Bougainville is an island in the Pacific Ocean that belongs to Papua New Guinea since the independence of that country in 1975. It is the easternmost insular region of Papua New Guinea. It is located some 900 kilometres from mainland PNG, and much closer to the Solomon Islands, with which it shares geographic, historical and cultural affinities.
Out of the PNG’s total population of 8 million, just a few less than 300,000 live in the autonomous region, the vast majority of them in the two main islands —Bougainville and Buka, where the interim capital is located. A few thousands live in scattered atolls. They speak some 20 different languages, with Tok Pisin and English used as linguae francae.
In September 1975 several Bougainville leaders declared independence of the island as the Republic of North Solomons. The declaration was recognized by no other state. In August 1976 the secessionist leaders and the government of Papua New Guinea reached a reintegration deal.
Starting from 1988, however, tensions mounted. This eventually led to what is known as the Bougainville Civil War. In 1989, as "a copper mine co-owned by an Australian mining company and the PNG government,” the Panguna mine, “became the focus of conflict," peacebuilding organization specializing in the Bougainville conflict Conciliation Resources writes in this report. "The introduction of Australian and New Guinean workers caused resentment and the exploitation of the mine became increasingly intertwined with issues of indigenous identity.” The conflict sat on grievances by Bougainvilleans against foreign domination —of European colonists in the first place and then of the PNG government— and a sense of a distinct identity that can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s.
“What began as a campaign of sabotage," the report continues, "escalated into a violent campaign for independence, resulting in the formation of both the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a government-backed militia."
In 2001, Papua New Guinea and a Bougainville provisional goverment agreed to put an end to the armed conflict, with three main pillars: the destruction of weapons, the establishment of an Autonomous Region of Bougainville (put in place in 2005), and a non-binding referendum on independence to be held within 10 to 15 years after autonomy was launched.
Bougainville held its self-determination referendum between 23 November and 7 December 2019. The two options to choose from were 1) full independence or 2) increased autonomy within Papua New Guinea. With a turnout of 87.6%, the independence option received 98.3% of the valid votes.
Granting independence to Bougainville depends on the Papua New Guinea Parliament. After the vote, the Bougainville government called on the PNG government to begin negotiating the terms of the separation. The PNG government said that before talking about Bougainville's political independence, the new country’s economic independence needed to be guaranteed.
Since 2005, the Bougainville Autonomous Region has had its own system of autonomous government. It has its own cabinet, parliament, police, and constitution. It enjoys a greater degree of self-government than ordinary provinces of Papua New Guinea, but it does not yet exercise all the powers conferred on it by the peace agreement.
(Last updated November 2020.)