While almost all of the Pacific’s leaders traveled to Aitutaki, Cook Islands, for the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting from November 6-10, one regional leader traveled in a different direction. President Ishmael Toroama, who represents the Autonomous Region of Bougainville within Papua New Guinea, traveled to Washington, D.C.
As Pacific leaders tackled numerous high-stakes issues in Aitutaki, one of the most complicated and impactful for the region – Bougainville’s quest to become an independent nation – was not on the agenda.
It is the question about the status of his aspiring nation that took Toroama on his first trip to the U.S. capital. In Washington, Toroama had numerous high-level meetings where Bougainville’s independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG) was front and center of the agenda. Despite his furious schedule of meetings, Toroama took time to speak to me about the reasons for his visit and his message for U.S. leaders about Bougainville’s independence.
The story Toroama conveyed in Washington about Bougainville’s quest for independence is one with a long and bloodied history. The past is very much prologue in this charged Pacific story. Bougainville, consisting of two main islands and several smaller islands and atolls, became part of the colonial entity of New Guinea when the Solomon Islands archipelago was partitioned between the British and German Empires in the 1880s. Germany controlled Bougainville, which was folded into their New Guinea empire until 1914. In that year, Germany lost all its Pacific and African colonies to Allied forces in some of the first acts of World War I. In the case of its New Guinea colony, Germany was replaced by Australia, which ruled New Guinea for the next 50 years.
In the late 1960s, when Australia was fashioning a path for PNG’s independence, Bougainvilleans sought to rectify the colonial error that bound their islands to New Guinea instead of the Solomon Islands. Restive Bougainvilleans feared “domination” by the rest of PNG after independence, making a Bougainvillean secessionist sentiment a major concern for Australian politicians and bureaucrats intent on finding a way for Australia to “disengage smoothly” from PNG.
While Bougainville was not the only region of PNG unsettled by separatist tensions during this transition from a “colonial sunset” to a new nation, tensions in Bougainville were increasingly shaped by a massive copper mine. In 1964, the mining company Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA) began prospecting the site of what would become the Panguna Mine. Miners were confronted by angered locals from the start. In 1969, with an estimated $20 billion worth of metal embedded in the mountainous site in north central Bougainville (today’s estimates put the value of copper at $60 billion), CRA decided to proceed with the immense logistical undertaking of opening the mine, requiring considerable acquisition of land on the mining site and all the way to the ocean port some distance way. This further inflamed the local population, leading to what Australian newspapers described as the “Bougainville disaster” in August 1969, when police attacked protestors with tear gas and clubs.
The development of the mine galvanized Bougainville’s determination to become independent. In 1970, an unofficial referendum ballot was held with the majority supporting “a complete break with PNG.” In 1974, the Bougainville Provincial Government was established and days ahead of PNG’s independence, Bougainville’s government voted to secede and declared itself “the Republic of the North Solomons.” Several days later, the new PNG parliament brought Bougainville back under Port Moresby’s power but signed a compromise agreement in 1976 that allowed for relative autonomy and an equitable distribution of resources.
Australia was not in favor of Bougainville’s independence and steered developments in ways that met the Australian national interest of a peaceful transition to a united PNG with strong economic and political ties to Canberra. Bougainville’s Panguna Mine was a critical component of the economic architecture Australia devised for an independent PNG where the nation would, it was planned, become increasingly economically self-sufficient and less reliant on Australian aid. Bougainville’s hopes for independence and a compromise autonomous arrangement with equitable distribution of resources were crushed underneath the weight of the interests of politicians in Canberra and Port Moresby as the mine began production in 1972.
Ishmael Toroama was born in this rapidly transforming Bougainville in 1968. Throughout his childhood, he witnessed the effects of disintegrating relations as tensions quickly mounted over environmental damage from the mine and inequities in compensation for land and mine royalties. Bougainville’s fear of being dominated by Port Moresby came true. In 1988, locals took up arms using weapons discarded from World War II battles. By December, Bougainvilleans had halted operations at the giant mine, and due to the escalating conflict the mine ceased operations in 1989.
A vicious war erupted between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the PNG Defense Force (PNGDF). At 19, Toroama joined the BRA and soon rose to be one of the army’s commanders. The war killed 20,000 people, or a staggering 10 percent of the population by some estimates, and raged until a peace agreement was brokered in 2001. Bougainville was granted autonomous status pending a referendum on independence.
That referendum was held in December 2019 with nearly 98 percent of voters favoring independence. Yet the Papua New Guinea parliament was empowered to decide what happened next – which, so far, has been very little.
When Toroama was elected Bougainville’s president in September 2020, he pushed PNG Prime Minister James Marape to move forward. In mid-2021, Toroama and Marape agreed to a timetable for Bougainville’s independence, 2027 at the latest. Since then, little has happened to actualize the will of the Bougainville people.
Garnering support for Bougainville’s independence, the cause he has been fighting for since he was a teenager in the 1980s, was what brought Toroama to Washington, D.C. for the first time in early November 2023. Toroama had a straightforward message to deliver.
“The basic, fundamental message,” Toroama said, is that the people of Bougainville “do want their freedom and do want justice.”
Unlike many of his political opponents in Bougainville, Toroama favors working with traditional partners – that is, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States – over China. His hope with the myriad meetings he had with U.S. political leaders was to “seek friendship and partnership” and build relationships. Specifically, Toroama is seeking U.S. support for Bougainville’s independence as well as assistance to “jump-start” the Bougainville economy. The fishing industry is one critical economic driver for a self-sufficient independent Bougainville, and Toroama hopes the U.S. will extend the assistance it has been giving to other Pacific nations to Bougainville.
As with Papua New Guinea’s independence in the 1960s, the other essential element needed to jump-start Bougainville’s economy, Toroama said, is the Panguna Mine, which has been shuttered for 34 years. He is seeking U.S. assistance here, as well as to support infrastructure like roads, bridges, and an international airport that will facilitate a successful independent nation.
One measure of the state of Bougainville’s infrastructure is the lack of accessibility to electric power. Only about 10 percent of homes have access to electricity, which Toroama said is “a real pain.” There is a hydro-solar project underway to partially address this deficit, but there is a long way to go. Toroama hopes his visit will result in further talks with U.S. aid groups and government officials to put a raft of measures in place, as the United States has been doing in many other Pacific nations since it commenced its reengagement with the region in 2022.
Toroama’s message to the U.S. comes with a time constraint. His presidential term ends in 2025, and there’s no guarantee that he will not be replaced by one of his many opponents who favor China as the development partner of choice for the aspiring nation. Fears of a China-funded independent Bougainville is a troubling scenario that has considerable currency in Australia.
Will the United States lend its invaluable weight to this cause and support Toroama’s quest for independence sooner than 2027? He has two years to deliver on his promise to his constituents. Will the U.S. work with him?
Toroama’s message may have been clear and compelling, but it poses many challenges for the United States. Not least is the risk that supporting Bougainville’s independence aspirations poses to the delicate, newly reinvigorated relationship with Papua New Guinea. While Toroama has a “personal friendship” with the PNG prime minister, Marape’s government has repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to move forward on actualizing Bougainville independence. Toroama described the status quo as “like a dog chasing its own tail, so we need to put an end to this process and get moving.”
Step one is parliamentary approval of the 2019 referendum results. Port Moresby’s reluctance stems from economic concerns centering on the mine and the riches it promises, but another reason for government inertia is that allowing Bougainville its independence may trigger other separatist moves elsewhere in the nation. Beyond Papua New Guinea, Bougainville independence may embolden several other separatist movements that span the wider Pacific region.
The other component of Washington’s diplomatic tightrope over Bougainville is Solomon Islands, with its northern border lying only minutes away from Bougainville. China’s entrenchment in the Solomons since 2022 complicates the situation considerably. If the United States does not take up Toroama’s hand of friendship and partnership in a timely manner it is conceivable that a future Bougainville leader may follow the lead of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, and bind the nation with Beijing.
Another possible outcome of not acting to support independence and Bougainville’s economic viability might be the resurgence of conflict, a disastrous scenario for all concerned, not least the people of Bougainville who still bear the battle scars of the brutal conflict that raged for over 10 years.
Toroama is a leader who firmly believes in democracy and self-determination and who has stood his ground against China. For Toroama, independence is not negotiable. “I do not waver,” he said.
Toroama put an opportunity on the table for the United States with his visit to Washington. How the U.S. responds will be a test that many will be watching very closely.