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Uighurs: Trouble in paradise?

Sipping guava juice under cover from a steamy tropical downpour, Tommy Remengesau Jr. says he’s always considered his Pacific island home a refuge from the troubles of the outside world.

“While the rest of the planet was in conflict, waging its wars, we remained a little piece of paradise,” the former Palauan president said as his pet fruit bat swayed upside down in a nearby cage. “Now, the world’s headaches have come home to roost in Palau.”

This isolated republic of more than 300 scattered islands, set amid a vast stretch of aquamarine ocean 4,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, had its reverie rocked last week when officials here announced that they would accept several Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Palau’s decision to offer refuge to more than a dozen ethnic Uighurs once suspected of terrorism was hailed by the Obama administration, which is eager to disperse Guantanamo detainees as part of a plan to close the notorious prison early next year.

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But the “humanitarian gesture” by Palauan President Johnson Toribiong has rattled cocktail glasses and scuba tanks across this nation of 20,000 year-round residents, a former U.S. territory whose economy is heavily dependent on eco-tourism.

With its sparkling waters, world-class diving and small-town charm, lush Palau is about as far away as you can get from the forced confines of a Guantanamo prison cell.

The republic is one of the world’s smallest nations, a little more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. Gaining its independence in 1994 from a United Nations trusteeship, it also ranks among the newest.

Its largest town and cultural center, Koror, is so low-key that its only two stoplights were switched off because people thought they weren’t needed. It’s a throwback world where chickens and stray dogs run free along the nation’s 100 miles of paved roads.

Some say island lore includes the age-old habit of nourishing the human driftwood that washes up here. Others aren’t so sure.

If the U.S. no longer considers the Uighurs a threat, why doesn’t it take them, they ask? Why dump them on some far-flung island republic with a tightknit, everyone-knows-his-neighbor culture that could soon make them feel like they were right back in prison?

As she scrubbed floor mats at a community carwash Saturday, Chandis Cooper said Toribiong was flat-out wrong to turn the Uighurs loose on Palau.

“Those men could get lost in the U.S. if they wanted -- the nation is that big -- but here on Palau, there’s nowhere for them to go,” she said. “Our police department has a hard enough time chasing down kids out past curfew. What are they going to do with a bunch of Guantanamo inmates?

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“I think the president just wants to make America happy.”

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Hero worship

The U.S. achieved hero status here after American forces fought and died to free Palau from Japanese rule in World War II. For decades afterward, Palau was a U.N. trust territory administered by U.S. officials.

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Its citizens still celebrate American Independence Day. They use their old U.S. ZIP Code (96940), and the island currency remains the greenback. Most Palauans speak English along with their melodic native tongue.

The new government center, an imposing building that’s visible for miles as it rises incongruously out of the jungle with its gleaming white dome, is modeled on the U.S. Capitol.

But all this America worship has become unhealthy, critics say. They say a compact Palau signed with the U.S. before its independence created an economic reliance on Uncle Sam.

Under the pact, Washington agreed to give Palau $20 million a year. The two recently worked on a new aid package that could exceed $200 million -- more than the gross domestic product of about $160 million. The per capita income here is less than $10,000 a year.

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State Department officials insist that the aid is not tied in any way to Palau’s agreement to accept Guantanamo detainees.

In an interview Saturday, Toribiong said no amount of aid or diplomatic arm-twisting could have influenced his decision to accept the inmates.

“This wasn’t an obligation; it was an honor,” Toribiong said as he drank a bottle of Perrier a few feet from the crashing surf. “We’re showing that we’re a partner to the U.S. in good times and in bad.

“Palau can enter the world stage as a little guy helping a big guy, a tiny island republic going to bat for a world superpower.”

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Toribiong said he initially agreed to accept 17 Uighurs but later learned that the U.S. had unexpectedly sent four to Bermuda. He now expects 13 detainees to soon arrive.

Once here, they will be put in a halfway house until homes and jobs are found for them -- the cost of their relocation covered by the U.S., Toribiong said.

He said that the arrangement was temporary and would be periodically reviewed.

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Some have doubts

The people of Palau weren’t waiting to review the arrangement.

At a Mobil gas station mini-mart in downtown Koror, a dozen residents, including mechanics and former senators, sat around white plastic tables drinking coffee and hashing out the country’s problems.

Most often the banter revolves around the occasional marijuana bust, string of burglaries or illegal shark killings.

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But recently the men have dissected the fate of the Uighur separatists from China’s Xinjiang region, a rugged landscape of snowy mountains and sweltering deserts so foreign to Micronesia that it sent many Palauans scrambling for a map.

The Uighurs now headed for Palau were captured and sent to Guantanamo in 2001 after traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for firearms training as part of their fight for independence from China.

“My question is, where are we going to put these people? Are we going to let them roam around? Are we going to put them in jail?” asked Evans Beches, a former politician. “And where was the referendum on this? Don’t people have a right to debate something so important to the future of this island?”

Staring into his coffee cup, Roman Yano saw things differently

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“Taking people like this is in our culture. Whether you’re good or bad, if you end up on this island, we will take care of you,” the former senator said. “It’s part of this island’s history.”

Although most Palauans are Christians, there are several hundred Bangladeshi Muslims on the island, and even a small mosque.

Remengesau, the former president, said he worked hard to promote sunny Palau as a tourism destination. Now, he’s worried that could be in jeopardy if the world comes to view the island as a haven for violent political outcasts.

“There’s a poster image we want the rest of the world to have of Palau,” he said. “And these people do not match that.”

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If they do eventually come, the Chinese nationals could well influence this island culture, which has a strong oral tradition featuring tales of tortoises, spiders and mermaids -- often captured on carved wooden storyboards sold in tourist shops.

“Who knows?” shop employee Priska Ngiracheliong said. “Maybe some artist will do a storyboard on these Chinese people. That way, they’ll really become part of our culture.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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