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Bougainville set to hold long-awaited independence referendum

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In this picture taken on January 11, 2019, a woman chews betal nut at a market in Arawa, which was the capital and largest town in the autonomous region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea until it was largely destroyed during the Bougainville Civil War in the 1990s resulting in the relocation of the capital to Buka. (Photo by Ben BOHANE / AFP)

The war-ravaged Pacific island of Bougainville will hold a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea later this year, authorities said Friday, a vote that caps a decades-long peace process and is tipped to create the world’s newest nation.

The ballot follows a spluttering 20-year peace process and a decade of war that ended in 1998 and devastated the island — razing its capital and killing 10,000-15,000 people.

It was the most serious conflict in the Pacific Islands since World War II.

Authorities in Port Moresby on Friday ordered the vote be held over two weeks from November 23 to December 7.

“All necessary preparations to hold and conduct the Bougainville referendum are finalised,” said Bougainville Referendum Commission chair Bertie Ahern.

A former prime minister of Ireland, Ahern was appointed to the role because of his experience with Northern Ireland’s peace process.

The vote has been postponed twice already, but under the terms of the peace accord must be held before 2020.

Around 200,000 Bougainvilleans will be able to vote for one of two options — more autonomy or independence. A clear majority are expected to opt for independence rather than remain with Papua New Guinea.

Historically and ethnically, Bougainvilleans look east to the Solomon Islands more than west to Papua New Guinea. Many are concerned at Papua New Guinea’s current economic situation and wish to forge ahead alone.

The referendum results will be delivered around December 20. It will then be up to Papua New Guinea’s parliament to ratify the vote.

That is not a given, and the process then requires a “negotiated outcome” between the central and regional governments to achieve final status.

Analysts say Bougainville has the natural resources and a skilled older generation to help build a viable economy but faces challenges including a “lost generation” of uneducated youth due to the war years.

The island sits on considerable mineral wealth — a Bloomberg report estimated the destroyed Panguna mine alone still has copper and gold reserves worth US$48 billion.

It also has large cocoa plantations and is in the process of reclaiming fishing rights from Papua New Guinea, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.


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