- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2010

REIDS FLAT, Australia | The Empire of Atlantium’s imperial botanical gardens consist of one bush. Capital Hill is, quite simply, a hill. Government House is a 320-square-foot steel-sided affair, boasting bunk beds and an art deco radio. (“Modest,” His Imperial Majesty George II says, “in keeping with the emperor.”)

His Majesty raises the flag of Atlantium, its orange, blue and yellow meant to represent the dawn sky. “Behold the future,” he bellows, gesturing to the surrounding valley that makes up his 188-acre empire, where just over the hill with the dead tree you’ll find the Australian border.

He’s grinning, but he’s serious. Just like most of the other few-hundred-or-so citizens of the world who have founded their own micronations - quirky self-declared countries that claim independence, even if no international body recognizes them.

Some boast their own currencies, constitutions, stamps and visas. Many exist solely in the minds of their makers; others range from a London apartment, to a patch of Outback farmland, to a rusty military base in the North Sea. They are created out of frustration with the establishment, or to prove a political point, or to just get a few laughs.

Technology has brought them out of isolation, with the Internet transforming some nations of one into global communities of thousands. Last month, a Sydney university sponsored a micronations conference, the first of its kind in Australia, a hotbed of DIY countries. Travel guru Lonely Planet has even published a guidebook - “Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations.”

These self-appointed rulers fit no universal definition, and really, that’s the point. In a world where people are often defined by their countries, these are countries defined by their people.

For some micronationalists, it’s about taking their identity back from the state, for others it’s about righting a perceived wrong. At the heart of the movement, though, is modern individualism, says sociologist Judy Lattas.

“It’s always possible to do things differently and to do it yourself - and that’s what I think is the pleasure of it and the wonder of it,” Ms. Lattas says. “There’s pleasure in the daring of doing it yourself.”

Princess Susan of the Principality of Wy reaches out to adjust the bejeweled golden crown resting on the head of her husband, Prince Paul. In her other hand, she clutches the staff of Wy - a green rubber snake wrapped around a bamboo pole, topped with a stuffed eagle.

The princess’s lips are quivering with a barely contained smile. The community hall, full of micronationalists who have convened for a conference on tiny Dangar Island, 37 miles north of Sydney, is buzzing with laughter. The room is adorned with flags, coins and literature from places called Snake Hill and Hutt River, and a man kneeling in the corner warbles a mournful tune on a Japanese bamboo flute.

Swathed in a royal robe, Prince Paul (aka Paul Delprat, a 68-year-old art school principal) is delivering a history of Wy that is pure theater - a little Monty Python, a lot funny. (Do you pay rates to the local council? he is asked. “We give a ‘gift’ every year,” he responds.) Humor has been his weapon in a 17-year battle for council approval to build a driveway to his home.

In 2004, after years of bureaucratic bickering, Mr. Delprat informed Sydney’s Mosman council he was seceding, formed the Principality of Wy and declared himself ruler. His wife, children and two rabbits comprise the rest of Wy’s population.

He’s still waiting for that driveway. But Wy has proved cathartic, he says. It’s a way to express himself and ease the pain while having fun.

“With equal measures of courage and humor, the citizen of the world is armed against adversity,” he says. “You can’t fight humor.”

Like most government officials viewing micronations from the outside, Mosman’s mayor is dismissive. “I look at it with a degree of wry amusement,” Anne Connon says. “But it’s not of any great importance.”

Mr. Delprat’s case is typical of many micronations. Often, it starts with a feeling that one has been wronged, says Macquarie University’s Ms. Lattas, who helped organize the conference.

“And then,” she says, “it morphs into a political movement.”

Case in point: Prince Leonard (formerly known as Leonard Casley) of the Principality of Hutt River, Australia’s first micronation, which celebrated its 40th anniversary on April 21.

In the 1960s, the farmer became embroiled in a dispute with the state government over restrictions on his wheat quota. When his arguments went unheeded, he decided to secede and create a country with a government that would listen - because he would govern it himself.

His 29-square-mile plot of farmland in Western Australia has grown into a tourist attraction, boasting a bust of the prince, a national anthem and passports. Australia largely ignores him, including the time in 1977 when he declared war against his Down Under neighbor. (Receiving no response, the prince ordered a cessation of hostilities a few days later.)

It’s all done with a wink, acknowledges William Pitt, author of a book on Hutt River, “An Australian Monarch.” But Mr. Pitt insists the prince is serious - and perfectly sane.

“Politics is theater anyway,” Mr. Pitt says. “Not just with micronations.”

The popularity of Hutt River may explain why Australia has such a high concentration of micronations - most micronation analysts count at least two dozen. Others theorize the country’s convict roots and subsequent distrust of authority play a role.

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