Bougainville Cuts The Apron Strings

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They wore their best clothes, but the 100 Bougainvilleans who filed into Papua New Guinea's Parliament on Jan. 23 carried only modest hopes. They had waited through 13 years and six wrecked truces for last year's deal ending the secessionist rebellion on their island; then another five months while the nation's M.P.s balked at translating the deal into law. "Let us not go back to the dark days," said former rebel leader Joseph Kabui, urging politicians to stop dithering and pass two bills granting autonomy to the province.

When all 86 M.P.s present voted yes, the gallery erupted. "People were smiling and clapping and hugging each other," says peace liaison officer Kaut Kavop, one of a delegation of Bougainville leaders. On the island, where an estimated 15,000 people were killed during the 1988-98 conflict, "the people have received the news with great joy," says Arawa-based administration officer David Onavui.

The bills won't become law until March, but Kavop and his fellow delegates believe last week's vote will convince many former fighters to give up their weapons. Peace monitors have so far recovered just 144 guns; Kavop says there could be 1,000 more on the island. "There will be more trust now," says Onavui. "We can now say to people like Francis [Ona, who started the rebellion and has refused to sign the peace deal], 'You can take the politicians at their word.'"

Gun control isn't the only challenge facing the islanders, who must now set up their own civil service and courts and train their own police, teachers and health workers. "We will be running just about everything except defense," says Bougainville People's Congress spokesman Moses Havini. Eventually, perhaps, that too: the new laws promise a referendum on independence by 2016.

Autonomy will be costly. Initially, says Havini, Bougainville will support itself with taxes, grants from the P.N.G. government, and foreign aid. There are hopes that the cocoa and copra industries can be rebuilt, but the most bountiful source of funds could be the long-shut Panguna gold and copper mine, which lies in a "no-go" zone under Ona's control. Reopening it would open old wounds: it was a dispute over the mine's environmental impact that began the conflict. But "to develop Bougainville, I believe we will need to exploit our mineral resources," says Havini. An independent state, after all, needs independent means.