Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was an 18th century French sailor. After participating without much success in the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763), he began a fruitful career as an explorer. His first destination was the Malvinas Islands, which he conquered on behalf of the French crown in 1764.. He founded a colony but it did not last long: by order of Paris, he sold the archipelago to Spain in exchange for a large sum of money.
Two years later, began a campaign to circumnavigate the globe. She became the 14th to complete it and the first to do so with professional naturalists on board. Thus it was that in 1768, after passing through the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, He came across a small island that caught his attention.
Although it was inhabited, it was unknown to Europeans. He named it Bougainville in a tribute to himself.. But he couldn’t stay too long, because his residents didn’t find his presence too friendly, so he had to flee. France never had full control over it, but it still kept its name, which currently calls the autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG) that also includes the island of Buka and other smaller ones.
Bougainville is close to becoming a new country. 19 years after a peace agreement that put an end to a bloody civil war, in which according to the most dramatic estimates about 10% of the population died, a historic referendum was organized. Voting began on November 23 and concluded on December 7, but the results were known this week.
Of its nearly 250,000 inhabitants, 176,928 voted in favor of independence, an overwhelming 98 percent. Only 3,043 chose to continue belonging to PNG, but with greater autonomy. The vote was supervised by Bertie Ahern, former Prime Minister of Ireland, who was in charge of the Referendum Commission, to ensure its transparency.
“It is an example of the power of the pen over weapons”Ahern said after announcing the numbers. However, the conflict is far from being resolved. The consultation was not binding, so the final decision rests with the PNG Parliament, where there are not many people in favor of the country losing one of its regions.
“I tended to be pessimistic about the possibility of Parliament granting the wishes of the people of Bougainville. However, With such an overwhelming vote in favor of independence, there may be considerable international pressure. But before the vote there will be a process of dialogue on next steps and many politicians are trying to dampen expectations, saying negotiations could last five years. It’s too much for the next generation of impatient and angry young bougainvilleas. “It would be a tragedy, because so far the peace process has been one of the most successful and innovative that has taken place under the auspices of the UN,” he told Infobae John Braithwaite, professor at the School of Global Regulation and Governance at the Australian National University.
From the civil war to the referendum
Bougainville was off the European radar for almost a century, until It was conquered by the German Empire in 1899. During the First World War the territory was occupied by Australia. In 1949, by decision of Canberra, it was merged with the territories of New Guinea and Papua, also under Australian control, and thus the Territory of Papua and New Guinea was formed, which only became independent in 1975.
The tensions began much earlier. PNG is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with up to 800 different languages, and Bougainvilleans never felt part of it.. Although they are not a homogeneous ethnic group, and even 19 linguistic families can be found in their origins, they have their own history that separates them from the rest and a physical trait that distinguishes them: darker skin than that of most Papuans. .
“At the center is the question of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnonationalism’. Much of the Bougainville community does not identify with the State of PNG at all and, in fact, use the derogatory term ‘redskins’ when talking about other citizens. The bougainvilleans are clearly ‘blacker’ and ethnically closer to the Solomon Islands population. The dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ began long before the civil war and continues,” explained Jim Rolfe, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University in New Zealand, consulted by Infobae.
Bougainville’s first secessionist attempt occurred 15 days before PNG’s independence, when it proclaimed itself the Republic of the Northern Solomons. After a year of intense negotiations, it agreed to remain within PNG in exchange for greater autonomy. But the balance was unstable.
Beyond ethnic, cultural and political differences, There are economic interests behind the historic dispute. In the 1930s, rich deposits of gold and, mainly, copper were found. The discovery of the Panguna mine, which began to be exploited in 1972, had a strong impact on the island. It became one of the most important in the world and generated nearly 45% of Papuan exports.
The appearance of Bougainville began to change rapidly with the arrival of thousands of workers from other regions of the country., a phenomenon that aroused much rejection among locals. Above all, because the majority did not see the economic returns of what the mine produced.
Panguna was the axis of the armed conflict that broke out in 1988 with the emergence of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (ERB), which sought the independence of the archipelago. PNG reacted by sending soldiers and mercenaries, and the fighting escalated into a civil war, in which multiple human rights violations occurred and thousands of people were killed. Due to violence, the mine has been closed since 1989.
“The civil war began over a dispute over the gigantic copper mine, which was the island’s main source of income.. “It was also fueled by divisions within Bougainville society based on region, language and connections to mainland PNG or the neighboring Solomon Islands,” he told Infobae Benjamin Reilly, Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia.
The ERB managed to gain almost complete control over the main island in 1990, but PNG reacted by imposing a blockade that lasted four years, as well as leading periodic airstrikes. Given the stagnation of the civil war due to the impossibility of both parties to prevail, in 1994 a phase of détente began.. In 1997 a truce was agreed and a dialogue table was set up in New Zealand.
“The most ostensible cause of the bloody civil war was the distribution of the costs and benefits of the Panguna copper mine,” Rolfe said. The costs were paid in Bougainville, especially for environmental degradation, and the benefits were exported to the capital. The dispute morphed into a demand for independence which, inevitably, was rejected by Port Moresby. Both sides used extreme brutality and a low estimate of the victims ranges between 6% and 10% of the local population. There were several attempts to cease hostilities, but none were effective until, when both sides became exhausted, New Zealand was asked to lead a truce in 1997. This became the 2001 peace agreement.”
The understanding created the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which in 2005 elected its first president, Joseph Kabui. Besides, It was established that between 2015 and 2020 a non-binding referendum would be held so that citizens would have the opportunity to express their preference about the future of the archipelago. That is what has come to fruition in recent weeks.
“The majority of Bougainvilleans wanted independence for PNG at the end of the 2001 process, but the central government and regional authorities refused,” Braithwaite said. The commitment was a referendum postponed for almost 20 years to give PNG a chance to persuade Bougainville that its people would be better off as citizens of the country. But they failed.”
A new country?
“The Peace Agreement says that the two governments must ‘consult’ on the result of the referendum, which then goes to Parliament for a decision. But There is no schedule that indicates how long this process should take.. The next step will be for the two governments to develop some form of ‘divorce pact’ and negotiations are likely to be lengthy and detailed. It could take years until it reaches the Legislature,” said Gordon Peake, a conflict resolution specialist at the Australian National University, in dialogue with Infobae.
The referendum not only served to express the extent to which the inhabitants of Bougainville want to become independent, but also to place the issue on the international agenda. The economic opportunities offered by the Panguna mine are attracting actors from other countries, with China in the lead.
That is one of the reasons why PNG is not the least bit enthusiastic about granting independence. Added to this is the concern for the possibility that other regions of such a diverse country may want to follow Bougainville’s path.
“The central government will be reluctant to grant independence to Bougainville as it does not want to lose any of its territory and fears it could lead to other separatist movements,” Reilly said. Regional powers like Australia are also uninterested in the idea of another small Pacific island that will likely seek help from external partners like China.. Anyway, the PNG government could accept it just to get rid of this noisy and ongoing secessionist fight, just like Indonesia did with East Timor. “Personally, I think it is more likely that they will try to delay any decision.”
It is true that due to the forcefulness of the result and the visibility that the conflict achieved, it will be much more difficult for the central government to remain intransigent. If you try, you risk a return to violence. Furthermore, Bougainville long ago stopped contributing financially to the treasury coffers in Port Moresby.
“Although the referendum is not binding and Parliament has to ratify the result, The level of support for independence is such that it is difficult not to accept the result. If I didn’t, I would expect more civil war. But if he accepts it, work would have to begin on the details of the future relationship between Bougainville and PNG. The transition process will be key to stability, both internal and regional. If that is to be ensured, PNG will have to actively work to make Bougainville viable as a state. There will undoubtedly be attempts to develop an economy based on the Panguna mine and other exploration. It will take time and expectations could be higher than actual results, especially in the short term,” Rolfe concluded.