The South Pacific region of Bougainville voted overwhelmingly to become the world’s newest nation by gaining independence from Papua New Guinea. Bougainville Referendum Commission Chairman Bertie Ahern was cheered when he announced that more than 98% of valid ballots favored independence. The other option in the vote was greater autonomy from Papua New Guinea. The poll was a key part of a 2001 peace agreement that ended a civil war in which at least 15,000 people died in the cluster of islands to the east of the Papua New Guinea mainland.
Around 85 per cent of eligible voters in Bougainville took part in the referendum, in which ballot slips gave the choice of independence or greater autonomy. The 2001 peace agreement followed more than a decade of violence fuelled by conflict over an enormous open-pit copper mine on Bougainville Island, which is home to the majority of the archipelago’s population of roughly 300,000.
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David Sharma, an Australian government lawmaker who once lived in Bougainville as a diplomat and helped draft the 2001 peace agreement, said Australia would keep a close eye on developments in its nearest neighbors. “I’m pleased that the Bougainvilleans have expressed their view in such a clear way, but I would sound a note of caution that Bougainville is an island of about 200,000 people and countries of that sort of population often struggle to take on all the full attributes of a sovereign state,” Sharmer told Australian Broadcasting Corp.