Jubilation at result but region faces long process ahead before it can become worlds newest nation
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 worlds newest nation.
More than 180,000 people in Bougainville, a collection ofislands flung 700km off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea, 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 Commissions 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 Papua New Guinea 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 regions president John Momis to the polling booth to watch him cast the first vote in the referendum on 23 November.
Its 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.
Speaking at the announcement of the result in Buka, Sir Puka Temu, PNGs minister for Bougainville, said the result was a creditable one but reminded the crowd that the referendum was non-binding and that the national parliament of PNG had the final authority over the result.
Temu said PNGs prime minister, James Marape, would make a statement in the coming days about the way forward, adding: I will not present the result of the referendum to the parliament until after the consultation has been concluded.
For the rest of PNG, this is a big big result, this is a transformational political announcement and therefore please allow PNG sufficient time to absorb this result.
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 consultations 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.
However, the president of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, John Momis, told the crowd he believed Marape was committed to Bougainville, saying of the prime minister: He is intelligent, he is educated and he is humble, he is prepared to listen.
We are all full of expectations and hope, said Momis. If we work together the outcome will be good and official and most importantly and produce lasting peace.