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Asia: Marshall Islands Constitute A Compact Of Free Association

Prague, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of autonomy versus independence may, in some cases, hinge upon strategic value. Such is the case of the Marshall Islands, which, in 1980, were offered limited independence by the United States.

The Marshall Islands, an archipelago of 2,141 islands covering 70 square miles in the central Pacific north of New Zealand, comprise 34 atolls. Discovered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, the Marshalls have withstood Spanish, German, Japanese and American conquest. In 1947, the Marshalls were included in the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under U.N. trusteeship.

The American rule in the islands was troubled by nuclear tests at Bikini and Eniwetok, during which there was a wholesale evacuation of natives to neighboring islands. Micronesian leaders also complained about the use of a huge local atoll as a missile range. Relations with Washington became increasingly tense.

On January 14, 1980, after 11 years of heated discussion, the United States proposed a pact giving limited freedom to the 115,000 islanders, but retaining military rights for at least 15 years. The natives would be autonomous in domestic and foreign affairs, except in matters relating to defense and security. In return for military rights, Washington agreed to supply economic assistance of 50 million dollars a year for the combined Trust Territories.

The projected agreement, formally called a "Compact of Free Association," was described as representing gains for both sides. The United States retained military control of an area regarded as critical for defense. At the same time, the proposal was designed to appease a budding mini-nationalism.

Restive Micronesia, for its part, was guaranteed increased political autonomy and desperately needed economic aid, but NOT full independence. President Amata Kabua of the Marshall Islands Government hailed the proposal as a "wonderful thing restoring more than anything a kind of dignity and respect, mutually speaking."

It is not likely that this kind of free association would appeal to "all-or nothing" separatists elsewhere. For Micronesians of the Marshall Islands, however, a little taste of independence appears preferable to none at all.

This is the fifth story in a five-part series on autonomy conflicts