“Yes” to independence wins Bougainville referendum with 98% of votes

Vote not binding, Papua New Guinea and Bougainville governments to negotiate final settlement

A moment of the referendum vote.
A moment of the referendum vote. Author: Bougainville Referendum Commission
Nearly 98% of valid votes in Bougainville’s self-determination referendum have been in favour of independence from Papua New Guinea. Turnout has stood at 87.5 per cent of those registered to vote. The referendum was not binding, but the clarity of the result adds pressure on the PNG government to negotiate anything other than independence.

The Bougainville Referendum Commission has stressed that the referendum has been an “orderly process”, “peaceful”, “informed, free of fear and accessible.”

The referendum was one of the three pillars of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which in 2001 put an end to an armed conflict that lasted from 1988 to 1998 and cost the lives of 10,000 to 15,000 people. The conflict pitted several Bougainville armed groups against each other and against the Papua New Guinea army.

Under the agreement, Bougainville was granted partial self-governing status in 2005. The development of the autonomy arrangements have been uneven, leading to dissatisfaction among Bougainvilleans as regards any prospect of the autonomous region remaining within Papua New Guinea.

All eyes on Marape

Attention is now focused on the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, who is travelling to Bougainville 13 December where he is expected to speak and sign a joint statement with the President of Bougainville’s autonomous government, John Momis.

Marape has said he “acknowledges” the result, and that the PNG government has “listened to the voice” of voters. He has not said, however, whether he is prepared to negotiate independence, nor whether has he ruled it out. Marape recalled that a new phase is now beginning in which the governments of PNG and Bougainville must reach a “lasting political agreement” that will be presented to the PNG Parliament.

The PNG minister for Bougainville, Puka Temu, asked for “time” so that the people of Papua New Guinea “can absorb this result.”

Negotiations on final settlement

According to the peace agreement, it is the PNG Parliament that must make the final decision on whether or not to grant independence to Bougainville, on the basis of that will be negotiated by the two governments.

Talks could also lead to an agreement that would grant Bougainville enlarged self-government without independence —as a free associated state— or gradual independence, options that the government of the autonomous region envisaged in 2016.

Before the referendum, the discussion and consultation phase was expected to last at least several months. During the vote, Momis hinted to a five-year period for all the arrangements to be concluded.

It remains to be seen whether the clarity of the result — a broad “yes” victory was expected, but not so overwhelmingly— will influence the stance of the PNG government and whether it will facilitate, or not, an agreement leading to full independence.

Even if this were the final scenario, transition to an independent Bougainville is likely to take several years. The region’s autonomous government has not even taken over all the powers granted to it by the autonomy framework, and it is far from being able to deploy all the powers of a sovereign state. It especially has to resolve its fiscal independence, given that its budget remains heavily dependent on Papua New Guinea.

For an in-depth look at the context of the referendum, you can read this full article published by Nationalia in November.