Bougainville Island, currently under the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea (PNG), is now nearly a year out from their late 2019 independence referendum in which a staggering 98.31% voted against increased autonomy within PNG and in favor of full independence.

Bougainville had a long standing separatist movement with a protracted civil war dating back to 1975, with a final resolution only occurring in 1997. The terms of the peace accord with the PNG government called for this referendum, which the PNG held, but the results are technically non-binding and the next step is a negotiation process between the leaders of the Bougainville regional government and PNG leaders.

What makes this island particularly unique is the sheer support for independence, but also the peaceful nature with which the referendum was carried out and its success, with Bougainville’s extremely low urbanization and literacy rates, about 10% and 50% respectively.

Bougainville is separated from PNG by a 700km expanse of sea, and they view themselves as linguistically, culturally, and ethnically distinct from the PNG. Many of the grievances also centered around the industry that formed the primary source of income for the island, mining.

The Panguna mine was at the center of the conflict, as severe environmental pollution issues emanated from the site while the economic benefits were primarily realized and extracted by the national PNG government, making the mining industry a target for suspicion over potential economic exploitation.

Bougainville sits on considerable reserves of both copper and gold, and the USA, Australia, and now the PRC are making strong overtures to capitalize on this.

China is one of the most aggressive promoters in the international sphere of the concept of the primacy of national sovereignty and against foreign interference, so it is striking to see the PRC in this case making clear moves of support towards a future independent Bougainville considering advocating separatism within China itself is a capital crime.

Staff writer: Ari B