Tuvalu votes to keep the Union flag flying in South Pacific

Suva - After a two-year absence, the Union emblem once again flies as part of Tuvalu's national flag, showing that the sun has not quite set on this tiny corner of the former British Empire.

Tuvalu's Prime Minister, Bikenibeau Paeniu, said yesterday that the Union device was restored to the flag by a 7-5 vote in parliament last week.

Former prime minister Kamuta Laatasi, who spearheaded the removal of the Union emblem from the Pacific nation's flag in 1995, bitterly opposed the turnaround. "He was very anti," Mr Paeniu said. "He believed the flag should not change. He said we're reinstating the Union Jack, but really, we are not. We are reinstating the independence flag basically as a tribute to the fathers of our nation who chose that flag in consultation with the people."

The restoration of the Union flag replaces a gaily coloured banner favoured by the Laatasi government and ends 20 months of political turmoil in the lives of Tuvalu's 9,000 Polynesian residents.

Mr Paeniu had parliament restore the design Tuvalu adopted when it gained independence from Britain in 1978 - a yellow background with the Union flag in the top lefthand corner and nine stars representing the nation's nine atolls.

In October 1995, Mr Laatasi had substituted a complex red, blue, white and yellow striped and starred flag as a step toward becoming a republic, and dropped Britain's Queen as head of state. The new flag was controversial because he had not consulted public opinion. One island, Niutao, cut it down the first time it was raised there.

Mr Paeniu, a 41-year-old economist who had lost the prime ministership to Mr Laatasi in an election three years earlier, ousted the latter last December on a 7-5 vote of no confidence in Parliament. Now the flag has been restored, and Mr Laatasi's plan for a republic has been shelved.

"Tuvalu is too young to go into all this movement, when considering the fact that Australia has been in existence for over 200 years and the republic issue is still being debated there. And we're not even 20 years old," Mr Paeniu said.

Mr Laatasi was also partly undercut by local uproar over a deal his government made to let the Asia Pacific Telecommunication company lease Tuvalu's area code to carry toll calls. This earned more than pounds 420,000 (pounds 263,000) a year for a country with a budget of less than $4m.

Then the government discovered that international telephone sex calls were being routed through Tuvalu's exchange, outraging the powerful Ecclesiastical Church.

A group of nine coral islands, Tuvalu became an independent constitutional monarchy, with Britain's reigning monarch as its head, on 1 October 1978. The capital, Funafuti, which is also the main island, is about 680 miles north of Fiji's capital, Suva.

Tuvalu's latest move means six of the 16-nation South Pacific Forum still show the Union flag. The others are Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Niue and the Cook Islands.