Bougainville votes to go it alone

Previewing the Bougainville independence referendum three weeks ago, I said that it was “virtually certain” that the Bougainvilleans would vote for independence, “probably by a very large margin.”

Yesterday the referendum commission released the results, and they show the region is almost unanimous on the subject. Of the formal votes cast, 98.3% were for independence and only 1.7% for the other option, greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea.

Turnout was 87.6%, with an informal vote of 0.6%. So the vote for independence represents 97.7% of the total vote and 85.6% of total enrolment. No geographical breakdown was given, but with those sort of numbers it’s hardly necessary.

Some questions of self-determination produce a reasonably even division of opinion – where national identity is weak or conflicted (Scotland, Catalonia, New Caledonia). But others, like Bougainville, are much more one-sided. For comparison, East Timor voted 78.5% for independence in 1999, South Sudan voted 98.8% in 2011, and Iraqi Kurdistan voted 92.7% in 2017.

The Kurds, of course, have still not got their own country. And Papua New Guinea is in no way committed to respecting the referendum result on Bougainville; the relevant minister said last month (according to the ABC) “We don’t want any part of Papua New Guinea to break away. We don’t want to set a precedent for the other 21 provinces. That will be our firm position.”

Nonetheless, although there will be a long period of negotiation ahead, it is just not credible that Papua New Guinea, having agreed to hold a referendum under international scrutiny, should ultimately refuse to implement such a decisive result. To do so would court a speedy resumption of civil war, and last time that happened the central government fared very badly.

Bougainville has rather more than a quarter of a million people; if it was in Australia, it would be only the size of one of our inflated local government areas. But by Oceanian standards that’s fairly substantial. Nearby Vanuatu and New Caledonia are similarly sized; Tonga and Samoa are rather smaller.

But the big question for an independent Bougainville will be its relationship with the neighboring Solomon Islands, which have about twice its population. In ethnic and geographic terms Bougainville is part of the Solomons; a merger would make sense, but it’s not clear that the Solomons, already with their own internal tensions, would want the extra complication.

In terms of managing the divorce from Papua New Guinea, it’s probably better to keep the Solomons issue out of the picture for now. Secession of a small part of the territory, although often resisted, tends to be more palatable than having it unite with a larger neighbor. Serbia opposes Kosovar independence, but is even more opposed to it joining Albania; the pro-Russian lobby in Moldova is especially agitated by the idea of union with Romania.

And no-one will be surprised to learn that the Australian media can barely muster even a casual interest in the prospect of a new nation emerging to our north.

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