Renewed push for independence in Oceania

Bougainville holds self-determination referendum in November as West Papua-Indonesia conflict worsens

Papuan pro-independence demonstration.
Papuan pro-independence demonstration. Author: Free West Papua Campaign
Most countries of Oceania, having been colonized by European powers during the 19th century, gained their independence throughout the 20th century. Several cases, however, were not resolved, as some decolonization processes remained pending, while in other cases new demands for sovereignty emerged within post-colonial republics. Bougainville, which will be holding an independence referendum in November, and West Papua, in a renewed conflict escalation, are two examples of that.

Bougainville, UN member #194 to come?

After being postponed twice, Bougainville is scheduled to hold an independence referendum on 23 November 2019. Nearly 200,000 citizens of this Pacific island are expected to decide between enlarged self-government —the territory has been semi-autonomous within Papua New Guinea since 2002— or secession.

The referendum is the result of a 2001 agreement between the government of Papua New Guinea and representatives of Bougainville to put an end to an armed conflict that began in the 1980s. The island has unilaterally declared independence twice, in 1975 and 1991, albeit without success.

A clear “yes” victory is expected, but any final decision will be up to the Parliament of Papua New Guinea, as the vote is not legally binding.

Analysts agree that political management of the referendum aftermath will be the most important challenge, if “yes” wins. On the one hand, Bougainville will need years to equip itself with all the structures to function as a viable independent state. On the other, Papua New Guinea might decide to deny independence to Bougainville. It is not ruled out, in this case, that the PNG government offers Bougainville an intermediate status. But any refusal to implement independence could lead to instability and could herald a return to armed conflict.

West Papua: Indonesia’s rebel border

Of the 16,000 islands that make up Indonesia, half of one —albeit a very vast one— is the scenario of a conflict that has been lasting for more than 50 years. Since the middle of the 20th century, West Papuan independence fighters have been resisting the integration of their country into Indonesia, denouncing a continuous process of colonization and plundering of natural resources by the Indonesian government.

The conflict has since killed between 100,000 and 500,000 people, most of them Papuan civilians. It is difficult to be more specific, given that Indonesia restricts access to journalists and researchers. Integration into Indonesia has resulted in Papuan people becoming a demographic minority in several parts of the island, following the arrival of people from elsewhere.

[Further background information on West Papua in this profile.]

Since mid-August, several cities and towns in West Papua have witnessed renewed protests by Papuan demonstrators, who denounce racism from Indonesian police, military personnel and civilians too, and demand self-determination.

The protests, banned by the police, have resulted in violent actions, with more than 30 people killed. According to Indonesian police chief Tito Karnavian, most of those killed are Indonesians, burned in buildings set on fire by demonstrators. In a separate incident, at least six Papuan demonstrators were killed by police gunfire. A police officer was also killed.

Papuan organizations speak of more than 60 people killed, many of them Papuan civilians.

Benny Wenda, exiled leader of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), has once again called on Indonesia to accept the holding of an independence referendum. Instead, Wenda decries, “Wiranto [the Indonesian government's coordinating minister for security, policy and law] is forming militia groups, trying to turn Indonesian settlers in West Papua against us —just as he did in East Timor.”

New Caledonia’s second chance in 2020

Everyone assumed that “no” to independence would get a clear victory in the November 2018 self-determination referendum in New Caledonia. When it came down to it, however, the vote was relatively tight, with more than 43 per cent of voters casting their ballots for independence from France. The result spurred the independence movement, to which the Nouméa Accord grants the right to call two more referendums, the first one in 2020 and the second one in 2022.

[Further background information on New Caledonia in this profile.]

It is now striking to see that both pro-independence and unionist members of the New Caledonian Congress agree with the holding of the 2020 referendum. The former think that the 2018 referendum result gap can be closed, thus granting the independence camp a win. The latter, on the contrary, believe that most people who abstained from voting in 2018 were unionists, and are confident to get them to the poll stations to secure a resounding “no” to secession.

Tokelau: a microstate in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

Tokelau is a dependent territory of New Zealand, made up of three atolls inhabited by just 1,500 people. Decolonization of the country has been pending for decades. In 2006 and again in 2007, two consecutive referendums were held on turning Tokelau into a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, just as the Cook Islands and Niue are —short of full sovereignty. In the first vote, “yes” received 60 per cent of the ballots. The figure was 64 per cent in the second. Because a two-thirds majority was required, no status change was implemented.

Nukunonu Lagoon, one of Tokelau's three atolls. / Photo: CloudSurfer @ Wikipedia

Until a definitive political system is agreed, each atoll is internally governed by its own traditional body (the Council of Elders). For matters of national scope, a government and a Parliament (the General Fono) have legislative power over the three atolls.

On a visit to Tokelau in 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern renewed New Zealand’s commitment to support the small nation in building the administrative structures necessary to become a state, if islanders so wish.

Chuuk, the debate on independence in a federation

Chuuk, one of the four member countries of the Federated States of Micronesia, has been debating for years the possibility of seceding in the face of the local perception that the federation marginalizes it as regards economic issues. A referendum was called in 2015 but was postponed at the last minute. The Chuuk government sought again to hold it in 2019, but again suspended it.

Linked to these postponements is the debate on whether the referendum is constitutional or not. Independence supporters say Chuuk has the right to hold it because the Micronesian federal Constitution does not explicitly prohibit it. Opponents reject this interpretation, and recall that the text includes “the obligation” of all member states “to promote the principles of unity.”

Micronesia receives an annual grant, and enjoys some public services, from the United States in exchange for ceding authority in the area of defense to Washington. US Ambassador Robert Riley warned that Chuuk would lose such benefits if it seceded from Micronesia. China could fill the economic vacuum this could create.

Other cases: from Rapa Nui to Hawaii

The five cases aforementioned are some of the most prominent at present, but throughout Oceania’s very wide geographical area other situations arise that touch on essential aspects of sovereignty. For decades, pro-independence parties in French Polynesia have been calling for a decolonisation process and the holding of a referendum on independence. Being inscribed on the UN list of non-self-governing territories since 2013, its process is progressing slowly.

Further south, on Easter Island —which has recently officially recovered the indigenous name of Rapa Nui— the debate on sovereignty is very much alive. The island’s mayor advocates a UN-led self-determination process that gives islanders the choice between autonomy in Chile or full independence.

In Hawaii, a part of the Indigenous movement continues to denounce the illegality of the annexation to the US in late 19th century as it vies for independence. Another part demands cultural, economic and social rights and, perhaps, a system of Indigenous autonomy within the North American federation.