Huge turnout for referendum

From NETANI RIKA, Buka, Bougainville

THOUSANDS of Bougainvilleans flocked to the polls today (Saturday) in a process which might lead to the creation of a new nation.

At 800 polling stations – including venues in Port Moresby and Gizo – islanders took part in the historic process.

Christopher Karuah cast his vote in Port Moresby. “It’s a great day for us and I have no doubt that the people want independence,” Karuah said. “Bougainville has wanted freedom since even before Papua New Guinea obtained independence in 1975.”

In Buka the flag of the Autonomous Bougainville Government fluttered proudly from cars, trucks, homes and polling venues. Voters – who may choose independence or to remain part of PNG – voted calmly under the watchful eyes of police.

Whatever the outcome, Parliament in Port Moresby will have the final say. This referendum comes 30 years after the beginning of a 10-year civil war in which 15,000 people died. In Port Moresby, politicians have sent mixed signals about the voting process.

Prime Minister James Marape called for calm but took the opportunity to remind voters that PNG had always been united. Former prime ministers Peter O’Neill and Sir Michael Somare acknowledged the importance of the referendum in the peace process. But they also spoke of the need for national unity, hinting at personal preferences for automomy rather than independence. Resource rich and home to some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits, Bougainville would be a major loss to PNG if it broke away. For now, however, the island is focussed on two weeks of voting. Many areas of Bougainville are difficult to access by road but indications are that voter turnout will be high.

Flights to the island in the last week have been packed with people returning home to vote and be part of history. Air Niugini was yesterday forced to put on an additional flight to cater for demand. One thing is clear – Bougainville wants to vote.