NEW FLAG FLIES OVER BOUGAINVILLE

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BUKA, Bougainville (The National, June 16) –Bougainville's first autonomous government was sworn in yesterday in a ceremony watched over by the island's new president, Joseph Kabui, and Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare.

A dawn flag-raising service launched celebrations before a 40-seat assembly met for the first time.

The island's new blue flag, featuring a traditional red Upe headdress, was raised by Bougainville police officers in the northern town of Buka.

School children sang the new Bougainville anthem and Kabui called for a few moments silence out of respect for the more than 10,000 people who died during the Bougainville conflict.

The recent election on the island of around 180,000 people was a key step in the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement, which ended years of bloody secessionist conflict.

Wide autonomous powers have been granted to the Bougainville government and a referendum on whether it will become independent from Papua New Guinea will be held in 10 to 15 years.

Kabui told dignitaries a new political baby had been born.

He thanked PNG, Australia, New Zealand, other Pacific Island nations, the United Nations and Commonwealth Secretariat for their support.

"Today is a proud moment," Kabui said. "It is an important milestone in the political walkabout of Bougainville."

Sir Michael was the guest of honour at the main inauguration ceremony conducted on a rain-sodden school playing field in tropical heat.

He uncomplainingly trod in sandals through mud to inspect a Bougainville police contingent which later marched past an official stand where he and Mr Kabui stood side by side in review.

Children ran onto the field displaying giant Bougainville flags before Chief Justice Mari Kapi swore in Kabui and the assembly members.

In a speech, Sir Michael congratulated Mr Kabui and the newly-elected members.

He urged Bougainvilleans to get behind the president and new government as one people.

He also announced a K10 million establishment grant and said the national government would honour its promises made under the peace agreement.

Somare also said secessionist leader Francis Ona should join with the new political process to help advance Bougainville rather than stay aloof.

Ona, one of the instigators of the Bougainville conflict and self-declared king of the island, opposed the election but did not try to disrupt it.

Mr Kabui said the assembly had unanimously agreed to the formation of a grand coalition government, which would tackle issues like HIV/AIDS, employment for ex-combatants and ongoing weapons disposal.

He said for much of the 1990s, Bougainville was known as the place where the worst conflict in the Pacific since World War II was taking place.

"But since 1997, Bougainville has become better known as the place where one of the world's most successful and unusual peace processes has been taking place," he said.

Mr Kabui won the presidency by a large margin over his nearest rival, former Bougainville governor John Momis who plans to legally challenge the result, alleging irregularities and intimidation.

The position of speaker has been offered to Mr Momis. But he politely declined though it was hoped his leadership experience could be put to use in something like a proposed peace studies centre, Mr Kabui said.

Those who attended yesterday's ceremony were senior PNG government ministers, the Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners to PNG, Michael Potts and Laurie Markes, other regional diplomats and UN representatives.

June 16, 2005

The National: www.thenational.com.pg/

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