2019 forecast: Bougainville’s independence referendum

2019 forecast: Bougainville’s independence referendum

The Pacific island could become the newest member of the international community.

The province of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) will head to the polls on June 15 to vote on greater autonomy or independence from Port Moresby. The referendum is the third and final ‘pillar’ of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed after a bloody ten-year civil war in the 1990s.

Bougainvilleans are still divided about the issue of independence as well as other factors that sparked the original uprising, such as the future status of the profitable but environmentally toxic Bougainville copper mine. Weapons also continue to circulate in the small island. Adding fuel to the potential fire, the PNG government has cast doubt on the referendum, saying conditions have not been met for the vote to take place.

Should civil unrest develop in the run up to the vote, nations like Australia and New Zealand could be forced to intervene to maintain order and stability, repeating the exercise carried out two decades ago. In the event of independence, continued disagreements over the exploitation of mining and other natural resources may result in the new government becoming heavily reliant on aid and development funding from Australia and New Zealand.

The emergence of a new state could benefit China, which has been increasing its regional aid funding and military posturing. Should a new Bougainville government align with Beijing, it would stoke concerns in Canberra, given the province’s geographic proximity to mainland Australia.