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Bertie Ahern announces landslide victory for independence in Bougainville referendum

The region was voting on whether to become independent from Papua New Guinea.

FORMER TAOISEACH BERTIE Ahern has played a central role in Bougainville’s bid to become the world’s newest country by announcing that the autonomous region has voted overwhelmingly in favour of becoming independent from Papua New Guinea.

Acting in his role as Chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, Ahern declared today that 176,928 people – around 98% of voters – had backed independence with just 3,043 supporting the option of remaining part of Papua New Guinea with more autonomy.

The commission was responsible for preparing the region for the independence vote and Ahern was appointed as chairman in October 2018.

Speaking at the time of the appointment, Bougainville President John Momis said it was delighted to have the former Taoiseach on board and Ahern had read everything possible on Bougainville before leaving Dublin.

Ahern’s announcement today was met with loud cheers, applause and tears as dignitaries soon burst into song, with strains of the islands’ anthem “My Bougainville” ringing out.

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.

Speaking in the region’s capital Buka, Ahern urged all sides to recognise a vote that was about “your peace, your history, and your future” and showed “the power of the pen over weapons”.

bertie-2 Source: Bougainville Referendum Commission

Independence will not be immediate, a long political process lies ahead and leaders face formidable financial and administrative challenges to turn a cluster of poor Pacific islands into a fully fledged nation.

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The result must first be ratified by Papua New Guinea’s parliament – where there is opposition to the move for fear it may spark other independence movements in a nation defined by disparate linguistic and tribal groups.

But the scale of the victory for the pro-independence side will heap pressure on Papua New Guinea to endorse the outcome.

Puka Temu, the country’s minister for Bougainville affairs, said “the outcome is a credible one” but asked that voters “allow the rest of Papua New Guinea sufficient time to absorb this result”.

With reporting by AFP

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Ceimin Burke

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