Cocos Islands' 'swashbuckling' era about to close

Within the next three months, on a date still to be fixed, the world's smallest act of self-determination is expected to take place in the Cocos Islands.

About 170 Cocos Island adults - out of a total population of 370 - will decide whether their homeland will become the globe's tiniest independent nation , opt for semi-independence in the guise of free association with Australia, or be incorporated into Australia.

Parson Bin Yapat, chairman of the Cocos Islands Council, says his people merely wish to ''manage our own affairs. If so, we can feel a sense of pride, as do people everywhere.''

Most analysts expect the islanders to choose the third option.

The most likely result, then, is that the Cocos Islands will legally become part of the Australian Capital Territory, a federally ruled piece of land on which the Australian capital, Canberra is situated, and which is not part of any individual Australian state.

The United Nations-supervised decolonization procedure, supported by Australia, is expected to end a long history of outside dominance of the islands.

The coconut-covered Cocos Islands are one of the world's more remote settlements. Located 2,768 kilometers (1,719 miles) west of Perth, Western Australia, these settlements include Home Island, where the Cocos Islanders live , and West Island, where Australian administrators, a quarantine station, and a meteorological outpost are quartered.

The islands were British territory until 1955. (In 1945 they were designated a dependency of Singapore, which had not yet won its independence from Britain.) Then, in 1955, Britain transferred authority over the islands to Australia.

In practice, however, the islands remained under the day-to-day rule of the paternalistic Clunies-Ross family, which Britain had allowed to operate coconut plantations there.

In the 1800s the Clunies-Ross family imported Malay workers for their plantation on the previously uninhabited islands.

Those now living on the islands are slightly outnumbered by islanders who have emigrated to Australia, many of whom fled domination by the Clunies-Ross family.

In reaction to world criticism of conditions on the islands, Australia bought the Clunies-Ross land in 1978, allowing John Clunies-Ross - the present head of the family - to keep his house and right of residence. The land was then donated to a cooperative of local plantation workers.

When they worked for John Clunies-Ross, whom Australian headline writers dubbed ''king of the Cocos,'' islanders were paid in plastic tokens that could be spent only at the company store. Islanders who left were not allowed to return.

Now the residents of the atolls want Mr. Clunies-Ross - a swashbuckling figure who has been photographed with a knife in his belt, and rolled-up long trousers, and bare feet - to leave the islands. They fear he will still have power over them through his commercial influence in the copra (coconut) trade.

But Clunies-Ross has taken the Australian government to court over its plans to buy his large white brick house. He argues that the government's plan is ''unjust and a denial of human rights.''

Mr. Clunies-Ross has business interests in Asia, Europe, and Australia. The islands are valuable to him as a tax-free base for some of his companies.

Australian officials say health and education facilities have improved since the toppling of the Clunies-Ross dynasty.They add that, while many islanders prefer to live in Australia, others want to continue their present-day occupations of small-scale coconut harvesting.

In the long term, the islands could become a resort. But for now, the Cocos Islands are too remote.

There is no commercial air service to the islands and their only air link is a twice-monthly charter flight run by the Australian government.

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