June 2019 set as provisional date for Bougainville independence referendum

A vote on separation was agreed in the 2001 peace agreement signed by Papua New Guinea and the pro-independence camp

15 June 2019 is the tentative date chosen to hold the Bougainville independence referendum. This has been agreed by the governments of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea (PNG), a key decision to advance towards the full disarmament of several armed factions.

Bougainville is an island in the Pacific Ocean that belongs to Papua New Guinea. The referendum is the culmination of peace agreements signed between Bougainville and PNG representatives in 2001. At the end of the 1980s an armed conflict erupted between a pro-independence militia (BRA) on one side, and Papua New Guinea troops and loyalist militias on the other. The confrontation emerged out of tensions caused by the operation of a mine in Bougainville and the arrival of Australian and PNG workers.

The peace agreement brought an end to the armed conflict, a system of limited self-government was implemented, and regular elections have been held ever since. The last part of the deal was the holding of a referendum on independence from PNG in June 2015 at the soonest and June 2020 at the latest.

After the deal, several groups of fighters managed to keep part of their arsenals. The president of the Bougainville Autonomous Government, John Momis, believes the date agreement will help unblock the situation, disarm these groups and allow the holding of a free and fair referendum without pressure from armed factions.

The June 2019 date is not final because of some legal requirements, but according to Momis a provisional date was needed in order to make progress in the preparations for the vote and to show that the government of Papua New Guinea is sincere when its says the referendum will take place.

The agreement struck between Momis and PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill also envisages the establishment of an independent agency to conduct the referendum. The government of Papua New Guinea has also agreed to include the referendum funding in the 2017 national budget.

Non binding vote

The referendum is not binding as per the 2001 deal. That is, the government of Papua New Guinea could in theory decide not to implement the result. Analysts suggest that a clear majority vote for independence is likely. In that event, they argue, refusing to accept independence could be a risky choice by Port Moresby.

Papua New Guinea is a very diverse country, consisting of hundreds of islands and almost 800 different linguistic groups. Autonomy demands exists in several regions.