Bougainville referendum: voting begins amid scenes of jubilation

People are ‘in the mood for celebration’ as they choose whether to split from Papua New Guinea

After 20 years, the big day has finally arrived for the people of Bougainville. Large crowds gathered on Saturday at the aptly named Bel Isi (Peace) park in Buka for the first day of a two-week referendum to decide whether the archipelago should become independent from Papua New Guinea.

Amid a significant security presence, hundreds of Bougainvilleans marched through the streets as they followed the autonomous region’s president, John Momis, as he arrived at a polling booth to cast his vote.

Momis, accompanied by his minister for Bougainville affairs, Sir Puka Temu, and the referendum commissioner, Ruby Mirinka, was the first to cast his vote.

Bougainville regional president John Momis waves as he arrives at a polling station in Buka on Saturday. Photograph: Ness Kerton/AFP via Getty Images
Bougainville regional president John Momis waves as he arrives at a polling station in Buka on Saturday. Photograph: Ness Kerton/AFP via Getty Images

The jubilant crowd cheered on as groups danced to the beat of bamboo pipes, singing songs of freedom that described the crisis of the past and a peace process that started at the end of the civil war 20 years ago and which paved the way for the referendum.

As he exited the polling booth after casting his vote, Momis waved to the crowd who replied with shouts of support as they waited for their turn to vote.

“It’s obvious that the people are now in the mood for celebration and I join them as they have every right to celebrate,” Momis told a media conference. “This is a forecast or beginning of good things to come if we collaborate and work as trusted partners to implement something that both parties have contributed to.”

With tears in her eyes, Justina Panu, a voter from Arawa, said that it was thrilling to watch her president vote. “We are excited and emotional,” she said.

Janet Chigoto, from Buin, waved her large Bougainville flag and said: “I am proud and happy. The time has come for us to vote for what we’ve been waiting for. Blood has poured on our island. We want our own powers to run our country so I am going for Box Two.”

“It’s a great moment for me,” said Barnabas Matanu from Buka. “It’s been long overdue and we’ve been waiting for years. We are enthusiastic and on cloud nine.”

Over the next two weeks, everyone over the age of 18 will have the option of requesting greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea, or full independence. Voting will take place in select towns and stations around the island of Buka and mainland Bougainville.

A young voter, Tanya Okia from Kieta, hoped that her generation would see a free and independent Bougainville. “Bougainville will rise. Myself and the other 365 youths here, we are all heading for number 2 box.”

“I will be putting my ballot in box 2,” said Moses Seropa from Arawa. “I want to see Bougainville become our own country, in my lifetime. I want to see us producing our own products. We have tons of natural resources, good lands and great farmers so we need to take ownership starting with this vote.”


Powes Parkop on Bougainville Referendum: A Historical Day for Our Country


Bougainville has impacted our country in so many ways. Whether it was contributing to the economy, shaping of the constitution and system of governance, or the tragic years of conflict in 1988 to 1997 and in many other ways, Bougainville remains an integral part of PNG.

Today we enter another historical day for Bougainville and the rest of PNG. Whatever happens from here on will be historical, as it will impact our country and the history we shared. Despite the outcome, let us be comfortable with the fact that this nation of a thousand tribes is strong and it’s future is stronger because of this diversity. This is our strength and not our weakness. Diversity makes us stronger and we become better people and a better nation. It is not an easy Union but it’s an opportunity for us to build a greater nation and future.

Remember without Goliath, a mere Shepard boy with no skills and knowledge other than being a sherpard, could never be the King of Israel.

This massive fusion of our diverse nation of a thousand tribes and 860 languages into one prosperous nation is a mammoth task and our own Goliath. But it is also an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves to foster a respectful, tolerant and grateful country where we can all thrive together to build a prosperous future.

How wonderful it would be when we overcome all our stereotypes and inhibitions that we have against each other. It will be like David has slain Goliath who had been tormenting the Israelites for so long. So here, we have an opportunity to show equality, to allow freedom, and show true democracy where all tribes and languages have a stake at the table. It has been painful, tragic and a long journey, but let us be confident that we will prosper after today and we will secure a greater future with Bougainville still having a strong place and role in our stride to prosperity.

Congratulations to Sir Puka Temu and all the leaders who have shaped this journey since the Peace Agreement, up to this historical day. Let us be confident about the future, as a unique rainbow nation of a thousand tribes and 860 plus languages. Together, we are stronger!