Nine things businesses need to know about Bougainville’s referendum


The writ has been issued and postal voting has commenced ahead of the long-awaited referendum on independence for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Here are nine things you should know about the referendum.

The Bougainville Referendum Commission members receive the Referendum Writ. Former Irish Taioseach and Chairman, Bertie Ahern, is third from right.

1. Why is the referendum being held?

The vote is the result of an agreement between the Government of PNG and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) as part of the Bougainville Peace Agreement signed on 30 August 2001, after a 10-year civil war.

The vote will be held between 23 November and 7 December this year. A result is expected by 20 December.

2. What question is being put to the people of Bougainville?

The question to be put to voters is:

‘Do you agree for Bougainville to have: (1) Greater Autonomy or (2) Independence?’

3. How many people have enrolled to vote?

Autonomous Region of Bougainville:                  202,000

Outside Bougainville in PNG                                  12,000

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Overseas (Australia and the Solomon Islands)               269

4. How likely is it that people will vote in favour of independence?

Mrs. Rose Pihei being assisted by a Bougainville Referendum Commission officer to fill in the postal voting application. Credit: BRC

PNG analyst at the Lowy Institute, Shane McLeod, says: ‘The PNG government’s failure over many years to invest in the case for Bougainville to remain probably can’t be turned around so close to the vote. The expectation is that a majority of Bougainvilleans will opt for independence’.

Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the desire for independence in Bougainville remains strong, but from a regional perspective it will be best if the Bougainville people decided to stay in PNG: ‘We don’t need another microstate emerging in the Pacific’.

5. What happens after the vote is held?

The outcome of the referendum is non-binding and subject to ratification by PNG’s Parliament. The ABG says there are various options post-referendum:

  • Continue the current autonomy arrangements
  • Greater level of autonomy
  • Free association with PNG
  • Independence to be gradually attained
  • Immediate independence
  • Deferring a decision on independence until after another referendum is held

Only if the two governments agree the referendum result will be tabled in Parliament.

6. Who is overseeing the referendum?

The Bougainville Referendum Commission will carry out the referendum. Its Chair is the former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern; other members are Thomas Webster, Patilias Gamato and Ruby Mirinka, among others.

Postal voting has already commenced, according to the BRC.

Mel Togolo was appointment BCL’s Chairman in 2018. Credit: Bougainville Copper Ltd

7. How will the vote affect the possible re-opening of the Panguna mine?

Bougainville’s leader, Governor John Momis, supports in principle the re-opening of the Panguna mine, but says it is a decision subject to the approval of the nine landowner groups. The ABG must be satisfied with the project’s conditions.

The operator of Panguna was Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), which has estimated that the cost of rehabilitating the mine would be about US$5 billion (K16.86 billion), with an anticipated income of about US$75 billion (K252 billion) over its 30-year life.

BCL holds the exploration licence, although two Perth-based companies, RTG Mining Inc and Caballus Mining, have signalled they want to take over the licence to develop the mine.

8. What is the potential for Bougainville’s economy as an independent nation?

There have been at least seven reports looking at the viability of an independent Bougainville. University of New South Wales’ Satish Chand found Bougainville would need two-to-three times the annual income it currently receives (K286 million), much of which is now provided by the PNG Government.

Since the Panguna mine closed in 1989, Bougainville’s economy has survived on subsistence agriculture and fishing. But the cocoa and copra industries have been revived, there is small-scale gold mining, and potential for hydroelectric power and a revived forestry industry. Once a mecca for tourists in the 1950s and 1960s, a lack of accommodation currently inhibits tourism.

Many aid projects are underway in the autonomous region in the above sectors, as is work to improve its infrastructure.

In September 2019, Prime Minister James Marape announced a 10-year K1 billion (US$287 million) infrastructure plan for Bougainville in a bid to foster its economic independence.

9. Is the referendum likely to be peaceful?

Ex-combatants from Konnou in South Bougainville surrender weapons in preparation for the referendum. Credit: PNG Attitude, via AsiaPacific NZ Report

There are concerns about the number of weapons that may still be in the Bougainville community, although hundreds have been recovered over the past several months.

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