A copper quarry helps fuel Bougainville’s hopes for separation from Papua New Guinea, a move that would resonate across the Pacific.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — THE Pacific island of Bougainville is moving a step closer to potential independence from Papua New Guinea as preparations begin for a long-promised referendum later this year.
Whether it can survive as a stand-alone nation is a key question for its 250,000 inhabitants, and for other separatist movements in the Pacific. The future course of the island could ripple across the region, as the question of Bougainville’s independence will touch on a complicated mixture of business concerns, environmental worries and geopolitical interests stretching from Australia and New Zealand to China, Japan and the United States.
It’s an outsized international role for Bougainville, which lies 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of the Papua New Guinea mainland. The roots of the referendum stem from a bitter inter-clan and separatist conflict that ran from 1988 to 1997, fighting that claimed between 10,000 and 20,000 lives through a combination of violence, disease, poverty and dislocation.
A truce brokered and maintained by regional neighbors that included Australia, New Zealand and Fiji helped restore order, and a comprehensive peace agreement was signed between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville in 2001. The island has had its own autonomous government since 2005.
Bougainville’s people are expected to vote decisively for independence in the Oct. 17 referendum, according to Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based policy think tank. The vote is not binding and any move toward independence will require agreement from the central government of Papua New Guinea, commonly referred to as PNG.
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