By Joe Murphy

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News) - Islands as nations. For some reason, the two just don't seem to go together. I have been writing about the concept seemingly all my life. I have lived on islands. I have visited dozens of islands in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and elsewhere around the world.

Yet a week ago, the tiny island nation of Palau celebrated its 10th anniversary as an independent state. It may be the success story of its generation.

I wanted to express my pride in the achievement of all Palauans. It hasn't been easy. It also made me eat a little crow. I didn't think it would happen. And perhaps it may send a message to Guam and many other islands of the world.

I feel that I have a special interest in Palau, and that would be because I have a Palauan daughter-in-law and two Palauan grandchildren.

I may have even played a very minor role in helping the Palauans on their way toward independence. Many years ago, probably in the 1970s, they had one of their many elections on independence, and they asked me to be their monitor on Guam. I wound up taking boxes of ballots from Guam to Palau for counting.

The Republic of Palau (or Belau, as it is called locally) is the westernmost group of the Carolines, located southwest of Guam.

The first time I visited Palau was in the 1960s, when I flew with a group of Guamanians who were intent on starting an airline which would service Yap and Palau. Bush pilot Emmett Kaye landed us on Peleliu, which was a huge battlefield in World War II and still had the smell of death upon it. We next landed on Angaur, where we saw monkeys and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Finally, we hit Babeldaob after circling Koror to alert officials. It was an experience I will never forget. I said then, and I repeat it now: Palau is one of the most beautiful chain of islands in the world.

Palau's first contact with Westerners began several hundred years ago, when missionaries and whalers stopped or were shipwrecked there. In 1885, Pope Leo X111 asserted Spain's right over the Caroline Islands. That's how it was done in those days, without asking the people who lived on those islands. In 1899 Spain, in need of cash, sold the Carolines to Germany, which established a semblance of government there. The Germans even mined the phosphate on Angaur, the southernmost island of the archipelago. Germany suffered defeat during World War I and the islands were formally passed over to the Japanese. Koror became a sort of Japanese Bermuda for a time, and the Japanese did establish an educational system for the Palauans.

One of the fiercest battles in World War II occurred at Peleliu, as the U.S. forces island hopped, moving toward the Philippines. There still are relics of that bloody battle scattered through the islands.

After the ravages of World War II, Palau and most of the other islands in the Western Pacific became a trust territory administered by the United States under the United Nations. It was a mostly unsatisfactory, time-wasting era for Palau and the other islands.

I personally think it was the Peace Corps and their influence that gave the Palauans the idea of seeking independence. There were also a lot of talented young Palauans who were in the Congress of Micronesia who decided to go it on their own. They argued for years and pushed their advocacy across the island chain.

How can a small island chain with limited resources and a small population really become independent? What about their military? What about a postal service? Or even money?

It all came together after years of talk and more talk. The United States really wasn't after more territory. Through intensive negotiations, a reasonable solution was found. The United States provided a certain level of financial assistance and agreed to include Palau in some 40 federal programs for 15 years.

Today, the Palauans have close ties with the Chinese government on Taiwan, which has provided them with some financial assistance. So has the Japanese government. Today, Palau is one of the "hottest" tourism destinations because of its wonderful diving opportunities.

Will they survive as a republic once the U.S. financial guarantees end after the next five years? Sure. The Palauans will renegotiate.

Can other island groups achieve the same level of independence as Palau? The answer is a qualified yes, but they have to expect a lower level of economy once they get away from the major metropolitan countries.

October 18, 2004

Joe Murphy is a former editor of the Pacific Daily News.

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