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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (February 21, 2000 – Agence France-Presse)---Tuvalu, which thanks to the Internet has more than doubled its gross domestic product with a single check, is angrily considering becoming a republic because of "maltreatment" it received from Britain, Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana said Monday.

His comments, in an interview here with AFP, came after a weekend in which most of his country, no more than 4.5 meters (15 feet) above sea-level, was underwater thanks to 3.2 meter (11 feet) high spring tides.

He said his people had no problems with the flooding.

"We are used to it by now," he said.

A constitutional review committee was seeking the views of 11,000 people of the tiny Pacific atoll nation north of Fiji and he believed people want to dispense with Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state.

"Personally I think Tuvalu should go into a republic," he said.

He also revealed that the country's Internet dream has paid off with a US$ 20 million check this month, the first installment of a licensing deal under which Tuvalu sells its lucrative .tv (dot tv) Internet suffix. He said their Canadian partner had paid that for domain names sold during 1999 and another US$ 5 million payment for the first quarter of 2000 was due shortly.

That gives every person on Tuvalu US$ 2,272 dollars a head in a country where the subsistence based GDP per capita is around US$ 1,000 dollars and the government's annual budget seldom exceeds Aus$ 20 million (US$ 14 million).

Its single biggest previous earner was selling its telephone prefix, 688, to sex line operators which pulled in around Aus$ 2 million a year.

Two years ago Tuvalu signed a deal with a Toronto company, Information .ca.Corp., which set up The .TV Corporation to sell domain names with the dot TV suffix at US$ 1,000 a name.

Previous Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu at the time said it would make between US$ 60 million and US$ 100 million a year and make his people among the world's richest.

The dream hit a series of stutters and was believed close to collapse until the new government restructured it.

Ionatana revealed they had now banked the US$ 20 million.

"After all the fuss, its working well," he said.

"That's a lot of money."

Not a cent has been spent and it is to be invested in trust funds.

Previously the government indicated that the money, if it came in, would go into education.

Tuvalu's problems with Britain go back to the colonial era when it was half of the Gilbert and Ellice Island Colony. The Gilbertese were Micronesian and are in Kiribati, while the Tuvaluans, Polynesians, in 1975 demanded separation and eventual independence in 1978.

Ionatana, like other leaders of Tuvalu, believes Britain has subsequently been "punishing" Tuvalu for going its own way and believes it is cutting it off from any help.

A previous prime minister, Kumuta Latasi, struck the Union Jack off its flag.

"In spite of the fact we still have the Westminister system of government and retain the queen as our queen, nobody cares about us," Latasi said at the time. "There is no point in having the Union Jack on our flag, nobody cares."

Ionatana said as a result of a motion in the 12 member Parliament a constitutional review was under way, headed by Paeniu. They are to report back to the assembly by August with republicanism on the agenda.

"This is not the main issue for them, but if the people want to discuss it I have directed that we will listen and consider it," Ionatana said.

"The people have not decided to go to a republic yet....

"I suspect a lot of people have not yet spoken out," he said, adding he believed most people wanted their own head of state.

He said the terms of the separation with the Gilberts (Kiribati) had been "very unfair" and Britain had punished Tuvaluans as a result.

Parliament, he said, had even passed a resolution calling on the government to take Britain to the International Court of Justice over the issue and its approval during World War II of the construction of a U.S. military airstrip on the main atoll of Funafuti. The runway and its associated pits continue to have a severe environmental effect on the island.

Tuvalu's ("eight together") nine atolls have a combined land area of 25.9 square kilometers (approximately 10 square miles) over 757,000 square kilometers 292,202 square miles) of ocean.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail:  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: 

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