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22 Oct 2020 1:40
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  •   Home > News > International

    Bougainville elects new president Ishmael Toroama as negotiations on independence from PNG ramp up

    Thirty years ago, Ishmael Toroama was leading troops in a rebel army during a bloody conflict in Bougainville. Now, he will be sworn in as president as the region works to gain independence from Papua New Guinea.


    Thirty years ago, Ishmael Toroama was leading troops in a rebel army during a bloody conflict in Bougainville.

    Now, he will be sworn in as the region's president.

    As a commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, Mr Toroama earned a reputation as a fierce fighter and was said to be one of the most respected leaders as troops campaigned for independence from Papua New Guinea.

    "I think the vision and the dream is there," Mr Toroama told the ABC.

    "We have to fulfil the dreams and the vision of why we fought."

    The 10-year conflict, which raged from 1988 until 1998, saw the deaths of up to 20,000 people, or about 10 per cent of Bougainville's population at that time.

    The war was brought to a close by a peace agreement, which Mr Toroama signed.

    That agreement promised a non-binding referendum on possible independence, which was held last year.

    Almost 98 per cent voted to seek independence.

    On the back of such an overwhelming statement, Bougainvilleans returned to the polls to elect a new president and local parliament.

    Mr Toroama said it was an honour to be elected, but that he knew it would be a challenging time.

    "It's the greatest challenge of our times."

    The referendum was non-binding, which means negotiations must now be held between the governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville. The PNG Parliament will have the final say.

    "On my side, we will push hard for independence because that is the key issue on Bougainville," Mr Toroama said.

    He says after Bougainville's new cabinet is selected and settled, the discussions can begin. He wants them to be conducted quickly.

    "During my campaign, I had this timeframe of two to three years [for negotiations]," Mr Toroama said.

    That would be considered a very fast negotiation, especially by Papua New Guinea. Many in the national Parliament don't want to see Bougainville secede.

    "Everyone has their own agenda and issues," Mr Toroama said.

    "It's something we can continue to discuss … and come up with the necessary timeframe."

    PNG's Prime Minister James Marape issued a statement congratulating Mr Toroama and said he would meet with him in coming weeks.

    "I look forward to working with president-elect Toroama in progressing consultations on the outcome of the recent referendum and securing long-term economic development and a lasting peace for the people of Bougainville," Mr Marape said.

    Toroama aims for independence within five years

    Mr Toroama said he wanted to potentially see Bougainville become independent within five years.

    "I would like to see the national Government ratifying the 98 per cent, that is the first step that I would like to see," he said.

    "After that, we will get ourselves prepared, it will be another timeframe, as the national Government ratifies the outcome, and maybe, a time of five years."

    Voters in Bougainville seemed to be buoyed by hopes of the future when they went to elect a new parliament: several young people have been voted in and a number of high-profile MPs lost their seats.

    Among the new generation of parliamentarians is 29-year old Theonilla Roka Matbob.

    The activist, social worker and mother was voted in to represent the Ioro constituency, which includes the Panguna Mine, the site where fighting first started.

    Ms Matbob beat 15 men to claim the seat and said her priority was to pursue independence for Bougainville and deliver health and education to her people.

    She will also face the issue of whether to reopen the troubled mine, as Bougainville tries to become financially independent.

    "For me as a spiritual being I cannot risk the lives of the future generation for economic benefits," Ms Matbob said.

    "But so long as people are empowered and they feel that they are ready for the issue of mines then the people can make their choice heard, then I can talk on their behalf [based on] what the people will say."

    Ms Matbob will be joined by three other women in the parliament, voted in to reserved women's seats.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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