David Whitley marvels at the Melekeok’s Capitol building, and learns about how the world works in one of its lesser known corners




There appears to be no-one around. We poke our heads through the door, see no sign of life and decide to walk in anyway. It’s fair to say that you’d not be able to do this in many countries; we’ve slipped inside the corridors of power.


Palau’s Capitol building is one of the most gloriously ludicrous constructions to have ever graced the planet. It sits in an imperious position, high on a hilltop and visible from miles around. From the deserted beaches and other vantage points around the island, it has a fitting grandeur. Up close, it is incredibly silly. It’s like the US Capitol building has been transported from Washington DC, shrunk a little and been plonked in the middle of the jungle.


“It’s far too big,” admits our guide. Palau has a population of just over 20,000; a medium-sized room would realistically do the job for the legislative assembly. But the original plans for a Capitol building based on a traditional bai – a meeting place for village chiefs – were apparently abandoned in favour of a Washington replica kit, albeit with big lizards carved all over the walls. As with many such things in tiny nations, there is labyrinthine story behind it.


The Capitol building is located in Melekeok state on the island of Babeldaob. It’s by far the biggest island in Palau, but the majority of the population lives on Koror. That Koror is not Palau’s capital ‘city’ would appear to defy sanity, but it’s all about the politics.


Palau became independent in 1994. It was a United Nations protectorate before that, although to all intents and purposes a surrogate of the US. The obvious solution was to become part of the Federated States of Micronesia, but Palau had more natural resources and a smaller population. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the Palauans would get a raw deal under federation, so full independence was the chosen answer.


As the terms of independence were being nutted out, it was decided that efforts would be made to spread the population rather than crowd everyone into Koror. Melekeok was chosen as the capital-elect, partly because one of the two major clan chiefs in the country was from Melekeok, and partly because he was willing to donate a large chunk of his family’s land to put the executive, legislative and judiciary HQs on.


The aim was to get people moving to Babeldaob, but it’s not been a rip-roaring success so far. Our guide estimates that Melekeok has a voting population of around 150, and only about 100 of them actually live there. ‘There’ being a seaside hamlet that’s good couple of miles trek down the hill from the lonesome Capitol building.


Enter Taiwan. We’re told that the whole government complex, of which the Capitol is the pompous centrepiece, cost around US$50m. That’s about US$2,200 for every citizen. But Taiwan generously stumped up ultra-low interest loans to fund it.


Go to any small nation around the world and you’ll find any number of costly development projects being funded by either China or Taiwan. This is nothing to do with altruism, and everything to do with buying up resources/ inroads for future business opportunities (China) or gaining influence on a world stage (Taiwan). Taiwan doesn’t have a seat at the UN, and isn’t recognised by most countries, so it lavishes money on those proxies that will do its bidding when relevant votes are required. Palau is one of the few countries to have a Taiwanese embassy on its soil, and an awful lot of infrastructure projects seem to have Taiwanese funding.


According to our guide, Taiwan builds the roads, the EU builds the solar panels and Japan builds the schools. Is the Japanese investment a World War II guilt thing? Possibly, but it’ll be interesting to see where the money goes after Palau took the bold decision to stop voting with Japan at the International Whaling Commission in 2010.


None of this should be seen as an indication of iffy banana republic status, however. You’d struggle to find a more stable place in the world. One dive shop owner I spoke to seemed very keen to stress how scrupulously clean and broadly corruption-free the country is. He said that, in 18 years of running a business here, he’d never been approached by any official regarding something untoward (ie. great big stonking bribes).


Pointing to Palau as an example of an easily corruptable state would thus be monumentally unfair. Sometimes, however, the smallest kid in the playground has to do what the bigger kids want. For example, in 1979, Palau wrote up the world’s first nuclear-free constitution. But the price of independence was abandoning it. The US wanted the option to be able to move its ships through Palauan waters; and ditching the nuclear-free part of the constitution was the sticking point for treaties, recognition and aid packages. 

It’s amazing what you can learn about the world by asking a few questions in one of the most obscure corners of it.