Bougainville: World’s newest nation expected to form as islands vote in independence poll

Region thought likely to break away from Papua New Guinea would be first new country since South Sudan

The Pacific islands of Bougainville are voting in a historic referendum to decide if it will become the world’s newest nation by gaining independence from Papua New Guinea.

The vote will run over two weeks and is a key part of a 2001 peace agreement that ended a civil war in which at least 15,000 people died in the cluster of islands to the east of the Papua New Guinea mainland.

Experts believe the 250,000 people of Bougainville will vote overwhelming in favour of independence ahead of the other option, which is greater autonomy, but the vote will not be the final word.

The referendum is non-binding and a vote for independence would need to be negotiated by leaders from Bougainville and Papua New Guinea. The final say would go to legislators in the Papua New Guinea parliament.

Gianluca Rampolla, the UN resident co-ordinator in Papua New Guinea, said the world body has been working hard to ensure the vote is peaceful, transparent, inclusive and credible. He said there are 40 UN staffers on the ground and more than 100 international observers.

He said it is unlikely there will be violence during voting.

“They’ve been waiting 19 years for this historic moment,” he said. “I think they will be left with joy.”

Just over 200,000 people are eligible to vote in the referendum, with the results due in mid-December. Mr Rampolla said the extended voting period of two weeks is due to the region’s rugged terrain.

“There are people coming on boats, there are people walking,” he said. “It’s the rainy season. There are rough seas. Flexibility is needed to adjust on the ground.”

Voters have two weeks in which to cast their ballot (AP)
Voters have two weeks in which to cast their ballot (AP)

John Momis, president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, told reporters on Friday the region stood on the verge of a new socio-economic and political order.

“We are trailblazers forging a new path into the unknown with the sheer determination to face any challenge that comes our way,” he said. “We will face this together as one people and one voice to decide our ultimate political future.”

In his weekly column in the Post-Courier newspaper, Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape said complex discussions and negotiations would be needed after the referendum before a political settlement could be reached.

The violence in Bougainville began in the late 1980s, triggered by conflict over an enormous open cast copper mine at Panguna.

The mine was a huge export earner for Papua New Guinea but many in Bougainville felt they got no benefit and resented the pollution and disruption to their traditional way of living.

The mine has remained shut since the conflict. Some believe it could provide a future revenue source for Bougainville should it become independent.

The civil war lasted for a decade before the peace agreement was signed. The other key aspects of the agreement were a weapons disposal plan and greater autonomy for the region.

Mr Rampolla said the peace agreement had been one of the few in the world that had lasted so long. He said it could end as a success story if the referendum and subsequent negotiations resulted in an outcome that everybody could support.

Press Association

PNG leaders cautious ahead of Bougainville vote

Bougainvilleans will begin voting tomorrow in an historic referendum to decide if they want independence from Papua New Guinea.

Over a two week period they will be taking part in vote on whether to become independent or to settle for a greater degree of autonomy.

While it is a non-binding vote, it is seen as the culmination of the peace process that ended a bloody civil war in Bougainville.

The Post Courier reports that while the world waits in anticipation for the result national leaders have issued strong statements.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape was very apologetic about PNG not recognising the will and desire of Bougainvilleans in the past but said they now had the right to be heard.

To allow for the referendum to proceed was a commitment he made when he became prime minister, he said.

He is quoted in the newspaper saying the referendum is “the means by which the voices of the people of Bougainville will be heard. It is the basis on which the two governments will consult after the referendum has taken place.’

But Mr Marape has repeated earlier statements that political independence is meaningless without economic independence.

He said complex discussions and negotiations would take place after the referendum before any proposed political settlement is reached.

The man known as the Father of the Nation and three time prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, said he has a “heavy heart” about the referendum.

He has called for a united PNG for which he had always led and stood for as prime minister.

Sir Michael told the paper that, “as Bougainvilleans make their voices heard in the referendum, it is my hope that PNG remains ‘united and free’ in the aftermath of this historic poll.”

He said “our country has remained united for more than 40 years, which is an achievement in itself. So it with heavy hearts that the rest of our country awaits the decision that the people of Bougainville will be taking in the next couple of days.

Recent former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill described it as one of the most important public votes in the nation’s history and called for care in the decision-making by Bougainvilleans.

Peter O'Neill

Peter O’Neill Photo: Supplied

Bougainville President John Momis appealed for people to respect the rule of law.

Bougainville President John Momis

Bougainville President John Momis Photo: supplied

He said they had worked hard to abide by and effectively implement the three pillars of the Bougainville Peace Agreement; autonomy, weapons disposal and referendum.

The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Dame Meg Taylor, who is Papua New Guinean, has sent best wishes.

She said she commends both governments on their commitment to lasting peace, and all the work done to ensure a free and fair vote.

The secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor.

The secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor. Photo: RNZ / Jamie Tahana

The Forum has an observer mission in Bougainville throughout polling and vote counting.

Source: RNZ

Expectations high as Bougainville referendum gets underway

Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific

Polling for Bougainville’s independence referendum gets underway today.

The autonomous Papua New Guinea region’s non-binding referendum is the ultimate provision of 2001’s Peace Agreement which formally ended hostilities in Bougainville’s civil war.

Bougainvilleans have entered into celebratory mode for this historic occasion. Bougainville flags are everywhere, festivities have broken out, and the mood around the region indicates that the favourite option on the ballot is number two: for independence, rather than greater autonomy within PNG.

The two week polling period starts in the main centres of Buka and Arawa as well as numerous remote locations and then will move around Bougainville progressively.

In coming days polling also gets underway in other parts of PNG and two locales in neighbouring countries – in Brisbane, Australia and Gizo in Solomon Islands.

Bad weather is threatening to delay the start of polling in Bougainville’s atolls. But at this stage nothing will dampen the spirits of a people who are clearly expectant that this is the next step towards the birth of a new nation.

A cultural group performing in Bougainville Photo: RNZ Pacific / Johnny Blades
A cultural group performing in Bougainville Photo: RNZ Pacific / Johnny Blades

Cultural groups have been performing in anticipation of the start of polling in parts such as Tinputz district.

A ward representative in Tinputz, Peter Aromet, said Bougainvilleans had been eagerly awaiting this moment since the end of the crisis about two decades ago.

According to him, the experience of going through civil war had shaped the region’s aspirations for independence.

“During the crisis people went through a lot of traumas. If we can turn those traumas into something good, from pain to something positive… I believe that all these traumas that we’ve come through, that we went through, we can use them for something positive.”

“People are very excited about what is expected especially the process between now an December,” said Theresa Jaintong, an Arawa-based social worker and reconciliation leader.

In terms of how the vote may pan out, Ms Jaintong said the ball was firmly in the court of Bougainvilleans.

“It’s up to us Bougainvilleans really to embrace the outcome and then what government will go into, and then drive it together. We have to be really united – the whole Bougainville – at all cost.”

Like many people in Bougainville, Mr Aromet is anticipating a period of transition following the outcome of the referendum, although a time frame is yet to be mapped out by the PNG and autonomous Bougainville governments.

Expectations placed in the referendum by Bougainvilleans are high, although the vote result requires ratification by PNG’s parliament before being implemented.

“If the outcome is positive or in favour of the Bougainvilleans, it might not turn out as people expect,” Mr Aromet admitted.

“But I believe it’s going to take a process. We’ll go to a transitional period – it might take five or ten years, then we’ll go to independence.”