SYDNEY (Reuters) – Former rebel military commander Ishmael Toroama has been elected president of Bougainville, an autonomous part of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, electoral officials said on Wednesday, and is set to lead talks seeking independence.
The general election was the first since Bougainville voted overwhelmingly for a separation from Papua New Guinea at the end of last year, with Toroama defeating an open field, the Bougainville Electoral Commissioner said.
Mineral-rich Bougainville island has been hampered by years of little economic progress following a decade-long civil war that claimed as many as 20,000 lives before ending in 1998.
The conflict was largely fought over how the profits from the lucrative Panguna gold and copper mine on Bougainville should be shared and the environmental damage it had caused.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said in a statement he would meet with Toroama in the 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,” Marape said.
During the election campaign, Toroama said there was a time for war, a time for reconciliation and a time to build a new nation.
“God will also unleash the strength for our countrymen to nation-build because that time has come. We are on our way,” he said.
Toroama was a commander in the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army, and later worked on the peace and disarmament process.
Plans to reopen the mine, which could help fund an independent Bougainville, have stalled due to competing claims over development rights over the long-shuttered Panguna mine.
The mine on Bougainville had one of the world’s largest deposits of copper, and was the economic engine of Papua New Guinea, when Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd, a forerunner of Rio Tinto, was forced to abandon it due to the unrest.
Bougainville, with a population of around 250,000 and now reliant on financial support from the Papua New Guinea capital, has since fallen to the bottom of almost every financial indicator, despite boasting mineral riches, fertile volcanic soil and stunning geography.
Discussion over how Bougainville would sustain its independence is likely to dominate independence negotiations, with one senior Bougainville politician estimating the transition could take 10 years, as the region would need to rebuild its institutions.
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Richard Pullin and Michael Perry)