In Bougainville, the political climax of 2019 came late in the year: On 11 December, Bertie Ahern, chairperson of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC) announced the result of the referendum on the future political status of Bougainville: 181,067 people voted in November 2019 in the Bougainville Referendum. The final voter turnout was 87.4%. 176,928 votes were counted for independence and 3,043 supporting greater autonomy. This is a percentage of 97.7% for independence. The result could not be clearer, and the world has heard the voices of Bougainvilleans determining their future political ambitions.International, national and local observers as well as the BRC reported that the conduct of the referendum was free and fair, transparent and peaceful. In comparison to other elections in Papua New Guinea or in the region (or, for that matter, in large parts of the world) the preparation and the conduct of the referendum were an outstanding success. The groundwork for that success had been laid in the previous years and, in particular, in the previous months of 2019, when all stakeholders involved in the process – the governments of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville, the United Nations, international advisers, the members of the Bougainville House of Representatives, local level governing bodies, NGOs and civil society organisations, the BRC and, most importantly, the Bougainville people on the ground – had come together to make Bougainville ‘referendum-ready’. We at the Peace and Conflict Studies Institute Australia (PaCSIA) are incredibly proud that we were given the opportunity to make a modest contribution to the process and its success.
For some outside observers the overwhelming vote for independence came as a surprise. Looking back at the work that the Bougainville Transition Dialogues (BTD) facilitators have done in 2019 and before, the outcome is less surprising. Although the BTD project has never advocated for a particular option and BTD facilitators have worked hard to allow different voices from the community to be heard during the dialogues, the feedback collected from the villages has never shown any other outcome but an overwhelming vote for independence. A large number of people have stated that the blood shed during the Bougainville Crisis was lost in a struggle for political independence.
The BTD has unearthed a number of difficult questions and concerns from the people of Bougainville about their future. These questions include uncertainty about the future of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and the upcoming elections in 2020, questions about the provision of health and education services to the people of Bougainville if they separate from PNG, and questions about the ability to survive economically as an independent country. Many participants of the Dialogues have expressed fears that the situation in Bougainville might get worse after the referendum. However, they have also said that this would not deter them from voting for independence. They look to the two governments to now map a course through uncharted waters and to ensure the wellbeing of Bougainvilleans and Papua New Guineans. The people have spoken. And their decision must be listened to.
To learn more about the information gathered by the Bougainville Transition Dialogues in 2019, please click here to access our 2019 Annual Report.