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By Giff Johnson

KWAJALEIN, Marshall Islands (January 18, 2002 – The Marshall Islands Journal)---For several years, Kwajalein landowners and the RMI government have danced around the question of what to do with Kwajalein in the negotiations with the U.S. over extension of Compact (of Free Association) funding.

Who represents the interests of the landowners has been a point of contention since President (Kessai) Note’s administration took over in January 2000 -- but it’s also an issue that dates back to the beginning of the RMI itself and the push and pull of island politics between Majuro and Kwajalein.

Questions leading the debate: How much is Kwajalein worth to the U.S.? For how long should the lease agreement be extended? Can Kwajalein get more rent, trust fund contributions, aid for Ebeye generally and the displaced Mid-Corridor population specifically? While there has been much talk about these issues, no concrete proposals have been put on the table -- until last week.

Under the gun of a tight timetable for negotiating a new funding package, the RMI fired off a proposal to the U.S. to get Kwajalein formally on the negotiating table. Foreign Minister Gerald Zackios and executive director of Compact negotiations Bobby Muller met with Kwajalein leaders on Kwajalein the week before the proposal went to U.S. Chief negotiator Al Short.

The head of the Kwajalein landowners’ organization isn’t objecting to it, but he is also saying that they’re not ready to make a commitment to the RMI proposal or a U.S. response.

Senator Chris Loeak, chairman of the recently formed Kwajalein Negotiation Commission (KNC) told the Journal: "We want a fair deal on Kwajalein, something that really helps the people." But he added, "We’re not ready for a commitment."

Loeak said that the KNC is in the final stages of conducting a survey of Kwajalein landowners. From the study will come more definite proposals as to what Kwajalein wants, he said. "We’d like to have the benefit of the study before a commitment is made," he said.

In the meantime, he said that while he understands the need of the RMI government to address the pressing deadline of the negotiations, "we don’t want the letter (from the RMI to the U.S.) to preclude any future possibilities."

Muller said that the RMI government "fully respects the Kwajalein position."

He said that issues relating to what is known as the Military Use and Operating Rights Agreement (MUORA) and other Compact "Title Three" defense issues, a trust fund, and other issues are still open for further discussion.

But because the RMI sees what it describes as "the special needs of Ebeye" as an economic, "Title Two" provision issue, this needs to be on the table for the current Compact funding negotiations that are addressing Title Two issues with a deadline for agreement of this summer.

"We need something now on the special needs of Ebeye in Title Two" provision issue, this needs to be on the table for the current Compact funding negotiations that are addressing Title Two issues with a deadline for agreement of this summer.

"We need something now on the special needs of Ebeye in Title Two because we’re on a fast-track timetable," Muller said. "I understand that some (at Kwajalein) may feel that there has not been enough consultation, but I believe that we have the understanding from all concerned of the need to move the process forward." Muller added that the RMI government has not closed the door to anything" by submitting a proposal to the U.S.

Loeak expressed a common complaint of Kwajalein landowners when he said: "I feel bad that the government didn’t take our input from the beginning. It’s like they’re on a train that is not going to stop. The (negotiation) deadline is important but the negotiations need to be done right, to the satisfaction of everyone."

Loeak also observed that rent payments at Kwajalein have not increased because of pressure on the U.S. "Nothing ever was given on a voluntary and fair basis," he said, adding that the U.S. did not begin paying rental for use of Kwajalein until landowners were relocated from the "mid-atoll corridor" in the mid-1960s.

"We don’t want to make problems for everyone but we have to look after the interests of the people," he said.

Muller said that the proposal to the U.S. submitted last week did two things: it put the special needs of Ebeye on the table for discussion as part of the Title Two funding negotiations, and it formally notified the U.S. of the RMI desire to discuss Kwajalein’s future.

The RMI proposal wants $5 million annually in Title Two funds for the special needs of Ebeye and the Kwajalein Atoll community. Muller said the RMI wants to get a U.S. commitment to provide this additional funding to the RMI under the Title Two provisions now under negotiation, but specially earmarked for Ebeye health, education and infrastructure-related projects.

Muller said that the RMI has proposed nothing specific in terms of a possible extension of the number of years for the U.S. lease on Kwajalein.

"The point about an extension is that it is in the best interests of both government as well as the landowners to start talking about an extension of the MUORA now rather than later," Muller said. It may not be practical to discuss the MUORA within the Compact negotiations on Title Two economic provisions.

"The landowners are amenable to an extension but we want the U.S. to let us know what they want and we want to establish a timetable for discussions," Muller said, adding that this could possibly be done separately from the Compact negotiations.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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