Bougainville set to become world’s newest nation

Resident of Bougainville voting on Nov 29. (AP pic)

BUKA: Bougainville has voted by a landslide for independence from Papua New Guinea, according to official referendum results released Wednesday, a major step toward creating the world’s newest nation.

Bertie Ahern, chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, said 176,928 people – 98% of voters – had backed independence with just 3,043 supporting the option of remaining part of Papua New Guinea with more autonomy.

The result of the referendum must be ratified by Papua New Guinea’s parliament – where there is some opposition to the move – but the scale of the victory for the pro-independence side will heap pressure on Port Moresby to recognise the result.

Speaking in Buka, Ahern urged all side to recognise the result and said the vote was about “your peace, your history, and your future” and showed “the power of the pen over weapons”.

The historic vote caps a decades-long peace process and a long recovery from a brutal civil war between Bougainville rebels, Papua New Guinea security forces and foreign mercenaries that ended in 1998 and left up to 20,000 people dead – 10% of the population.

“The referendum is one part of that ongoing journey,” said Ahern.

The former Irish prime minister was picked for the role having shepherded the Northern Ireland peace process.

Voting began on Nov 23 with ecstatic residents – some festooned in grass garlands – forming makeshift choirs that stomped through the streets, waving independence flags, blowing bamboo pipes and chanting in chorus.