The two-week Festival of the Pacific Arts concluded with a big political statement— “Decolonize Oceania”— written on a huge banner carried by the Guam delegates at the closing ceremony on June 4. The “decolonization” theme was ubiquitous in the arts and statements from the delegates throughout the festival on Guam — in perfect sync with the keynote set by Gov. Eddie Calvo in hisState of the Island addressdelivered in March.
“It’s time we confronted the fact that, for nearly 400 years, the state of the island has been colonial. It is the unchanged and unrepentant shadow cast upon our unshackled destiny,” Calvo said.
At the opening of FestPac, Calvo underscored the common juncture that Guam shares with many islands in the Pacific. “These are places that either struggle with their colonial status just as we do, or already overcame their struggle,” the governor said. “We can learn a lot from them. They can help us, and we welcome that.”
It has been more than half a century since the United Nations called for independence for all remaining colonies in the 21st century, yet 17 territories around the world are still ruled by foreign powers— missing the organization’s 2010 home-rule deadline. The target year marked the 50th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples on Dec. 14, 1960. Despite the recurrent movement for self-determination, colonies have been slow in defining their futures. At times, the quest for home-rule proved regressive, as in the case of Norfolk Island, whose Legislative Assembly was abolished on June 17, 2015. The parliament’s abolition spelled the end of the island’s limited autonomy granted by Australia in 1979 by virtue of the Norfolk Island Act.
Australia’s decision to revoke Norfolk Island’s self-governance was based on the commonwealth’s perception that the island had never gained self-sufficiency and remained heavily reliant on subsidies. With a population of close to 1,800, Norfolk Island received $12.5 million in commonwealth subsidy in 2015 alone.
The territory was scheduled to be absorbed into the state of New South Wales on July 1, but the change in its legal status is currently on hold due to aggressive opposition from the Norfolk Island People for Democracy group, which has appealed to the United Nations to declare the island a non-self governing territory.
In New Caledonia, the goal to sever from France will be decided in a self-determination referendum scheduled in 2018. But the French colony is grappling with the same polarizing issues that are familiar to Guam. One is related to the vexed question of who should be eligible to vote. The 1998 Noumea Accord restricts voting in provincial elections to residents before 1988 to preserve the rights of indigenous and long-term white settlers. The voting eligibility is later extended to residents before 1994.
The independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste has long demanded exclusive voting rights to indigenous Kanaks, who have become a minority in their own country by generations of settler migration. On the other hand, most New Caledonian citizens of European, Asian and Polynesian descent, as well as newcomers from France, seek to get involved in the process of defining the future of the island, hence their objection to restricted voting.
New Caledonians also have divergent opinions on the island’s future political status. The pro-France group rejects independence. Another group proposed the idea of a new Accord that would postpone the vote yet again. Earlier this year, a committee tasked to chart the future of Caledonia met to clarify the statutory implications of the status options: independence, some form of association with France, and continued integration.
Self-rule movements proved more difficult for tiny territories, such as the Eastern Islands which is populated by the indigenous group Rapa Nui. A special territory of Chile, Easter Islands was annexed in 1888 and, administratively, under the jurisdiction of the Valparaiso region. According to Al Jazeera’s report in March, the government of Chile vowed to commit to a four-year, $60million-development plan for the island, whose economy is driven by tourism. “But among the Rapa Nui people, calls for independence are growing louder and protests in the past year have turned bitter and violent,” Al Jazeera reported.
The movement’s goal is for Easter Island to be added to the UN’s list of “non self-governing territories, which would compel Chile to bring self-rule to the island.
But Hetuu Rapu, a delegate to FestPac, claimed the movement was spearheaded "a small group of radicals who believe we should attain independence.” With a population of 5,000 Rapu said, “it would be difficult to sustain a population independent from Chile and rely on our island.”
Although many islands in Oceania remain under colonial rule, the UN’s list for nonself-governing territories in Indian and Pacific Ocean only include Guam, American Samoa, Virgin Island, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Pitcairn and Tokelau.
For an even smaller island such as Tokelau, residents consider the status quo as a convenient option. Tokelau is on the UN’s list of territories, where greater independence in highly endorsed. However, Tokelauans have now voted twice, first in 2006 and again in 2007, to retain their colonial status rather than achieve autonomy from New Zealand.
With a population of 1,500, the 10-sq.km territory covers three tropical coral atolls— Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo.
“We live a simple life. We eat and use what nature provides. But we have running water now,” Falaniko Aloisio, a Tokelauan craftsman, said during an earlier interview. “There are no private enterprises in Tokelau. Everything is provided by the government. Education, healthcare and housing are free. Here are government projects, where every able man can work. Right now, we are building seawalls. Some help other people build them houses.”
Palau, a former trust territory of the U.S., is one success story. It signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1982. After eight referenda and an amendment to the Palau constitution, Palauans ratified the Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1993.
Moses Uludong, a traditional chief and publisher of the local newspaper Tia Belau, recalled that most Palauans decided they no longer wanted to live under foreign rule. “Palauan people have their culture, tradition, customs, identity as a separate people for thousands of years and we desire to live our lives the way we want and do not want to live under foreigners and their government,” he said.
Uludong said achieving independence didn’t come easy but Palauans strongly envisioned a nation that governs itself. A movement called Tia Beluad (This is Country) was formed by young Palauans in their 20s, calling for sovereignty, independence and preservation of culture and environment. “We organized students, workers and people at village level,” said Uludong, who was then a student and part of the movement. “The movement drafted a declaration and convinced leaders to support it.”
After many years of struggle with a referendum on self-rule, which begun as early as the 1960s, and eight referenda on the Compact, Palau finally reached an agreement with US to .achieve independence in 1994.
Under the Compact, Palau can actively participate in all Office of Insular Affairs technical assistance activities. The U.S. treats these countries uniquely by giving them access to many U.S. domestic programs. Most citizens of the associated states may live and work in the United States, and most U.S. citizens and their spouses may live and work in the associated states.
Palau also gets a financial package to help fund its government activities. Under the Compact, Palau gets $13 million a year from the U.S. The Compact meanwhile allows the United States to operate armed forces in Compact areas, “to demand land for operating bases (subject to negotiation), and excludes the militaries of other countries without U.S. permission.”
“It was all worth it,” Uludong said. “We regained our sovereignty, independence, and dignity as a people and we now control our destiny.”
What can Guam learn from Palau? “Our brothers and sisters in Guam need to look into themselves and find and determine who they are and their culture and identity and then decide what status they want,” Uludong said. “If independence, they need to convince majority of their people and to negotiate with US for a change of their status from a territory to an independent nation.”
Uludong suggested that because US is a superpower, "Guam can concede the use of their lands for military purposes for a certain period with option for extension in exchange for allowing Guam to have independence, a limited one with authority all internal matters and foreign affairs except military defense."
On Guam, lawmakers and policy-makers have been attempting to schedule a political status vote as early as 1970. Voters are to choose among three options: independence, statehood and free association. The last plebiscite schedule was proposed in 2004. Again, nothing came of it. As in the case of New Caledonia, the process has been hindered by the controversy involving a local law requiring the election commission to the 70 percent "native inhabitants" registration to proceed with the self-determination plebiscite.
Under Guam’s plebiscite law, the self-determination exercise is restricted to "native inhabitants," defined as “those who became U.S. citizens by virtue of the 1950 Organic Act and their blood descendants.” This is the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by Guam resident Dave Davis, a “non-native inhabitant” who is challenging the constitutionality of the 70 percent threshold requirement as it excludes voters who don’t fall in the category.
“I have long urged for our community to exercise our right to self-determination, and I worked with the Office of Insular Affairs to provide $300,000 in federal assistance earlier this year to educate the public about our status options,” said Madeleine Bordallo, Guam’s delegate to Congress. “It is important for our community to resolve this issue and decide for ourselves how we want to be affiliated with the United States and recognized in the world.”
As Guam’s representative in Congress, Bordallo said she believes “it is up to the people of Guam to decide what option is best for our island, and I will support the decision that is made when we vote on this matter.”
Like other colonies, Guam has an apparent love-hate relationship with its colonial power. While the island— which hosts the largest number of troops in the Pacific — serves the nation’s security interests and sends a large number of local soldiers to the armed forces service, its residents are not allowed to participate in national elections and its lone delegate to Congress has no voting rights. Guam’s endless fight for equal treatment is also a constant reminder of its neocolonial status.
“Self-determination isn’t about loving or hating the United States,” Calvo said in his State of the Island address. “It’s about our right to be part of something, or to be on our own. It’s a choice that was taken from us with the blood of this great man and all those who died so that we could choose.”