Australia has a long history and a complicated relationship with Bougainville, an island group to the east of the PNG mainland that was administered by Australia as part of Papua New Guinea for 60 years between 1915 and 1975.
On 23 November 2019, its 300 000 people will commence voting in an independence referendum, and a clear majority is expected to vote for independence from Papua New Guinea. The Bougainville Peace Agreement requires PNG and Bougainville to negotiate an outcome after the conclusion of the referendum, and Canberra has indicated that it will respect any settlement reached between them. James Marape, the new PNG prime minister, has expressed a clear preference for an autonomous, not independent, Bougainville.
With geostrategic rivalry growing across the Pacific, Australia will need to step up its engagement and consider further policy approaches to Bougainville if it wishes to remain a trusted peace and security broker in Melanesia. If the people of Bougainville vote for independence and are unable to reach agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea, the Bougainville issue may precipitate another regional crisis.
On 23 November 2019, Bougainvilleans will commence voting in a long-awaited referendum to decide whether they wish to stay part of Papua New Guinea or become an independent nation. In a process that will take place over two weeks, voters will be asked whether they want Bougainville to have either “greater autonomy” or “independence”.
This is the culmination of a 20-year peace process which followed the end of a ten-year war on Bougainville that was the most intense conflict in the Pacific since the Second World War. The principles of the truce, enshrined in the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) signed in Arawa on 30 August 2001 which formally ended the war, remain the primary framework to create a lasting peace.
The three main pillars of the agreement were the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), which occurred in 2005; weapons disposal; and the referendum, to be held no later than 15 years after the formation of the ABG (that is, by 2020).
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