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.
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.”