilleans want to vote for independence, because we are saying we want to be free.
“There has been a long struggle for our people, starting in the 1960s, and we would like to put an end to our struggle for self-determination.”
But with the Panguna mine closed since the conflict began and without other operational mines or developed industries, the question of how an independent Bougainville would support itself hangs over the vote.
According to a report by Satish Chand, a professor of finance for the University of NSW, the ABG collected just K2.4m (US$705,000) from company taxes, customs duties and other taxes, compared to the K41.3m (US$12.1m) it received from the PNG government, meaning the ABG had “by 2016 reached just six percent of the distance to fiscal self-reliance”.
Hakena reluctantly counts herself in the group who will not vote for independence because of fears an independent Bougainville would not be able to provide services to its people.
“It does hurt my pride as a Bougainvillean woman,” she says.
“I don’t think Bougainville is ready, even though I would like us to become free and to become an independent nation.
“I will be voting for greater autonomy because I would like Bougainville to be financially secure so that we can have all the services that we are enjoying now, which is not 100%, but we are still fortunate that we have the schools, we’ve got the health people, the airport, communication, transport, everything.
“We don’t own anything at this time, everything we have is owned by Papua New Guinea.
“Bougainville enjoyed financial security during the good times before the crisis, we were really very well off, unlike now, the crisis spoiled everything, so we are back to basics now.”
The danger of disappointment
The other question is what will happen after the vote, given the fact that it is non-binding.
Volker Boege, a research fellow at the University of Queensland, has travelled to Bougainville regularly for years as part of a group conducting dialogues throughout Bougainville about the peace agreement and the referendum.
He said in the early days of these dialogues, it was clear that people assumed: “We vote for independence, we have a party and the next day we are independent.
“They are now realising that this is not the case, it’s a non-binding referendum, the leadership of PNG and Bougainville will have to negotiate, the final say is with the PNG parliament.”
The process could take years, Boege says, with some Bougainville observers estimating it could be a decade before an independent Bougainville is established.
“There are fears that the Papua New Guinean government, which does not wish to lose part of its nation, or set a precedent for other independence-minded provinces, might drag out the process.
“Expectations are high, yes, there is the potential or the danger of the feeling of frustration or disappointment coming to the fore after the referendum,” Boege says.
“Of course the big question mark is about the PNG side. How will the PNG side actually respond and behave and what kind of commitment will there be?”
He says Bougainvilleans are “very happy” with the replacement in May of the longstanding PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill by James Marape, who is regarded as more open to an independent Bougainville.
While international organisations say they are not anticipating violence in the region as a result of the referendum, Hakena’s experiences in the civil war – in which she lost many family members and gave birth to her child prematurely alongside women who died in labour due to lack of health care – make her fearful about what will come.
Her organisation, the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency, which started out of the conflict, providing counselling to those affected by its violence, has been telling the women in their network to prepare in case of violence, or in case Papua New Guinea blockades Bougainville, as it did during the conflict.
“We’re saying, you have to grow your own food like you did in the crisis, we grew our own vegetables,” she says.
“We are preparing our people, growing our own food, fishing, getting their own medicine, putting food in the house.
“That’s what we’re telling our women – be prepared because we don’t know if there will be problems.”