Bougainville votes for independence from PNG

International | Written by : IANS| Updated:

Bougainville votes for independence from PNG

Bangkok, Dec 11 (IANS) The people of Bougainville, an island group in Papua New Guinea (PNG), have overwhelmingly voted for independence. The referendum was approved by the Papua New Guinea government, but the result is not binding.

In an announcement in the region's administrative capital, Buka, the autonomous government said that on Wednesday, of 1,81,067 citizens who cast their vote, 3,043 (1.68 per cent) voted for option 1 in the plebiscite -- which would have granted Bougainville greater autonomy but preserved its status quo as part of PNG; 1,76,928 (97.71 per cent) voted for option 2 -- full independence, and 1,096 (0.6 per cent) cast spoiled their ballots, reported Efe news.

About 2,07,000 Bougainville residents had registered to vote in the non-binding referendum held on November 22. Turnout hovered around 87 per cent, as nearly 9 out of 10 voters participated in the historic ballot.

The figures were presented by the chair of the Referendum Commission. The attendees burst into cheers after learning the results, though the final secession process ultimately depends on the consent of PNG's national parliament, which still has suzerainty over the island collection under international law.

The tiny Melanesian isles -- which had been under the occupation of German, British, Australian, Japanese and American troops in the late 19th and 20th centuries -- became part of Papua New Guinea once the latter declared independence from Australia in 1975, though they are located more than 700 km off the Papuan coast in the Solomon Sea.

Separatism has a long history in the territory, made up of the large islands of Bougainville and Buka, as well as several outlying islets and atolls. Pro-independence sentiment started to burgeon in the 1960s as the mineral resources of the region, which possesses a wealth of copper and gold reserves, were exploited by external actors and Bougainvilleans were systematically kept out of the distribution of profits.

The huge open-cut Panguna mine, owned by a subsidiary of the Australian mining conglomerate Conzinc Rio Tinto, became the epicentre of tensions between locals and thousands of foreign workers, who were mostly white Australian miners and Papuans hailing from other parts of the fractious country.

This friction erupted in 1988 with the start of the Bougainville Civil War, which lasted 10 years.

The armed conflict between government forces deployed by PNG (and supported by Australia) to suppress the rebel Bougainville Revolutionary Army (backed by the Solomon Islands) saw somewhere between 2,000-20,000 deaths, including many Bougainvillean civilians, according to diverse estimates. The current president of the autonomous region, John Momis, has described the struggle as "the largest conflict in Oceania since the end of World War II."

The civil war eventually gave way to peace after the signing of the 1998 Lincoln Agreement in New Zealand.