Bougainville Awakens: Independence on the Horizon of Gruelling Road

The world has moved a step closer to gaining a new nation. Bougainville – a collection of islands and atolls in the Pacific Ocean – has unanimously voted for independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG) in a well-attended referendum.

As is invariably the case, the path to statehood for Bougainville remains littered with obstacles. The fact that PNG has recognised the result is a positive start but Bougainville’s complex history intimates at further challenges ahead.

Named after the French explorer Louis-Antoine Comte de Bougainville, who tacked along the eastern coast of the main island in 1768, Bougainville first came under the control of Germany in the late 19th century. Forming part of German New Guinea – which also encompassed some of the present-day PNG and the Solomon Islands – Bougainville was hardly a seat of colonial grandeur.

Heavily-forested, mountainous and about as remote as you could get from Europe, Bougainville was hardly suited to ‘civilised’ settlement. Indeed, the German protectorate that included Bougainville was established in 1886 and yet its first outpost was not established until 1905. This, a tiny coastal station at Kieta, was mainly used as a base from which German administrators could ‘recruit’ natives as labourers for their more profitable imperial acquisitions. The only effort at economic exploitation on Bougainville itself was a handful of copra plantations that yielded little.

The tiny German colonial outpost at Kieta

World War One brought an Australian invasion and the Germans were soon ousted, although the nascent administrative framework they had established was retained. The Australians expanded the plantations, expropriated labour and undertook ‘pacification’ operations against the natives.

The Japanese arrived in World War Two, ousting the Australians with the aim of using Bougainville as a base for attacking American-held territory and naval fleets in the Pacific. Their stay was short, the US Army ousting the main invading force, before mopping up the stragglers from the remote mountain regions after the Emperor’s surrender.

American Marines trudge through thick mud during the campaign to free Bougainville of the Japanese

Any hopes that this temporary liberation would engender greater freedom for the people of Bougainville were soon quashed, however, as the Australians returned to administer the territory as part of their wider control over PNG. This lasted until PNG secured independence in 1975.

At this point the stirrings of conflict began to be heard. Having been belatedly promised greater autonomy by the Australians in the early 1970s, Bougainville was disappointed to learn that this pledge would not be upheld by the new PNG government in Port Moresby. Independence was out of the question, as was uniting with the nearby Solomon Islands, with whom many Bougainvilleans share greater affinity.

Secessionist sentiments eventually mutated into full-blown civil war. With suspected significant copper and gold reserves, a massive open cut mine was established on Bougainville Island by a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, the Australian mining giant. This provided much-needed revenue for the PNG, yet barely any of the wealth was shared with the province from whence it came. What was more, the mine mainly employed Australians and people from the mainland, rather than Bougainvilleans, simultaneously causing devastation to the local environment.

Resentment grew until open revolt broke out in December 1988. Over the next ten years, up to 20,000 Bougainvilleans were killed as the PNG forces – along with local backers – tried, often unsuccessfully, to bring its restive province and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) to heel. It would take the diplomatic overtures of Australia, New Zealand, and several Pacific neighbours, for a peace agreement to be signed in 1998 and a ceasefire obeyed. Two of the conditions were greater autonomy for Bougainville and the promise of a future independence referendum.

Bougainville has yet to fully confront and recover from its brutal civil war

That referendum has now come and gone, with 181,067 ballots (98% of those counted) opting for independence.

Yet the next stage offers unprecedented challenges for a people that have been through so much in just over a century, thrust into the modern world by unscrupulous powers that invested little in Bougainville’s economic or human capital.

As the the most recent new nation, South Sudan, will attest to, independence does not guarantee freedom, wealth or happiness. Like its African counterpart, Bougainville is thought to be resource-rich. Whereas the South Sudanese have abundant oil reserves, the Bougainvilleans are thought to sit on large deposits of copper and gold. But how to extract this without foreign interference? How to prevent a fight over these resources igniting another civil war?

The vast Panguna mine complex has remained untouched since the civil war broke out

South Sudan is one of the most violent, destitute places in the world. Its independence was welcomed with fanfare by the international community and now barely anyone takes notice of its unenviable plight.

Bougainville will have to steer an astute path to avoid such an outcome. It must gain firm support from PNG for independence and assurance that such support will continue post-independence. Its leaders will also need to engage with international donors and foreign conglomerates, without selling off the country’s resources or excluding its people from a share of any economic spoils that may result from mineral extraction. All this whilst maintaining the environmental viability of its islands, atolls and reefs.

Colonial legacies are often divisive, confusing and disputed. In Bougainville’s case, foreign administration prevented the province’s development, its people seldom considered, oft-overlooked. The exploitation of natural resources set the scene for a civil war from whose memory Bougainville is still running.

It will take a united and strong national identity to confront this turbulent past and secure a prosperous future for all Bougainvilleans. If they are to occupy the next seat at the table of nations, there is much work to be done and backing to be won. A vote is just the beginning.

There was an upbeat mood at polling stations but the work for an independent Bougainville has only just begun