Asia-Pacific

Bougainville could be the world’s newest nation, as Pacific island goes to polls

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Twenty years in waiting, decades more in the making, and steeped in blood, 200,000 Bougainvilleans will cast their ballots over the next fortnight in a non-binding referendum, setting the island on the border of PNG and Solomon Islands on the path to nationhood.

Australia could soon have a new neighbouring country, in the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea as the region goes to the polls to vote on independence.

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

Voters proudly show off the flag of Bougainville, the symbol of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, as they head to cast their ballots.
Voters proudly show off the flag of Bougainville, the symbol of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, as they head to cast their ballots.
SBS News

On Saturday, there was a carnival-like atmosphere and excitement and pride amongst the people at being able to decide the future of Bougainville and fulfil what many many see as their destiny.

Experts believe the 250,000 people of Bougainville will vote overwhelmingly 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 then need to be negotiated by leaders from both Bougainville and Papua New Guinea.

The final say would then go to the Papua New Guinea Parliament.

To the polls

The island’s renowned bamboo bands greeted the autonomous region’s President John Momis as he cast the first ballot in the interim capital Buka on Saturday. 

Voting pamphlets are seen at a polling station ahead of the independence vote.

“Bougainville is on the verge of freedom, we are on a mission, and our mission is to liberate Bougainville and enable the people to be free to decide and manage their own affairs,” he said, outside the polling station. 

“I’m calling on the national govt to follow the peace agreement and that is for the two govt to sit down a consult over the result of the referendum. 

“We should not rush things and give it the time it deserves to give a good outcome …  It could be five years, as long as the final outcome is determined.” 

Mr Monis is due to retire ahead of Bougainville presidential elections in March and the referendum is the crowning moment of a five-decade-long political career. 

Workers prepare a polling station ahead of the historic independence vote.
Workers prepare a polling station ahead of the historic independence vote.
AFP

“I’m very happy my dream to empower people in a way that is democratically appropriate has been finally achieved,” he said. 

As Mr Momis cast his ballot, PNG’s minister for Bougainville stood by his side at the ballot box. 

“On behalf of the national government let me congratulate this occasion, a very auspicious and historic occasion to stand beside the president who has cast the first vote,” Sir Puka Temu said.

But he said he would still like to see Bougainville remain “side-by-side” within PNG, pointing out that the post-referendum consultation process ahead of the outcome’s ratification will take time.

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

Workers prepare a polling station.

The result is expected to be announced by 7 December - but the 40-day appeal process means the result will not be finalised until mid-January. 

With Bougainville presidential elections in March, talks are not expected to start until June.

Three-hundred-thousand people live in Bougainville, on the border between PNG and Solomon Islands, an area covered in rainforests and active volcanoes rising as high as 2,400m.

But locals feel more a part of the Solomon Islands than Papua New Guineans, giving way to hold-held aspirations of self-determination.

People line up at a polling station to vote.
People line up at a polling station to vote.
SBS News

Twice Bougainville has made a unilateral declaration of independence - once in 1975, just before PNG independence and again in 1990 - but both failed to gain international recognition.

This referendum is the result of a bloody uprising in 1989 against Australian miner Rio Tinto’s Panguna copper and gold mine, which resulted in up to 20,000 deaths. 

Independence supporters in Bougainville.
Independence supporters in Bougainville.
SBS News

“In the current history it’s 30 years since 1989, but it also dates back to 1960s,” Sam Kauona, the former commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a potential presidential frontrunner, said. 

“I guess this referendum with international observers looking over us will be our number three chance for Bougainville to become independent,” he said. 

The so-called Bougainville “crisis” ended with the 2001 peace agreement, after more than a decade of bloody fighting and an economic blockade by PNG of the island, enforced with the help of Australia. 

"There are three pillars to the Bougainville Peace Agreement,” Sir Puka told SBS News. 

“The first is to allow a post-crisis government to be in place,  so the Autonomous Bougainville Government started, second was to allow for weapons disposal, and that’s been an ongoing program, and that’s come to a conclusion, and finally that there should be a referendum process and that is that the leaders agreed there should be a vote.”

However, the peace agreement states that the referendum is non-binding and the outcome must be ratified by the PNG parliament after a complicated consultation process, for which no timeframe was specified. 

“A timeframe at this stage is not the key point - timing at this stage is not part of the conversation at this stage,” Sir Puka said.

“Part of the process is we have engaged in the Bougainville reconciliation and the big one, the national reconciliation, and part of that process is to forgive each other and accept each other and to heal each other. 

“As a national leader I, for one, would want Bougainville to remain part of PNG, that’s pending the outcome of what the result will be and the outcome of the consultation.” 

Women in the village of Aero, Bougainville, come together for a unification ceremony last year. The Pacific people of Bougainville are going to the polls.
Women in the village of Aero, Bougainville, come together for a unification ceremony last year. The Pacific people of Bougainville are going to the polls.
UNDP

The Australian government, the United Nations and Pacific Island Forum have all dispatched observers to witness the historic vote. 

“Well we’re not here as political commentators,” Jan Prentice, leader of the Australian observer mission, said. 

“We’re just here to observe the vote and we just want to make sure the vote is fair and credible and then it’ll be up to the people of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea to decide the next steps.” 

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