Pacific News Minute: Strategic, Economic Concerns Ahead Of Bougainville Independence Referendum

Jun 19, 2019

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape
Credit Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP

In four months, the people of Bougainville will vote in a referendum that gives them a choice of independence or greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea. While there’s been no polling, analysts expect overwhelming approval for independence. But the world’s newest nation would face serious problems.

A statement from the new prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, suggested no change from the previous government’s policies – they prefer that Bougainville remain part of Papua New Guinea, but will consider the results of the referendum, now scheduled for October 17th.

Port Moresby worries that if Bougainville is granted independence other provinces will want to follow suit – that would include New Britain, New Ireland, and the Admiralty Islands. But a decision to flaunt the will of the voters threatens to reignite the civil war of the 1990s, the bloodiest conflict in the Pacific since 1945, which took the lives of an estimated 20,000 people.

PNG’s new minister for Bougainville affairs, Sir Puka Temu, told the newspaper, The Australian, that Bougainvillians need to consider the cost of cutting the umbilical cord. He said they would need at least 390 million dollars a year to sustain the island as an independent state, while current revenue is less than 9 million per year. 

An independent Bougainville would be weak, aid-dependent, and desperate to reopen the giant Panguna mine, closed since the start of the civil war, but believed to contain 58 billion dollars worth of copper and gold. Profits and pollution from Panguna were the flashpoint of the civil war and those disputes have never really been resolved.

Even so, China has expressed interest in reopening the mine, and just this week, the government of Bougainville postponed a controversial deal with an Australian company until after the referendum.