Bougainville votes for independence from PNG


In a referendum held over two weeks, the people of Bougainville, an archipelago¬†in the South Pacific’s¬†Solomon Sea, voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). The referendum was the centerpiece of the 2001¬†Bougainville Peace Agreement between the PNG government and Bougainville independence leaders to end a devastating decade-long war that claimed nearly 20,000 lives‚ÄĒnearly a tenth the territory’s total population.¬†Negotiations between PNG and Bougainville about the road forward will now begin and could continue for years, with the PNG parliament having¬†the final say.¬†Control of the territory’s rich mineral resources has been a key issue in the conflict.

Bougainville was named for French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who sailed along the archipelago’s east coast in 1768. ¬†In the 19th century, Bougainville was colonized by Germany, and¬†was used by Japan as a military base during World War II. ¬†Afte the war, it was administered by Australia until PNG¬†gained independence in 1975. A giant copper mine, Panguna, was opened in 1969 by Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of Anglo-Australian¬†multinational resources corporation¬†Rio Tinto. Tensions over how the mine’s profits should be shared prompted¬†Rio Tinto to abandon the project¬†in 1989 amid an escalation to¬†armed conflict. At the time, it had been PNG’s largest source of export revenue, accounting for some 7% of global copper production.

The war between Bougainville’s rebel guerilla army and PNG forces, which ended with a ceasefire in 1998, was the worst conflict in the Oceania region since World War II.¬†PNG was massively backed with military aid by Australia during the conflcit.¬†The peace was formalized with the 2001 agreement that established the Bougainville Autonomous Government. (Radio Australia, AP, NDTV, Dec. 11; UNPO, Nov. 22)

Photo via UNPO