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Bougainville, Papua New Guinea
Photograph: Shutterstock

Could this tiny island near Australia become the world’s newest country?

Bougainville voted overwhelmingly in favour of seceding from Papua New Guinea in 2019

Sophie Dickinson
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Sophie Dickinson
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What happens when a place votes to become an independent country? In the case of Bougainville, fuck all. Back in 2019, a whopping 98 percent of locals voted for the island to secede from Papua New Guinea. But that referendum was non-binding and it’s still a way off becoming a fully-fledged nation.

Turns out establishing yourself as an independent state isn’t as simple as just declaring yourself separate. For this island of 300,000 people, one of the main issues is resource (or a lack of it). The country’s GDP per capita is an absolutely tiny $1,100 (£839), compared with $2,250 (£1,716) for the neighbouring Solomon Islands and a whopping $59,000 (£45,000) for similarly-sized Iceland.

Living standards and literacy rates, meanwhile, are the lowest of Papua New Guinea’s 20 regions (and infant mortality rates are the highest). And then there’s all the infrastructure that needs to be established in order for the island to be able to properly function as an independent country. Not even to mention the fact that PNG still needs to sign off on the non-binding vote. If that happens, the result could still take up to five years to come into effect.

Bougainville PNG
Photograph: Adam Constanza / Shutterstock.com

The likes of the USA, UK and Australia are watching developments closely, concerned that China could jump at the chance to expand its sphere of influence in the Pacific. There’s a lot of potential for Bougainville to develop industrially (and establish trade connections with other nations), as it is rich in mineral resources like copper and gold, and fish like tuna.

That scope for development is one of the reasons many voted for independence, arguing they’d been held back and exploited by the PNG government in recent decades. Others cited ethnic and cultural differences with the rest of the country, plus fresh memories of a Civil War that raged between Bougainville and PNG in the 1990s.

Even if Bougainville does become an independent country, that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to succeed on its own two feet. In 2002, East Timor separated from Indonesia, but has struggled to tackle rampant corruption. And in South Sudan, a brutal Civil War broke out soon after the country seceded. Whether Bougainville can learn from their mistakes remains to be seen. For now, they’re still struggling to strike out on their own, no matter the consequences.

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