Bougainville votes for independence in blow to Papua New Guinea

In a photo from Nov 26, 2019, residents hold a Bougainville flag at a polling station on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville. PHOTO: REUTERS

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - Bougainville moved a step closer to becoming an independent nation on Wednesday (Dec 11) after results from a referendum showed an overwhelming majority want the province to cut its ties with Papua New Guinea.

More than 176,000 of the 181,000 voters who participated in the two-week referendum that concluded on Dec 6 supported independence, with about 3,000 choosing greater autonomy under Papua New Guinea, the Bougainville Referendum Commission said.

The result will bolster independence advocates who live on the small group of islands in the South Pacific and encourage mining interests that want to reopen the massive Panguna copper resource, while dashing hopes within the PNG government that the poll would see support of the status quo through voters opting for greater autonomy.

Still, it doesn't guarantee the advent of a new nation as any split needs to be approved by an act of Parliament in the PNG capital Port Moresby.

At the junction of the Pacific and South-east Asia, and halfway between Brisbane and the US military base on Guam, Bougainville has a strategic interest as well as being a potential source of contracts for mining and construction companies.

With fewer people than Pittsburgh, an estimated per capita GDP of about US$1,100 (S$1,495) and an economy reliant on money from the central government, Western diplomats are concerned that should it become independent, it may be susceptible to China's increasing influence in the region.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape will be nervous the result will embolden independence claims in some of the nation's other provinces, which would undermine the government's efforts to unify a country that has more than 800 languages and was constructed from a colonial carve-up less than 50 years ago.

Bougainville's massive copper deposit has been the country's blessing and curse.

The Panguna mine was the focal point of a 10-year civil war and has been shut since 1989, shortly after the conflict started, tainted by its bloody past and fettered by a tangle of environmental and ownership issues. But it remains central to what will happen to the islands.

The old Panguna mine has an estimated 5.3 million metric tonnes of copper and 19.3 million ounces of gold, according to former operator Bougainville Copper.

That would make the reserves worth about US$60 billion at today's prices.

With the result of the referendum now known, representatives from the national and regional governments are expected to hold consultations that could result in draft legislation for Bougainville to secede.

Whether a majority of PNG's 111 lawmakers would vote to support that Bill is unknown, leading some observers to be nervous that long delays to the independence push could renew conflict.

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