SYDNEY -- Voters in Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, overwhelmingly voted for independence from the southwestern Pacific country, according to the results of a referendum released on Wednesday.
The referendum asked whether Bougainville should have greater autonomy or independence. It was held from Nov. 23 to Saturday, with 181,000 of some 200,000 voters casting ballots. According to the results, 97.7% of them voted for independence.
"The sense from Bougainvilleans," said Shane McLeod, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, "is that they have waited a long time to get to this point, and they'd like things to move pretty quickly."
The vote is nonbinding, and Bougainville independence needs approval from the parliament of Papua New Guinea. Some experts forecast the matter will take several years to be resolved, a length of time that threatens to destabilize Papua New Guinea and its surrounding area.
"This will involve legal and constitutional considerations from the PNG side," McLeod said, "so I suspect PNG doesn't want to rush things."
John Momis, the president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, said his island's people have great anticipation.
"People of Bougainville by this successful outcome now feel they are psychologically liberated," Momis said. "We are full of expectations and hope."
The autonomous government and the Papua New Guinea government will hold talks regarding the next step of the process. Subsequently, Papua New Guinea's parliament is expected to vote on whether the result of the referendum should be authorized.
In late November, Momis said finalizing the referendum's outcome could take five years.
Bougainville is home to the Panguna mine, which holds the world's richest deposits of copper ore. A local landowner's discontent about how profits from the mine are allotted led to a campaign for Bougainville independence that triggered a civil war from 1988 till 1998. More than 10,000 people died in the fighting.
The referendum was the result of a peace accord in 2001 between the government of Papua New Guinea and the rebel group demanding Bougainville's independence.
Like Vanuatu, an island country in the South Pacific, Bougainville has a population of 300,000. It is rich in natural resources, and the Panguna mine was once responsible for 40% of Papua New Guinea's foreign currency revenue.
China, which is expanding its influence in the South Pacific by supporting island nations' infrastructure improvement projects, reportedly has keen interest in Bougainville. Beijing is thought certain to step up its approach to Bougainville if independence is granted.
Most experts are skeptical that Bougainville will be allowed to go its own way. A diplomatic source said that if independence is permitted, other regions in Papua New Guinea will seek to follow suit.
Public discontent in Bougainville will undoubtedly increase if negotiations with the Papua New Guinea government drag on or if parliament delays its approval.