A TRADITIONAL Micronesian steam bath for a woman about to give birth will open today two days of ceremonies marking the independence of the Republic of Palau, a tiny northern Pacific island-state with a population of 15,000.
The ceremonies end the last United Nations trusteeship - the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands - and more than a decade of nominal self-government overseen by the US Department of Interior. While Palau's neighbors - the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands - achieved independence in 1986, and the Northern Marianas chose to become a Commonwealth of the United States, Palauans have engaged in an internal struggle over their status since 1981.
At the heart of that struggle has been the issue of changing Palau's antinuclear Constitution, which prohibits the use and transit of nuclear materials, to allow for a ``Compact of Free Association'' with the US. Under the Compact, the US will provide massive financial aid to Palau in exchange for ``strategic denial,'' which gives the US sole jurisdiction over Palau's defense.
Palau has strategic importance for the US because it allows the US Navy free passage through the northern Pacific region. The internal conflict became so intense that it often deteriorated into episodes of violence. It took eight plebiscites to modify the Constitution, which finally occurred last November.
While Micronesia and the Marshall Islands have similar treaties, the Palau deal is far more generous: $50 billion over 150 years. In the first year alone, Palau will receive $200 million - a huge figure considering last year's budget of $34 million.
As hundreds of diplomats and businessmen from neighboring nations cram into the capital, the mood here is one of public excitement mixed with private apprehension.
``I'm worried whether the habits of mind born of 40 years of dependency on the US will be adequate for independence,'' says Johnson Toribiong, an attorney and 1992 presidential candidate. ``I'm worried about the ability of our leaders to use the Compact funds wisely. They have four-year perspectives, but the Compact requires a 50-year perspective. Still, I'm optimistic.''