Bougainville independence hopes rise as vote counting begins

Pacific island once ravaged by fierce fighting expected to overwhelmingly back independence from Papua New Guinea.

Bougainville Vice President Raymond Masono he expects voters to support the referendum but it could take at least 10 years to fully establish an independent state [Jeremy Miller/Bougainville Referendum Commission/AFP]

Bougainville will begin counting votes on Tuesday in its independence referendum, officials said, amid expectations that the island once ravaged by conflict will overwhelmingly back independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Results are expected to be released on Thursday after the non-binding vote, held from November 23 to December 7, under a 2001 peace pact struck in the aftermath of a decade-long war between Bougainville’s rebel fighters and PNG forces that ended in 1998.

Bougainville Vice President Raymond Masono said he anticipated that an “overwhelming” number of the 207,000 voters will support independence, but the region would need to rebuild its institutions.

“We envisage a long period of transition,” Masono told Reuters.

“Bougainville is not ready for independence now, because we do not have the state institutions established. We are looking at 10 years.”

The civil conflict over the now-closed Panguna gold and copper mine in what was once the resource heart of PNG killed about 20,000 people.

Referendum results will trigger negotiations between the two  governments on the terms of separation.

The AFP news agency reported joyous scenes when the polling stations opened two weeks ago, with Bougainvilleans asked to choose between greater autonomy or independence from PNG.

There are no reliable exit polls, but it is widely expected voters will return a result in favour of independence.

Discussion over how Bougainville would sustain its independence is likely to dominate the talks, two PNG ministers have told Reuters News Agency.

Ballot papers from different areas were mixed before counting to eliminate the risk of reprisals.

“The vote will recognise the voice of all people of Bougainville – rather than by region,” chief referendum officer Mauricio Claudio said in a statement.

There is anxiety among some in the PNG capital, Port Moresby, that Bougainville could set a precedent and spur other independence movements.

But rejection risks rekindling old feuds and scuttling the peace process.

New Zealand leads an international unarmed police contingent for the vote, backed by other witnesses to the 2001 peace agreement: Australia, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Claudio said voting had gone “better than we expected” with little incident.

Source: News Agencies