Issue 180: 2018 11 29: Island Strife

29 November 2018

Island Strife

Trouble with the natives.

By Neil Tidmarsh

“Safety pins, scissors, a football, a new religion, and a sneezeful of previously unencountered microbes which could wipe out your entire community.”   You’ve got all these on your Christmas present list, right?  No, I thought not.  Me neither.

Poor John Chau.  No wonder the Sentinel islanders didn’t welcome him as if he was Father Christmas.  He could have wrapped all his gifts up – safety pins, scissors, football, bacteria, the lot – in Christmas wrapping paper but it wouldn’t have made any difference.  It was never going to end well, was it, that encounter between a typical “Anywhere” (a globe-trotting missionary with US citizenship, a Chinese surname, a self-proclaimed East Asian/Irish/African/Native American heritage and dangerously naive universalist ideals) and the ultimate “Somewhere” (a remote, indigenous, reclusive and hostile stone-age tribe)?

Was it also an equally archetypical conflict between Globalisation (with its strange yet characteristic partnership of base materialism and high-minded self-righteousness) and Localism?  Perhaps – except Globalisation didn’t come out on top here.  It needed a better sack of goodies.  John Chau should have listened to Brasil’s president-elect Jair ‘Messiah’ Bolsonaro and instead loaded his canoe with the “electricity, television, blonde girlfriends and the internet” which Mr Bolsonaro insists are what indigenous tribes really want.  God help the Sentinelese if that lot is ever shipped out to them.

John Chau wasn’t the only one having problems with troublesome islanders this week.  Here are a number of approaches which might have worked better for him than his own “here’s a football to play with instead of your bows and arrows, and safety pins and a pair of scissors so you can hide your nakedness with some decent fig-leaf pants, and a deadly virus to send you straight to Heaven to meet God”:

Send in the riot police.  President Macron sent two squadrons of the Gendarmerie Mobile to the French Indian Ocean island of La Réunion when protests against his diesel tax and fuel prices turned violent there.  Buildings were burnt down and shops were looted; schools, offices and businesses were closed; transport was brought to a standstill; the president of the island council called it “a situation of urban guerrilla warfare”.

Those 250 paramilitary policemen won’t be playing games when they get there – I doubt that there’s a football in their luggage – but Mr Macron’s concession to freeze the tax rises for the island seems to be just a safety-pin-and-scissors fig-leaf job, as it won’t apply to the rest of France.

Send in the navy.  For the past year, China has been increasing its military threats and tightening its economic stranglehold on the stubbornly-independent island of Taiwan.  President Xi has personally overseen Chinese naval exercises in the Taiwan straits, and Beijing has been black-balling global businesses unless they recognise its sovereignty over the island.

These efforts seem to be paying off; in elections this week, the islanders appear to have voted against increasing friction with China – the stridently-independent (and governing) Democratic Progressive Party lost ground to the (more pro-Beijing) Kuomintang party.  Since she was elected two years go, President Tsai Ing-wen’s defiance of Beijing has gone hand in hand with Beijing’s escalation of pressure against her country, but she has just stepped down as the leader of the DPP following these set-backs; so is some kind of de-escalation likely to follow?

Voters also defeated a proposal to change the name under which their athletes compete in the Olympic Games.  The new name – simply “Taiwan” – was rejected, presumably because its implication of independence was considered to be too provocative, so their team will continue to compete as “Chinese Taipei” – a name inoffensive to Chinese ideas of sovereignty.

Send in the crocodiles.  In recent years, regional super-power Australia has had trouble with its tiny island neighbour of East Timor.  This – the world’s newest and smallest nation – inconveniently insisted on a fair share of the oil reserves under the sea off its own coast, in defiance of Australian claims.  A year ago it succeeded in drawing up a new Maritime Boundary agreement with Australia, establishing a frontier across the sea between the two countries and a more equable division of the under-sea resources.

But now a new danger from its powerful neighbour threatens Timor – crocodile attack.  Ten years ago, the East Timorese suffered less than one crocodile attack a year – just recently that figure has risen to more than one a month.  And it seems that invaders from Australia are responsible.  The island of Timor’s local crocodile population is small in size and small in numbers, but it has been swollen by a mass invasion by the bigger Australian salt-water crocodile (a male can grow up to 17 feet long).

The salt-water crocodile has been a protected species in Australia since the 1970’s.  In recent years the population has exploded, and competition for food and territory has sent their surplus numbers swimming north across almost 400 miles of open sea to East Timor, much to the horror of the fishermen there who now risk life and limb as they go about their daily work.

Haven’t the crocs heard that there’s a new maritime boundary between the two countries?  The UN (which oversaw the resolution of the territorial dispute between Australia and Timor-Lest) must do something to make these Aussie monsters respect the agreement.

Send for Barnier and May. There’s a rain-soaked, mist-wreathed island lying in the Atlantic off the mainland of Europe which has been giving its continental neighbours a lot of trouble recently…  But we’re not going to get into that here and now, are we?  Let’s leave it to my colleagues who report on that business week by week elsewhere in the Shaw Sheet – they’ll tell you all about the most recent developments.  If you really want to know, that is.


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