(Pacnews) A closely watched independence vote in the Pacific state of Chuuk, part of the U.S.-aligned Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), scheduled for next month has been postponed until 2022, the island's Attorney General has told Reuters.
Chuuk's proximity to Guam, an American territory with air force and naval bases, and strategic location in the Pacific had raised the profile of the proposed vote amid expectations it would likely turn to China if became independent.
The island state is the most heavily populated of the four members that make up the FSM and has harbored independence aspirations amid discontent over how funding has been shared.
Chuuk State Attorney General Sabino Asor said in a statement to Reuters that Chuuk would give the FSM more time to “correct some of the deficiencies” by rescheduling the vote to March 2022.
“Let's please wait and see," said Asor, who is leading the pro-independence campaign.
The independence movement has been complicated by debate over the legal mechanisms Chuuk could use to leave the FSM, an independent country backed by U.S. financial and military agreements contained in what is called a Compact of Free Association.
It is the second time the vote has been postponed.
“The people of Chuuk and the people of the FSM are one and the same, and as Micronesians are committed to our national values of peace, unity, and liberty,” the FSM government said in a statement to Reuters.
China has challenged U.S. influence in the Pacific in recent years by forging stronger economic ties with small island nations, and drawing countries out of their long-term alliances with Taiwan.
Though tiny in land mass, Pacific nations including the FSM control vast swaths of ocean, forming a boundary between the Americas and Asia.
Jian Zhang, associate professor at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Micronesian states were ideally located.
“It is in quite a strategic area, both close to U.S. bases, which could provide China an ability to monitor and deter military activity,” Zhang told Reuters.
While the canceled vote will please U.S. interests, which have warned Chuuk against independence, the FSM is also subject to a wider diplomatic tug-of-war.
Parts of the agreement with the U.S. start expiring in 2023, raising the prospect that the island republic could shift its relationship towards Beijing, which has recently ramped up investment and diplomatic resources there.
In December, the FSM government disclosed details of at least US$72 million worth of funding pledged by China for road construction, government building works and other projects after a state visit to Beijing by FSM President David Panuelo.
Four months earlier, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the FSM.
“I'm pleased to announce the United States has begun negotiations on extending our compacts.... they sustain democracy in the face of Chinese efforts to redraw the Pacific,” Pompeo told reporters at the time."
Bougainvilleans have voted overwhelmingly for independence in referendum results released this evening.
The Bougainville Referendum Commission led by former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, announced that 176,928 of a total 181,067 people voted for independence, or 97.7 per cent.
Just 3043 people voted for "Greater Autonomy" according to the Commission.
In a statement today the Commission said:
"We thank the two governments of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, and the people of the Bougainville for their outstanding participation in this historic process – one part of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. We recognise the Referendum has been a national event, and so also acknowledge and thank the people of Papua New Guinea.
As an electoral process that aspired to meet international standards, it is for observers, scrutineers and the media, and indeed the people themselves, to determine whether the conduct of the Referendum was inclusive, accessible, free and fair. We thank in particular scrutineers, and observers from here and overseas for bringing transparency and credibility to the process, and we look forward to their reports over the coming days and weeks.
However, as the mandated independent body appointed to conduct the Bougainville Referendum, it is our conclusion from what we witnessed ourselves throughout the process – through enrolment, polling and scrutiny – was an orderly process, following the laws and regulations provided, and was peaceful.We witnessed voting that was informed, free of fear and accessible.
Some of the numbers also tell an important story:
The Commission also states: "We wish the two governments all the best in taking forward the Referendum result through a process of consultation, and on to the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea for final ratification as part of the ongoing peace process."
The Commission intends to retun the Referendum Write to PNG's Governor-General in Port Moresby this Friday.
From NETANI RIKA on Buka, Bougainville
HEAVY rain and rough seas overnight have delayed the delivery of ballot boxes and voting officials to a number of small atolls off the Bougainville coast.
Bougainville Referendum Commissioner, Mauricio Claudio, said the vote would take place on the atolls once staff could be transported safely to the region.
“This (adverse weather) is not unusual,’’ Claudio said.
“We know that the weather in Bougainville sometimes is not conducive, but we have contingency plans in place. We have a two-week polling period and we cannot expect conditions to be perfect.
“The safety of our staff is paramount, and we will eventually get the boxes and staff to all the polling stations.”
Claudio said polling would be rescheduled at venues where voting could not take place on the original dates.
He described voting at Gizo in the Solomon Islands and Cairns in Australia as tranquil and peaceful.
“Historically, this is the first time polling has been offered to Papua New Guinea nationals outside the country,” Claudio said.
“In Gizo there have been 23 voters and voting will continue there and in Cairns for two days before moving to Honiara and Brisbane.”
There are 311 voters registered in Australia and the Solomon Islands and 375 requests for postal ballots had been received.
Claudio said the commission continued to see good numbers at the polling booths and there had been no reports of security breaches or voting irregularities.
He said while queues at stations were long, the polling was conducted in a generally peaceful, patient manner.
Weather reports predict rain in the central parts of Bougainville and officials have predicted some logistical challenges in the area later this week.
From NETANI RIKA, Buka, Bougainville
TEARS of joy flowed down Francesca Semoso’s cheeks as she cast her vote in the Bougainville Referendum.
Overcome by emotion, the Deputy Speaker of the Autonomous Bougainville House of Representatives leaned against the ballot box and in true Melanesian tradition, she wailed.
It was a curious juxtaposition of emotions as villagers of Malasang sang joyously outside the polling station to the beat of the local bamboo band while inside, their member of Parliament wept.
“We have waited for 30 years for this moment and who would have thought Bougainville would even come this far?” Semoso asked.
“Everybody thought this would never really happen.”
The first tears were of joy, celebrating the fruition of 30 years of struggle for the right to determine the future of this luscious, resource-rich island of dense green forests, white sandy beaches and turquoise blue seas.
Then, the awesome realisation of the huge cost of this one moment in history - more than 15,000 lives lost, 30 years of near-stagnant economic growth, missed educational opportunities for the young people.
And then came the bitter tears and the pain and the gut-wrenching sobs.
Leaning against the reed walls of the makeshift polling station, children aged six and seven peered through the gaps with wide-eyed curiosity.
They were fixated by the crying woman in traditional leaf dress pushing a piece of paper into a big clear plastic box with a green lid.
As she looked up, Semoso said: “We are voting for them, for their future and that’s why I’m so happy.
“But we are also voting for the people who did not live to see this day and for those who gave their lives so that today and the referendum could become a reality.’’
As voters snaked their way along the path to the polling station, traditional entertainers kept up a steady repertoire of songs, beating them out with flip flops on the age-old bamboo drums.
In a reed shed the village women served up plates of roast pork and baked kumala (sweet potato) for voters, entertainers and international observers.
The international media flocked to speak to Semoso who locals say will be a key figure in an independent Bougainville.
“I have my mother here (voting) and I wish my dad had lived to see this day,” she said.
“But I know he’s here in spirit. Man, did we ever think we would get to this day. We have to thank the international community and the media who have been there for us and kept attention on Bougainville and helped bring us to this day.’’
High above the polling station, the dark blue Bougainville flag fluttered proudly in the breeze. On the ground, children ran excitedly among the voters, blissfully unaware of the importance of the day.
In the polling lines the villagers waited to cast their vote, whispering quietly, smiling broadly.
“This is what we mean by a resilient people,’’ Semoso said.
“We are peaceful, loving, forgiving and happy people.’’
That resilience has been tested for 30 years and found to be true.
After the referendum result there will still need to be negotiations between PNG and Bougainville’s autonomous government and later a ratification by parliament.
That resilience of which Bougainville is so proud may yet undergo its most strenuous test.