Bougainville residents wearing t-shirts promoting a peaceful referendum. PA Images
Papua New Guinea

Bougainville to vote on becoming world’s newest nation - and Bertie Ahern is involved

The former Taoiseach is the chair of the Bougainville Referendum Commission.

THE PACIFIC PEOPLE of Bougainville will today begin voting in a referendum to decide if they want to become the world’s newest nation by gaining independence from Papua New Guinea.

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

Experts believe the 250,000 people of Bougainville will vote overwhelming 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 lawmakers in the Papua New Guinea parliament.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is the chair of the Bougainville Referendum Commission. Writing in the Guardian during the week, he said: “Underlying this historic [vote] is a resolve by all sides to honour the fallen, but never again return to conflict.”

Ahern said the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which was signed in August 2001 by the leaders of multiple warring Bougainville factions and the government of Papua New Guinea, should serve as a lesson to other countries. 

Resolving long-standing disputes and independence aspirations without violence is not easy. Conflicts rage around us. Less than half of the world’s peace agreements survive their first five years.

“On my own island of Ireland the Good Friday Agreement took 13 years of hard negotiation from ceasefire to political settlement. Even today, 21 years later, the agreement requires constant care and tending,” Ahern wrote. 

Transparent vote 

Gianluca Rampolla, the UN resident coordinator in Papua New Guinea, said the world body has been working hard to ensure the vote is peaceful, transparent, inclusive and credible. He said there are 40 UN staffers on the ground and more than 100 international observers.

He said he thought it unlikely there would be violence during voting.

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

Just over 200,000 people are eligible to vote in the referendum, with the results due to be announced in mid-December. Rampolla said the extended voting period of two weeks was due to the region’s rugged terrain.

There are people coming on boats, there are people walking. It’s the rainy season. There are rough seas. Flexibility is needed to adjust on the ground.

John Momis, the president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, told reporters yesterday the region stood on the verge of a new socio-economic and political order.

“We are trailblazers forging a new path into the unknown with the sheer determination to face any challenge that comes our way,” he said. “We will face this together as one people and one voice to decide our ultimate political future.”

In his weekly column in the Post-Courier newspaper, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said complex discussions and negotiations would need to take place after the referendum before a political settlement could be reached.

The violence in Bougainville began in the late 1980s, triggered by conflict over an enormous open-cast copper mine at Panguna.

The mine was a huge export earner for Papua New Guinea but many in Bougainville felt they got no benefit and resented the pollution and disruption to their traditional way of living.

The mine has remained shut since the conflict. Some believe it could provide a future revenue source for Bougainville should it become independent.

The civil war lasted for a decade before the peace agreement was signed. The other key aspects of the agreement were a weapons disposal plan and greater autonomy for the region ahead of today’s vote.

Rampolla said the peace agreement had been one of the few in the world that had lasted so long. He said it could end as a success story if the referendum and subsequent negotiations resulted in an outcome that everybody could support.

Contains reporting by Órla Ryan 

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel