People in the autonomous Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville have voted in an historic independence referendum.

The long-anticipated referendum is the ultimate provision of 2001’s Bougainville Peace Agreement, which followed a brutal, protracted civil war.

As the start of polling approaches, festivities break out across the region. From young to old, everyone is involved. A village music ensemble at Tinputz on Bougainville’s north east coast performs in celebration.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Central Bougainville Elections Co-ordinator, Denise Palipal, says awareness of the referendum process has been very high after an extensive information campaign across Bougainville which reached most communities in the remote interior.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

One of the founding fathers of the Papua New Guinea national state, the President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, John Momis (centre in orange cap) arrives at the start of polling in Buka.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Watched on by local people, official observers and media, Bougainville Referendum Commission polling officials prepare the first ballot box to be used in the historic vote.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Having lived through the creation of PNG as an independent state, and Bougainville’s decade-long crisis, President John Momis casts the first vote for the referendum in emotional scenes as PNG’s Minister for Bougainville Affairs Puka Temu looks on.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The Bougainville flag has been ubiquitous across the region during the referendum’s two-week polling period. People queuing at a polling booth take their flag and regional colours with them to vote.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The number of people enrolled to vote in the referendum is 206,731. This is a record enrolment level in Bougainville where the overall population is nearly 300,000.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Chief Joe Pais of Teako village is a former soldier who helped start the Bougainville war and then was part of the New Zealand-brokered peace process which led to the referendum. “We thank New Zealand’s government and the people of New Zealand for that.”

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Waiting to vote in the Bougainville sun is hot work. Thank goodness for polling booths like at Hutjena where people can queue in the shade of a tree.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

New Zealand police lead a Pacific regional team deployed to Bougainville to support the referendum process. A contingent of New Zealand police is already based in Bougainville for an ongoing community policing programme.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

People voting in Bougainville’s independence referendum are made to dip their pinkie finger in indelible ink before casting their ballot, in order to avoid double voting.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The peaceful and patient manner in which Bougainvilleans voted has been praised by Chief Referendum Officer Mauricio Claudio: “All are to be congratulated for the positive way people have engaged in this step of the Bougainville Peace process – whether it be in large urban centres, remote atolls or overseas.”

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Young woman votes at a polling booth at Hutjena. Most Bougainvilleans are under the age of 25. For many of them, the referendum is their first opportunity to participate in an electoral process.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The vote count begins this weekend. The result is widely expected to be a majority vote for independence. People across Bougainville have high expectations, and are displaying unity.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

PNG’s national Parliament must ratify the referendum result before it comes to effect. Consultations between PNG and Bougainville will be held first. What comes next is not all clear, but Bougainvilleans are celebrating an opportunity to take ownership of their future after years of turmoil.

Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades /radionz