PACIFIC'S "COCONUT WIRELESS" GOING ON-LINE, AND RADICAL

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By Michael J. Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (August 7, 1997 Agence France Presse)---It used to be known as "the coconut wireless," the gracious and mysterious way news, gossip and rumor swept along the South Pacific's trade-winds. Now it's giving way to a cyclone called the Internet.

Most dramatically affected is the fiefdom of Tongan King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV who has both a son cashing in on the Internet and subjects making distinctly rebellious remarks in cyberspace.

And this week tiny, remote Bikini Atoll became one of the World Wide Web's top hits.

Tonga is engaged in an intense debate as commoners seek to remove some of the king's near absolute powers. Its all seen on the "Pacific Kavabowl" http://pacificforum.com/kavabowl run from a server in Indiana in the United States.

It builds on the concept of kava drinking, the mildly narcotic drink most Pacific Island cultures have ritualized to some degree. Paradoxically one of the latest debates on the web has revolved around kava itself and the faikava drinking sessions.

A woman posted a message saying faikava was destroying families and provoked an outburst of angry replies. Kava drinking, its defenders say, was important for male bonding and part of the courtship process.

One woman wrote that "all to often I see the fathers leaving their wives and children at home while he sits beside the tou'a (woman who mixes kava)....

"I often hear stories of the types of conversation that take place at these faikavas and roll my eyes in disgust."

She said kava should be drunk at proper times and not simply because there was nothing better to do.

Another person proposed a scale to define kava abuse, ending with the term "soon to be dead addict" for somebody who drank if four times or more a week.

"I'm not kidding about the dead part. My uncle drank himself to death, his heart couldn't take any more and just died on him in the middle of a kava party."

The spread of the pro-democracy movement owes a lot of its success to faikava discussion.

The heady political stuff is there including this week a debate over an unthinkable event in Tonga. Three men painted a graffiti message on the outside of the Royal Palace. It said "Suka Baby loves Tahi Lahi" several times. The accuracy of the Kavabowl's reports on the subsequent court case cannot be vouched for, but it clearly has the Kingdom agog.

Crown Prince Tupouto'a, using his Kingdom's San Francisco consul, has set up a company to market Tonga's Internet domain name -- .to -- which has proven attractive to companies looking for easy names.

Pacific Kavabowl is the inspiration of Taholo Kami, a Tongan who arrived at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in 1994 and found the Internet was useful for rugby news.

"Unfortunately there was very little Pacific Island content and very few Pacific Islanders on line at that time," he said in an E-mail.

So he started his own Web page.

"This was the first message board for Pacific islanders on the web and was an instant success."

He says the kind of information varies greatly from birthday announcements through to often angry exchanges over Christianity.

"I have been hailed as hero one moment and vigorously accused of spying for the Tongan Royal family the next," Kami says.

He now works with the United Nations in New York coordinating Internet networking projects for the island countries world wide.

Kavabowl has now spurned off discussion panels for Melanesians, Fijians and Niueans while Samoans have had their own exchange, Poly Cafe, except it has been off line for months now.

Meanwhile in the Marshall Islands Bikini Atoll, a word synonymous with nuclear tests and bathing suits, is marketing its islands as a Mecca for scuba divers on the net.

Bikini Atoll's web site on the Internet (www.bikiniatoll.com) was recognized this week for being in the top five percent of thousands of sites reviewed by Lycos, an Internet service that rates pages on the World Wide Web.

"I'm stoked," said Bikini liaison agent Jack Niedenthal, who has developed the web site. "The Lycos Top Five Percent is considered a benchmark of whether or not you have a good web site. It's recognition for doing a lot of hard work."

 

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