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Bougainvilleans have voted 98% for independence in an overwhelming expression of desire for political autonomy. This will pose significant problems to a PNG government that has always been reluctant to agree that this was the best course and which has the final say

KATE LYONS
| Guardian Australia

BUKA - The autonomous region of Bougainville has voted overwhelmingly in favour of becoming independent from Papua New Guinea, paving the way for the group of islands to become the world’s newest nation.

More than 180,000 people in Bougainville participated in a referendum over the last few weeks that has been nearly 20 years in the making.

Almost 98% of people (176,928 people) voted for independence and less than 2% (3,043 people) voted to remain as part of Papua New Guinea but with “greater autonomy”. There were 1,096 informal ballots.

Those gathered in Buka to hear the announcement of the results from the chair of the Bougainville Referendum Commission’s chair Bertie Ahern burst into cheers and applause when the result was announced.

As the writs were signed by commissioners after the result, the crowd burst into song.

In 2001, the government of PNG promised the vote as part of a peace agreement to end a devastating decade-long civil war that saw an estimated 20,000 people, out of a population at the time of 200,000, killed.

The vote took place amid a mood of great celebration, with people in the main township of Buka singing, dancing, cheering and playing pan flutes as they followed the region’s president John Momis to the polling booth to watch him cast the first vote in the referendum on 23 November.

“It’s obvious that the people are now in the mood for celebration and I join them as they have every right to celebrate,” said Momis, emerging from the polling booth with arms raised.

However, Bougainville will not become a new nation overnight, as the referendum result is non-binding, the leadership of PNG and Bougainville will have to negotiate, with the final say as to whether Bougainville will be allowed to break away from the rest of the country resting with the PNG parliament.

There are fears that the PNG government, which does not wish to lose part of its nation, or set a precedent for other independence-minded provinces, might drag out the process, with some Bougainville observers estimate it could be a decade before an independent Bougainville is established.

There are concerns that any delays in this process could cause frustration in Bougainville and eventually lead to unrest, threatening the hard-won peace on the islands.

Comments

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John Gordon-Kirkby

The copper (and a bit of gold) led to the tragic recent history of Bougainville. Independence itself will provide no panacea for felt deprivations.

If the good people of the various scattered islands that form the present province of Bougainville learned to pull together and think of themselves as Papua New Guineans they could turn their islands into world class international tourist destinations.

They have the unique rich cultural traditions, the magnificent scenery and superb tropical beaches. All that is lacking is selfless leadership.

I served there as a kiap pre-independence.

Philip Kai Morre

The people of Bougainville have spoken and there is no need for us to make all sorts of comments. I always know that they will become independent state and they have the potential to be a separate country. Their self determination, commitment and will power to be a separate country is written in their blood. They are black and their skin colour as well as ideology is different form PNG.

Wish them all the best and God bless Buka.

Kenny Pawa Ambaisi

It all fall backs to leadership. This referendum for Bouganvillie is the consequence of what has been done by the leaders some 2.5 decades ago. Papua New Guinea really need leaders who can move our nation forward. It can't continue with leader who are making politics as their qualification to make a living, gain fame and popularity and pride.

Daniel Kumbon

Now that the people of Bougainville have spoken, an important question arises like the Maus bilong Sankamap.

Will people from Manus, New Ireland, West and East New Britain also want to seek self determination in the not too distant future?

Will the mainland provinces also want to break up like African states and Europe?

What can the government do to hold the people together?

Robert Forster

In Britain, where we are troubled by a near equal split after an EU exit referendum, a 98 per cent yes vote looks extraordinarily conclusive.

I wonder whether an autonomous or independent Bougainville will eventually decide to link with the Shortland Island section of the British Solomons?

Which in turn raises the question will the Shortlands (essentially Choiseul) elect to leave the Solomons and join with it?

These islands are ethnically linked and scarcely any distance apart as well.

In 1974 one of my brothers landed on Bougainville by canoe from Kamaleai and said that even though he had entered PNG illegally it was obvious the canoe, and its occupants, were making a regular journey.

Garry Roche

Perhaps one way to move ahead is to be positive and accept the decision of the people of Bougainville and at the same time seek ways to see whether all nearby Pacific nations, e.g., Fiji, Vanuatu, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, PNG, Nauru, Tonga, etc can together form a more effective free-trade area and establish improved mutual cooperation.

Arthur Williams

My gut feelings are to say how stupid for 250,000 people to think they can be independent. What is their economic future?

Could they happily live off subsistence farming and fishing. with no need for roads or major infrastructure?

Tourism is the most eco-friendly option. However that doesn't let elites access the hard earned cash it could generate.

Reopening of Panguna complete with environmental degradation of it rivers, land and surrounding oceans.
Clear-felling logging with its pollution and social problems.
A flag of convenience for shipping.

Oh, I know. A tax haven like other micro-nations. Wouldn't that be wonderful if there were any the spivs in PNG wanting to hide their ill gotten gains.

I began my post decrying the minute size of the new entity but I checked and found there are 50 'nations' smaller than Bougainville who have survived into the 21st century; but viability is still my major concern.

The current administration cannot offer good services to the atolls now; so what hope is there for them if the Waigani money suddenly stops? Will the new nation have sufficient resources to tackle the effects of climate change and rising sea levels?

I wonder where does this political road end? Does PNG fragment into 20 or 30 mini-states? Why shouldn't Buka Island become a nation after all it has the largest language group of the new nation and I'm always being told here in Wales that our Welsh Language makes us another candidate for independence. Of course nationalist here mostly don't know that PNG has over 700 languages.

I have often thought it would be better if the provincial government system of PNG could mutate into a Federal system like there is in many nation such as Australia or USA. It can be adapted along religious or ethnic lines if those are important to its citizens. Belgium has accommodated its people in a complex system apparently to meet some special interest groups and the Swiss have their own style of governing.

Whatever happens I wish the folk of the old North Solomons Province a happy future.

Ross Wilkinson

The decision in 1975 was purely economical but, given that the Panguna mine is no longer operative and will take many buckets full of cash to get going again, will the PNG government accept the will of the people rather than an improbable long term $.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's pretty conclusive and must be a warning to PNG not to pussy-foot around with the next step.

Lindsay F Bond

Out of a population of 249,358*, with around 200,000 voting, the numbers compare** as follows: Solomons (670,000), Vanuatu (304,500), Samoa (199,052), Kiribati (120,100), Tonga (100,651), Marshall Islands (55,500), Palau (21,000), Tuvalu (10,640) and Nauru (10,084).

Voters have opted to be among the recognisable island states.

* http://www.abg.gov.pg/about/quick-facts

** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Oceanian_countries_by_population

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