Bougainville has voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Papua New Guinea.
A total of 176,928 votes for independence have been recorded out of 181,067 ballots.
The historic referendum was carried out over a two-week period, with people asked if they wanted independence or greater autonomy from PNG.
The poll was a key part of a nearly 20-year-old peace agreement, which brought an end to a bloody civil war in the region.
Up to 20,000 people, or about 10 per cent of Bougainville’s population, died during the Bougainville Civil War, fought from 1988 to 1998.
However, the referendum result is not binding.
Negotiations between PNG and Bougainville about the road forward will now begin and could continue for years, and the PNG Parliament will have the final say.
Bougainville Referendum Commission chair Bertie Ahern said yesterday the vote was conducted “in an environment that was conducive to a free, fair and credible process”.
Why is the vote important?
The referendum holds huge emotional significance for many Bougainvilleans. It is the culmination of decades of work towards peace and reconciliation.
The scheduled two weeks of voting ended earlier than expected, with many Bougainvilleans casting their vote just days after polling stations opened.
The deputy speaker of Bougainville’s Parliament, Francesca Semoso, said she was emotional when she cast her vote last month.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she told the ABC.
“I was a little girl as this was being talked about.
“We’ve lost people that have worked so hard.
“For me personally, it’s my father who’s always been a strong supporter of peace … and supporter of making sure everyone in the community were able to have a voice.”
Central to the conflict that led to the vote was Bougainville’s rich resources.
The autonomous region was once home to the world’s largest open-cut copper mine at Panguna, which provided up to 45 per cent of PNG’s export profits.
Many felt mining profits were not being shared fairly between PNG and Bougainville – or even between different land owner groups at the mine site – while pollution from the Panguna operation also created tension.
The civil war that subsequently broke out between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, Papua New Guinean forces and other pro-PNG militias in Bougainville saw the mine shut down in 1989.
The mine has remained closed despite controversial attempts to reopen it in recent years.
How the voting unfolded
To ensure everyone enrolled had a chance to vote, referendum officials visited people in hospitals and police cells.
Voting was also made available to Bougainvilleans working on mine sites around PNG and those working in Australia and Solomon Islands.
Special arrangements were made to allow upes — boys and young men undertaking their coming of age initiations — to vote in Bougainville’s historic referendum.
The young men have to spend an extended period in isolation in the bush, where they learn traditional practices and are forbidden to be seen by women.
All or most of the voting was closely watched by several groups of observers, including a team of 11 sent by the Australian government and led by the former Australian MP Jane Prentice, who has her own connection to the region.
“My husband was involved in the peace arrangements and the conflict resolution. We had many of the key players come and stay with us in Brisbane,” she told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program earlier this month.
“For me, it was quite emotional.
“To see them back in their own village, to meet them and be part of what they see as the next step in their future was incredibly special.”
What happens now?
Despite the outcome of the vote, the future of Bougainville is still uncertain.
PNG and Bougainville are now expected to hold negotiations and present an option for the PNG Parliament to vote on.
That process could take several years, and PNG’s Minister for Bougainville, Sir Puka Temu, said his government was firm in its desire to hold on to the island.
“We don’t want any part of Papua New Guinea to break away,” Sir Puka told Pacific Beat last month.
“We don’t want to set a precedent for the other 21 provinces. That will be our firm position”.