23 AUGUST 1975, Page 4

The Banabans

From the Rev 'rebuke Rotten Sir: I do not know whether Banaba will be the 'mini-est state' of all when we regain our independence, but as spokesman in London for the Banaban people I should like to be permitted a few comments on what appeared in your Notebook (August 9).

Until May 1900 the Banaban people lived as their own masters on Ocean Island (Banaba). We owed allegiance to no one. A British company then discovered that our land was made of pure phosphate described by one of their directors as promising "the prospect of riches beyond the dreams of avarice."

As a result we were annexed by Britain to protect the phosphates a British company had discovered from the depredations of colonial adventurers of other nationalities. It was not long before Britain found it convenient to administer us together with another part of their Empire, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. We had had little connection with the Gilberts before the British came and knew nothing of them at the time Europeans first discovered our island. But in January 1916 we were made a district of the GEIC. The British did not canvass our view, nor did they ask our permission for this constitutional move. But now, sixty years later, sovereignty is about to pass from Britain to the Gilbertese, a people to whom we never owed allegiance before.

It was not long before our'people were regarded as no more than an obstruction for the Commissioners' excavators, so when Britain's enemies deported us in 1942 the opportunity was seized to resettle us elsewhere while our homeland was dug away to fertilise at our expense the pastures of Australia and New Zealand, a fact which both these Governments today courageously accept.

. The unique situation of our people, living in Fiji but determined to return to Ocean Island where alone our race can regain its independence and retain the cuStoms and traditions in which it takes pride, is a purely colonial creation. On Rabi Island in Fiji we have worked hard for thirty years to create a home from a run-down plantation lacking all essential infrastructure. We have made progress and have enjoyed much help, encouragement and friendship from the Fijian people and from the sovereign Government of Fiji. But it is Ocean Island, on which we lived as an independent people within our community's living memory where our future as a distinct culture and people must lie. This is -the only answer to a colonial entanglement for which none of our island peoples was responsible.

After long, wearying and frustrating years of negotiations with the British government, we are driven to appeal to World and particularly to British public opinion to help us urge the British government to unravel the web it has spun in its own interests and replace it by new links forged through discussion and agreement in the Pacific way, binding an independent Ocean Island with Fiji, the present home of most of the Banaban people. Our independence on Ocean Island would be the opposite of fragmentation: it would create a new and logical link between the peoples of the South Pacific.

Why is the British government denying us Ocean Island? As two MPs, Sir Bernard 13raine (Con) and Mr John Lee (Lab) co'ncluded7"The real reason for their present refusal to countenance a separate existence for Ocean Island is purely economic . •" This real reason was clearly illustrated by the GEIC Governor Mr John Smith when he met the UN visiting mission last August and spoke of his government's revenue from our phosphates on Ocean Island: "The policy of the Government was to increase its reserves from this source (to)$A60 million by 1978; the interest on these reserves would help balance the budget in the future."

The intention of the British, therefore, is to avoid at the expense of the Banaban people pumping sufficent funds into the Gilberts to enable them to stand economically, as well as politically, on their own feet. The remaining phosphates on Ocean Island are to be invested in the Bank so as to create a Gilbertese nation of remittance men.

Within a few years Britain will cease to be a Pacific power. The FC0 evidently have little interest in what will happen to our island. Provided the Treasury obtains an immediate and temporary cash advantage, they do not seenh concerned that Ocean Island will become a deserted, uninhabited and uninhabitable coral outcrop. Only three years of phosphates remain to be mined.

It is our wish to return to and live once again on Ocean Island. Indeed Britain solemnly undertook to guarantee our right to do this: without such an undertaking we would nevet have agreed to remain on Rabi. But to be able to resettle Ocean Island we must have the capital represented by our remaining phosphates to invest, not in a bank, but in the restoration of a fair proportion of our ravaged land. However vital it is for us to live again on Ocean Island we cannot live on a moonscape of jagged coral pinnacles.

his for Nis reason we are demanding 'immediate independence 'while there is still time to recreate a living, thriving community on Ocean Island.

Tebuhe Roton Rabi Council of Leaders, Buckingham Court, 78 Buckingham Gate, London SW1