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Bougainville: The World's Newest Nation?

Updated: May 11

Deputy Editor/International Affairs Analyst



In 2019 98% of the citizens of the autonomous region of Bougainville voted in favour of independence from Papua New Guinea. This referendum, though non-binding, represents the culmination of a 50-year struggle for Bougainvillians, a struggle that had not always been mediated through such peaceful processes. The question of whether the parliament of Papua New Guinea chooses to ratify the vote, thereby granting Bougainville independence, is still up in the air, but the Prime Minister of PNG, James Marape, has recently been adopting more reconciliatory language towards the matter, suggesting that the 2027 goal for independence may indeed be achieved. This article aims to answer two major questions: why does Bougainville want independence, and what would an independent Bougainville look like?


Background for Independence  


The opening of the Panguna copper mine in 1972 by the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto marks a sizable moment in the Bougainvillian psyche. As one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines, Panguna provided 45% of Papua New Guinea’s total exports, 17% of its internal revenue, and 12% of its gross domestic product in the years leading up to its closure in 1989. Resentments caused by receiving only around 1% of the mine’s profit as well as its social and environmental impacts resulted in an armed incursion to the mine in 1988 by Bougainvillians, to which PNG responded by sending in the military. The civil war that followed resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 people, about 10% of Bougainville’s population. It was only in 2001, following outside mediation and support, that a peace deal was achieved. In essence, the Bougainvillians had won. They were granted autonomy over their domestic affairs, becoming PNG’s only autonomous region, and independence was teased, with the notion to be settled by a non-binding referendum within 20 years. Now, following the overwhelming result of the referendum in 2019, the strength of feeling within Bougainville has been quantifiably measured, making inaction from Port Morsby (PNG’s capital) increasingly impossible. 

Given the region’s history, the prospect of future violence, provided independence not be granted, cannot be discounted. Furthermore, instability within PNG likely means that preventing Bougainville’s independence is falling down the list of Marape’s priorities, as his future as Prime Minister hangs in the balance. While by no means assured, these factors all suggest that by 2027 Bougainville may well fulfil its dream of independence.


Bougainville’s Past, and Future 


The Panguna mine, meanwhile, has by no means lost its significance to the region. In 2016 Rio Tinto gifted ownership of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) to the Autonomous Government of Bougainville and the national government of PNG, meaning that the mine has now become the focus of nationalistic ambitions for Bougainvillians. Currently, Bougainville is not economically viable as an independent nation, generating only Kina3m (around $800,000) while spending Kina420m (around $120 million). The copper and gold within the mine are expected to be worth around $85 billion, and reopening the mine would provide jobs and expertise to the populace. Despite the rhetoric around the mine, however, having an economy hinged on one resource as Bougainville intends to, can create significant overdependency on the continued value of that resource. 


Resource dependence is also not conducive to the creation of a strong government or economy, as it disincentivises taxation as the government’s primary source of income, thereby creating a less representative political system by demanding less from the citizen body. To avoid the ‘resource curse’ Bougainville must develop its fishing fleet and cocoa production, as well as possibly developing its tourism industry. The Panguna mine has the potential to invigorate the Bougainvillian economy, but alone will not fund the creation of a truly independent nation. 


Role of China and America


Geopolitically, Bougainville aims to carefully navigate the power politics of its region in order to cultivate aid from both China and the US and its allies. Already, there are dissenting views about whom Bougainville should turn to once independent. The current President of the Autonomous Government of Bougainville Ishmael Toroama made his preference clear in 2023 by travelling to Washington D.C, where he attempted to cultivate American support for an independent Bougainville. The deepening relationship between the US and PNG following the signing of a defence agreement in May 2023 does not necessarily pose a problem to Toroama provided conflict with PNG is confined to political channels. The referendum also provides Bougainville with a moral justification for its independence, meaning that outright resistance from Western powers is unlikely irrespective of how inconvenient independence may prove. 


China, on the other hand, has vocal support within Bougainville from Sam Kaouna, former leader of the Bougainville Rebel Army and prominent opposition politician. Kaouna has claimed that China will invest in Bougainville in order to build it as a nation, not just in order to make money. Unlike the US or Australia, China has no historical presence in the region, meaning comparisons with colonial relationships are less likely to hamper their support. Kaouna has gone as far as to state that a Chinese delegation offered substantial investment should Bougainville become independent in 2018, one year before the election. An independent Bougainville does indeed serve Chinese interests; it weakens PNG, a state with strong historical ties to Australia, and it creates a new, weak nation potentially dependent on Chinese aid. Chinese investment in the Panguna Copper Mine would also further China’s material dominance over the West, and Bougainville is well placed for a naval base should the relationship develop well. China has also made a significant investment into the Solomon Islands, the nation with most culturally and geographically linked with Bougainville, meaning inroads have already been made in the region. However, support for China, and the presence of Chinese companies and nationals, were cited as a significant motivation for the protests and rioting within the impoverished nation in 2021, unrest that may have gone some way in making China seem a less attractive option for support in Bougainville going forward. 


Conclusion


Should Bougainville go independent it will face an uphill struggle to develop into a fully functioning state. The Panguna mine, despite the rhetoric, will not be enough to create an economy, but it does provide a unique source of potential investment going forward. Bougainville’s history gives a convincing national myth of a people united by a common foe for their freedom. But once independent will the idea of being repressed by an outside power cease to hold weight, and will Bougainville be able to maintain its internal unity, or will tribal divisions come to the fore and undermine the fledgling state? 


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