| 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.