2 April 2012
SIGNA Knight - a descendant of the original Malay slaves of the Cocos Islands - was one of the majority on the remote Indian Ocean outpost who voted in a UN referendum in 1984 to integrate with Australia.
That day was a proud moment for the lifelong islander.
But the 63-year-old now fears that the government he looked to for protection and a good future for his children has struck a deal with the US to turn his quiet island home, 2750km northwest of Perth, into a busy military base.
"I am worried about Americans coming," he told The Australian. "They go to war a lot. I think if they come here, they will do what they like."
Mr Knight, who was born and bred on Cocos's Home Island, believes his people will eventually be told about plans to increase the US military presence on the isolated chain of atolls but never asked.
The Gillard government confirmed last week that it was working towards a deeper military alliance with the US, which moves a significant step forward this week when the first company of 250 marines to be based in the Top End arrive in Darwin.
The expanded US military presence in Australia is likely to include giant unmanned patrol planes that would use Cocos (Keeling) Islands as well as aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines based in Perth as part of efforts to refocus American defence resources in the region.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the Cocos Islands' airfield would require a $75 million to $100m upgrade before the territory could be used as a base for US Global Hawk drones and that the plans were a long way off.
A $28m upgrade of the Cocos airstrip is already under way, although it has nothing to do with drones and is more about much-needed repair work.
But what the US and Australian planners may not have taken into consideration so far is the present use of the land around the current airstrip as part of the island's golf course.
For 50 years, Cocos golfers have been allowed to play through the airstrip which forms part of the second hole. Space is at a premium on Cocos and, with three passenger flights and a freighter each week, the golfers can easily avoid planes. They know things would change if the tarmac became a busy military stopover.
Cocos golf club president Ashley James, who wears many hats on the island as a plant operator, tourist guide, airport security worker and marriage celebrant, led his members over the tarmac on Friday afternoon with clubs and Eskys full of beers. "We think of the tarmac as a water hazard," he said before teeing off.
The Cocos Islands became part of the British Commonwealth when in 1857 Captain Stephen Fremantle planted the Union Jack there in 1857 believing he was in the Andaman Islands.
Mr Knight was five years old when Britain handed sovereignty of Cocos to Australia in the mid-1950s. Since then he has seen the end of the island's copra industry and the end of the Clunies-Ross dynasty, which employed him as a labourer from the age of 14. In 1984, the islands voted for full integration into Australia. Today the roughly 600 residents are Australian citizens subject to Australia's laws and policy decisions.
Cocos promotes itself to tourists as "Australia's unspoilt paradise" and the laid-back lifestyle is highly valued by the workers who gravitate there from the mainland. The island's gross state product is just $15 million a year but its location is increasingly valuable.
One resident told The Australian locals sometimes felt like they were still not really wanted although obviously strategically significant. "We are like an unsinkable aircraft carrier and for some people in Canberra that is our worth," the resident said.
An Australian defence white paper says the Cocos Islands fall inside Australia's primary operational environment. "The sea-air gap to our north is at the strategic centre of our primary operational environment," the government policy paper says. "It affords us an opportunity to detect and respond to potentially hostile military incursions at sufficiently long ranges to enable an effective response before an adversary could reach Australian mainland territory and, in particular, key population centres and major infrastructure."
But in a warning for US and Australian military planners, residents have been told by a parliamentary inquiry that the potential effects of climate change will affect economic development.
On Home Island, where 80 per cent of the island's population about 400 Cocos Malays live, sandbags keep the beach in shape and the ocean at bay.
A 2009 federal report into "climate change risks to Australia's coast" singles out the Cocos Islands' 27 low-lying coral atolls as vulnerable.
"Sea-level rise will be particularly challenging for the Cocos Islands since the island elevations range from only 1m to 4m above existing sea level," the report found. "Any change in mean sea level combined with storm surge would have significant consequences for settlements and human activity."
One end of the Cocos airstrip is about 100m from the sea. "Transport infrastructure including two ports, roads, the airport, buildings and water resources are all at 'definite' risk of damage due to climate change," the report found.
Mr Knight said any developments on the island should ultimately bring senior jobs for Cocos Malays. He is proud to claim that his two children were the first born-and-bred Cocos Malays to graduate from university but is disappointed that the island's most senior jobs are held by workers from the mainland.
"Twenty eight years ago next month we voted with the UN that was for the children, their education," he said. "Things are better than before but we still have no Cocos Malay chief executive officers, not even an acting CEO."
The Cocos Malay residents became owners of a co-operative that owns some of the islands' main businesses.
"I told my children 'study, don't be lazy' or they will be like me and have
to work hard from 14 years old," he said. "I used to earn three rupee a week,
the same as one Australian dollar."