Voters in the Pacific island chain of Bougainville flocked to the polls Saturday at the start of a long-awaited referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea. At least 1,000 people were at a polling station in the main city of Buka when voting began at 8:00 am amid exuberant scenes of music and singing that highlighted the excitement over possibly becoming the world’s newest nation.
Some 2,07,000 Bougainvilleans are registered to cast ballots over the next two weeks to choose between full independence or simply greater autonomy within PNG, a fractious nation of eight million off the northeast coast of Australia. The vote is a cornerstone of a 2001 peace deal that ended a brutal decade-long war between Bougainville rebels, Papua New Guinea security forces and foreign mercenaries that killed up to 20,000 people and displaced thousands more.
There are few reliable public opinion polls, so a surprise vote in favor of autonomy within Papua New Guinea is possible, but supporters of full independence are expected to win handily. Results are due to be released around December 15.
If voters do choose independence, the decision would need ratification from the PNG parliament, where there is anxiety that Bougainville could set a precedent and spur other independence movements within the tribally diverse country. But rejection would risk rekindling former feuds and skittling the peace process.
Bougainville regional president John Momis cautioned excited voters here Saturday that the referendum was only one step in a long process and he urged patience. “We should not rush things, we should take our time to ensure a good outcome,” he said, adding that a final result “could be five years” away.
But in a sign of hopeful cooperation with the national government, Momis was accompanied to the polling station by Puka Temu, the PNG minister for Bougainville affairs. Independence for the Bougainville could instantly make the resource-rich archipelago a new front in the battle for influence being waged between China, the United States and Australia across the South Pacific.
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