It is a vote that has been 20 years in the making. On Saturday, residents of the remote archipelago in the Solomon Sea will start to decide their future
On Saturday, the people of Bougainville – a small archipelago of islands flung 700km off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea – will begin voting in a referendum that will determine if their beloved homeland will become the world’s newest nation.
It is a vote that has been nearly 20 years in the making. In 2001, as part of a peace agreement to end a devastating decade-long civil war, the government of Papua New Guinea promised the population of Bougainville, then about 200,000 people, that they would one day be able to cast a vote to decide their future.
The results will be announced in December. It is expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of independence, with some observers anticipating a “yes” vote of more than 90%. But the road to this point has been long and tortured and the path ahead could be just as problematic, even if the result is as emphatic as predicted.
Gold, copper and war
At the heart of the story of Bougainvillean independence is a mine, which lies at the centre of the main island. Panguna mine, a huge open-cut gold and copper mine, provided 45% of Papua New Guinea’s export income in the years after it opened in 1972. As Papua New Guinea became independent of Australia in 1975, Bougainvilleans began to ask whether or not Bougainville would fare better on its own, rather than having its resources cut out and used to prop up a bigger nation.
“[Panguna] led to many Bougainvilleans asking what was in it for them. Their resources were being exploited for the benefit of Papua New Guinea,” says Anthony Regan, who is a legal adviser to the Bougainvillean government, in a position funded by the Australian government.
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