Friday, January 27, 2017

Exploitation of Cocos (Keeling) Islands

by John

I lived on West Island, one of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean back in the mid-90s.

I wrote a long sequence of poems on the islands (collected in Lightning Tree, with some of those poems included in my recent Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems 1980-2015), and also a novel Post-Colonial.

I have maintained an interest in the islands and follow any news relating to them. I was thus astonished and appalled to see the Premier of Western Australia's latest statement of cultural insensitivity, ignorance, and grotesque exploitation.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands have a fraught colonial history, and the Cocos-Malay people who live on Home Island have a cultural life that extends back to the first half of the nineteenth century (and obviously beyond that to their places of heritage). They were horrendously exploited by white colonial overlords (starting with Alexander Hare and his harem slaves, and his conflict with the Scotsman John Clunies-Ross and his family who arrived in 1827), right through to the late 1970s.

As indentured labourers who were paid in tokens ('Cocos Rupee') only usable at the islands' store, the Cocos-Malay people have the right to self-determination even if they opted to go with Australian citizenship during the 1983 referendum on self-determination.

The mid-twentieth century John Clunies-Ross (the family ruled across two centuries) sold the islands to Australia — forced to do so by the Australian government due to the overtly colonial exploitation model under which the islands were being ruled, though the islands had technically been under Australian administrations since the 1950s — back in the 1970s. Yes, sold.

That West Island is an extension of Australia is arguable in some ways (though I'd refute this as well); it is certainly not a playground for the Colin-Barnett-leisurists.

Barnett's insensitive implication that Bali exists as a tropical paradise for 'Westerners' (specifically the Western Australian versions) to play out their fantasies is obscene. Western tourism's impact on Balinese cultural and day-to-day life has been immense and very often negative. All the economic-rationalist arguments in the world won't offset the abuse that is 'Kuta Beach', that is the mockery of spirituality on the island.

The Home Islanders of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are of Sunni Islamic faith, and they have been so long before they were 'purchased' by Australia. The religious bigotry that has embroiled Australia in the hatefest that has led to so many Muslims in Australia being targeted by right-wing 'patriots' is shown for its absurdity in the fact of the Cocos Islands having been Muslim (and to some extent animist) long before there was even a Commonwealth of Australia.

In fact, Cocos-Malay culture is complex and diverse, and people of many different geographical and ethnic origins came together as 'Cocos-Malays',  and though the people only number in the hundreds (on the islands; many other Coco-Malays have emigrated elsewhere in Australia and Malaysia), a Cocos-Malay language has essentially become its own language, and aspects of island culture belong only to those islands.

I don't doubt that some Cocos-Malays, and probably quite a few non-Cocos Malays running businesses on West Island, would welcome this message of development, but I personally know many Cocos-Malays wouldn't. There's a difference between having interested visitors and making a massive exploitative assault on culture and rights that comes with isolated places being turned into the playgrounds of holidaymakers looking for pleasure, leisure, and a beach party. Sensitivity and respect are the key in this.

My novel Post-Colonial was actually an attempt to articulate an independence movement under difficult economic conditions. It follows a character who has gone to the islands to experience oral cultural histories, while wrestling with his own demons of addiction and disillusionment with Western life.

I send my best to those people on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands who need to know that some people on the 'mainland' actually do care that their cultural identities and 'ways of life' are respected. Here is my poem to Mr Colin Barnett and other would-be exploiters:

Graphology Endgame 15: Cocos Islands Party Plan

‘Just think about it — our own tropical paradise. An alternative to Bali.’
            Colin Barnett, Premier of Western Australia

The Premier of Western Australia
wants to (re)turn the Cocos Islands

(in)to a colonial playground. Sensitivity
swirls about his corporate state

of excitement. Like a cyclone. Shattering coral,
threatening homes with breezy annihilation. 

Those small risings of land made so slowly —
particle by particle — way out

in the Indian Ocean, carrying a legacy
he will never translate, hearing only English.

This threat to the spirits that simmer
in the lagoon, drift through coconut palms,

scuttle over the sand dunes of South Island.
The Big White is sailing back in with the tide.

The Big House is rising again. Small sailing
craft are becoming quaint. Ghosts indentured.

Drinkers at The Club on West Island are charging
their glasses. Prospects of a fire sale?

Can he possibly know that Hari Raya doesn’t
imbibe his eternal beach-party movie,

his piss-up for patriots
with palm-heart daiquiris?

            John Kinsella

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