As I sit down to write this, there are 197 recognized countries in the world; 195 of them are full members of the United Nations while two — the Holy See and Palestine — are what are called “observer states.” Taiwan isn’t recognized and nor are territorial dependencies or nations the UN regards as not being self-governing.
By the time you get to read this piece, those numbers will probably be in the process of being changed because, as of this moment in time, the people of Bougainville are voting on a referendum to become an independent nation.
Where is Bougainville? It’s an island group that sits in the Solomon Sea, northwest of Australia, and at the moment it’s considered to be part of Papua New Guinea. It has around 250,000 inhabitants and consists of the island of Bougainville, Buka Island, the Carterets and an assortment of other, outlying islands.
The area has a long, and in recent years, turbulent, history. It’s been inhabited for more than 30,000 years, but was unknown to Europeans before it was named by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a veteran of the French and Indian War and the first Frenchman to sail around the world. He reached it in 1768 and named it after himself, but he found the natives were very hostile and he did not stay.
In the late 19th century European nations were scrambling for territory in Africa and the Far East and in 1885 the German New Guinea Company took Bougainville over to form part of German New Guinea.
World War I came in 1914 and Imperial Germany was unable to support its far-flung colonies, so German New Guinea and Bougainville were occupied by Australian forces. The war ended in 1918, the League of Nations was formed and they decided in 1920 that the territory would be their mandate and that it would be administered on their behalf by Australia as the New Guinea Territory.
That lasted until March of 1942, which was when the Japanese occupied the islands as part of their expansion campaign. They immediately began building airfields to support their main bases in New Guinea and it wasn’t until November of 1943 that the marines arrived to begin the campaign to free the islands. It was a long campaign, conducted by American and Australian forces and wasn’t quite over when the war ended in 1945.
Once peace was restored, the territory became a United Nations Trusteeship, again administered by Australia. The Trusteeship status lasted for 30 years until, on Sept. 16, 1975, Papua New Guinea formed its own government and gained its independence.
Bougainville was included as part of the new nation, but there was already a movement for the island to secede.
Part of the reason behind the desire for independence was the fact that Bougainville is a rich source of both copper and gold. It was in 1964 that the first drilling to explore the natural resources took place and, within five years, Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc, opened the Pangua mine.
Almost immediately, the local population began protesting about the environmental impact of the mining, the pollution of rivers and the fact that the people of the island were not sharing in the financial benefits of the mining.
An independence movement sprang up and the people of the island sued the Australian government. Australia’s Supreme Court agreed they were not being paid enough but, because Bougainville was an external territory, it could not change that. Relations between the islanders and the government of Papua New Guinea deteriorated. Two prominent island officials were murdered in 1972 and a committee was set up to negotiate for independence. Two years later there was a tentative agreement that Bougainville would have greater autonomy but the talks broke down over mine profits and other things and, on May 28, 1975, the provisional Bougainville government announced that it intended to secede from Papua New Guinea on Sept. 1, to form the “Republic of North Solomons.”
They went ahead with a unilateral declaration on that date and tried to get United Nations support for their new country. They failed and other places in the Solomon Islands refused to join them. Reluctantly, early in 1976, they realized they would have to remain part of Papua New Guinea and that government agreed that they could become a self-governing region and they promised that they would get full independence within five years.
That promise was not kept, and the situation remained tense into the late 1980s. The situation with the mine and its enormous profits caused increasing conflict until, in 1988, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army began an armed rebellion that soon escalated into a civil war.
By 1990, the government forces were driven off Bougainville but the war continued with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea trying to arrange peace negotiations. All his attempts failed and by the late 1990’s more than 15,000 people had died in the conflict, and it was no nearer a solution.
In view of the failure of the defense forces to beat the rebels, and the refusal of Australia and New Zealand to become involved, senior members of the government began secret negotiations to bring in international mercenaries. A deal was arranged, money was diverted from education, health and other sources and the mercenaries were recruited.
Sir Julius Chan, the prime minister mentioned the plan in Australia, it was leaked to a newspaper and the resulting furor ended with the army threatening to rise in New Guinea and Chan and senior ministers being forced to resign. The mercenaries were never used.
New Zealand arranged for the government and the Bougainville rebels to talk and a peace agreement was signed in 2000. Part of its terms was that the island would set up an autonomous government and would hold a referendum to decide its future.
That referendum has been a long time coming, but it’s now being held. The choices the people have are to stay as part of Papua New Guinea with their own separate government or to become an independent state. Voting will go on until Dec. 7 and the results will not be binding on either side. Preliminary polls indicate that the people of Bougainville will overwhelmingly vote to become the world’s 198th nation. Let’s hope both sides accept that decision without reverting to the conflict that claimed so many innocent lives.