A Cautious Welcome To A New Nation: Bougainville

From 1988 to 1998 there was an immensely deadly but nearly entirely obscure Civil War fought in Papua New Guinea that cost from thousands to tens of thousands of lives.  The civil war itself was lamentable if somewhat predictable.  Bougainville’s copper mines were responsible at their peak for nearly half of the export revenue of the entire nation of Papua New Guinea, but Bougainville itself is of a different culture than most of the nation, belonging more with its neighbors in terms of language and culture than with the Papuans of Papuan New Guinea.  And despite having the support of Australia, Papua New Guinea was not able to secure a clear victory over the rebels on the island, who were supported by the Solomon Islands (as is to be expected) and allegedly Fiji as well.  In 1998 a peace agreement was reached which made Bougainville an autonomous area and that also allowed for a non-binding election referendum to be made that would help determine the island’s ultimate status within 20 years.  In 2016 that referendum was agreed to by the autonomous island government and the national government, and the results of that election have been released.

The results are as decisive an election for independence as has been seen outside of Southern Sudan [1] or South Carolina circa December 1860.  Rarely does one find so many people who want nothing to do with their federal government and want to be free.  At least according to the results I have seen from the BRC, over 98% of the over 180,000 votes counted from an eligible voting population of just over 200,000 people (a high turnout of a bit shy of 90% of the registered voters) have voted for independence, with only 3,043 votes for greater autonomy, which was the other option available.  In both cases, Bougainville was not going to be viewed as just another province within Papua New Guinea, but the decisive vote for independence is going to make it very hard for the national government in Port Moresby to attempt to deny or finesse the result.  The people of Bougainville have spoken and they want to be free.  A wise response would be to make that freedom as lacking in bitterness as possible so as to ensure as much cooperation between the new state and its previous overlord as possible, if there are statesmen on both sides who can manage it.

It is unclear at this point exactly how soon independence will be granted by Papua New Guinea to its now decisively broken away province, nor is it clear what international help in statebuilding will be provided.  While Bougainville does have a copper mine, it is unclear what else it has in terms of institutions that can help it to survive as a cohesive state.  We have seen with South Sudan, unfortunately, that a nation may have a nearly unanimous desire for independence without having the ability to operate as an independent state without continued internal violence, and it is unclear if Bougainville has the sort of social cohesion to make it a successful state even if it gains its freedom soon.  It will take a great deal of work and effort for Bougainville to rise above its history of violence and its dependence on a single export product, and if there is likely to be a great feeling of pride in having so decisively voted to be free, it would be foolish to deny that a lot of work remains to be done that probably has not yet even been conceived of.  The obscurity of Bougainville and its longing for independence [1] are not particularly well known in some parts of the world, and it is unclear just how much international assistance the new government will receive as it seeks to make its way in the world.

What does it have, though?  It has at least some initial optimism and a commitment not to be a part of Papua New Guinea.  That is a start.  The area has somewhere around 250,000 people, which makes it a small nation but by no means the smallest in the world.  It already has a flag and a national anthem (“My Bougainville”) and a baffling amount of linguistic diversity given its population.  These would tend to indicate that a high degree of caution is to be undertaken as we greet this new island nation into the world, however long it takes.  Will the presence of copper mines help it achieve a rapid recognition by the outside world even as it makes Papua New Guinea (which is much poorer for having it depart) more reluctant to let it leave?  It would appear as if New Guinea made a mistake in insisting on this territory from the beginning, as Bougainville wanted to be free from very moment Papua New Guinea was a nation.  As is often the case, some forced marriages seem to be doomed to failure from the start, and the violence that it takes to force something to stay a part of your country makes that part even more insistent on leaving.  That doesn’t mean it will be easy for Bougainville to be a free and independent nation, though.

[1] But see, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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