COMPACT 2 MAY BE THE ROOT OF MARSHALL ISLANDS PROBLEMS

Commentary

By Fred J. Pedro

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Yokwe, March 17) –Barely 34 months into the 20-year life of Compact Two’s economic package, and already an increasing number of people are calling for numerous revisions to the Republic of the Marshall Islands Amended Compact. The need to establish a committee of bi-partisan Nitijela—national legislature—senators to engage the U.S. Congress in direct talks aimed at changing certain provisions of the Compact and to address unresolved bilateral issues has been heatedly debated in and outside of the Nitijela.

There is, likewise, a persistent chorus of discontent citizens desiring an explanation from those in authority as to why the economy remains sluggish. Still, others are asking: why is the quality of life for many Marshallese continuing to decline despite repeated assurance from President Kessai Note that things are far better today?

Whether on Majuro, Ebeye, the outer islands, or wherever one turns, it is questions, questions and more questions.

Why squander US$3 million a year on travel? Why can’t the Marshall Islands Electric Company (MEC) qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance for the burnt power plant? Why spend millions of dollars on government vehicles? What does the future hold for the Marshallese workforce at the Kwajalein Missile Range without a new land use agreement? What comes of the Changed Circumstances Petition? What happened to U.S. postal services? Why did Bank of Marshall Islands lose its international personality? What is going on with AMI, MEC and the Marshall Islands Resort?

Undoubtedly, future Marshallese scholars will produce persuasive dissertation on the questions. For now, and in the absence of compelling answers from those steering the ship of state, many are beginning to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that perhaps Compact Two could be the root-cause for some of the problems. Using Compact One as a barometer, they claimed life was definitely better then.

In support of this increasingly popular view, top Marshallese bands composed national hits that sung of the deficiencies of Compact Two and lament the economic and social difficulties it appears to have had thus far spawned.

Pondering the pros and cons of the ongoing debate, one can’t help but wonder: was there any basis to a rumor whispered about during the official signing of Compact Two in April 2003?

It was alleged that the signing ceremony at the Nitijela chamber was nothing more than the "mother of all propaganda" acts, and that President Note planned the whole thing to promote and gain support for an agreement that consists of inadequacies and uncertainties.

Is it possible then, that what may have happened according to the rumor has lingers to haunt our forward momentum?

As the rumor goes: At approximately 10:28 on the morning of Wednesday, April 30, 2003, Pastor Harry J. Sam stepped up to the podium at the Nitijela and with the entire nation listening, implored the All Omnipotent Creator to bless the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the U.S. Sam concluded by saying: "Father the signing we are about to witness symbolizes the solidifying of an indissoluble bond (atartar drin-kat) between two peoples" and hailed the occasion as an outer reflection of an inward truth.

After Reverend Sam’s blessing and with some members of the Council of Iroij, Nitijela and general public watching, foreign minister Zackios and negotiator Short applied their signs onto the series of Compact Two revised agreements.

Thereafter, President Note projected Compact Two as the ultimate triumph. Note told the nation on several occasions "…we ought to be proud for it took 17 years to negotiate Compact I, whereas this time around and despite complex and difficult issues, the Republic of the Marshall Islands was able to wrap up the negotiations in only 20 months…" a feat, he claims, that bears ample testimony to the brilliant skills of the Republic of the Marshall Islands negotiating team under his leadership.

News of the Short-Zackios signing of Compact Two was dispersed far and wide. The national radio V7AB carried the entire ceremony live. The front page of the May 2, 2003 issue of the Marshall Islands Journal was devoted to a photograph of Colonel Short, Minister Zackios and President Note at the ceremony. Regional radio and online news network reported the story too. Even the June 2003 issue of Pacific Magazine carried a color photograph and story of the historic event.

Yet through all the pomp of the occasion, it was said that almost no one suspected, and it never dawned on the people, certainly not to those Nitijela and Council of Iroij members present, nor to the general public that the signing ceremony that Wednesday morning, was nothing more than a "dog and pony" show.

According to the rumor itself, Compact Two was actually signed the night before on the 4th floor by Ambassador Mike Senko and Minister Gerald Zackios. It has been alleged that all copies of the official Compact Two agreements compiled in a book dated April 30, 2003, and distributed to all Republic of the Marshall Islands leaders in public and private organizations and the general public by the Compact Office bears Mike Senko’s signature.

So, if Mike Senko did in fact sign the Compact agreements, what happened to Al Short’s signature? Did Colonel Short sign with invisible ink?

If Compact Two was officially signed the night of April 29, why, then, did president Note invite people to the bogus signing ceremony on the morning of April 30? What did the president hope to accomplish by this thoughtless act of deception?

That ambassador Senko may have signed Compact Two appears to be consistent with U.S. policy and what happens in the Federated States of Micronesia where its Compact was reportedly signed at ambassadorial level.

As ambassadors, both Larry Dinger and Mike Senko have extraordinary and plenipotentiary powers to conclude agreements on behalf of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, according to the rumor, Colonel Short was on Majuro and a guest at the time and had to acquiesce and abide by the wishes of his Republic of the Marshall Islands hosts.

Against this backdrop, let us now ask, is it fair to fault the people for having this feeling of uncertainty and stand-offish about Compact Two?

It would seem unfair to do so. In addition, it is an undeniable truth that the vast majority of the Marshallese people knew very little about Compact Two. The series of revised agreements were not even translated into the Marshallese language this time around nor any earnest nationwide public education program undertaken.

Also, can we un-remember the fact that when it was presented for Nitijela review in 2003, Compact Two was briefly assigned to several standing committees and then quickly taken away and placed before the Committee of the Whole House?

In giving it to the Committee of the Whole House, President Note effectively prevented the people from taking part in the Compact public hearings. Indeed, the Marshallese general public was denied the opportunity to ask questions about the most important piece of legislation that vitally affects the quality of their life today and far into the distant future.

It has been said as well that that this is why president Note urged the UDP controlled Nitijela to block the likes of Tony deBrum, Charles Domnick, Phillip Muller, the Kwajalein lawyers and advisors from appearing as witnesses before the Committee of the Whole House.

Can we ever forget too, that three minority senators did their patriotic service to the nation at the time by circulating a paper alerting the Nitijela to the potential long-term adverse implications of several provisions in the Amended Compact?

Yet, despite the fact that the Nitijela voted to reject the said paper, President Note took it upon himself to publicly humiliate one of the senators involved. Speaking from the Nitijela, President Note challenged and twice demanded to know from a six term senior senator (late Ishmael John) whether the senator’s English comprehension level is sufficient for him to have understood what he had endorsed.

The humble, yet dignified response from late senator John has forever been recorded for all time in the minds of the vast majority of Marshallese people: "Mr. Speaker, I may not speak and understand the English language very well but I have complete trust and faith in the judgment of my chairman on the Foreign Affairs committee."

In the heated campaign and political debate leading up to the 2003 national elections, members of the Ailin Kein Ad party told the electorate that the negotiations of Compact Two was fast tracked primarily to boost president Note’s image and position him and his supporters to win re-elections. If this is in fact the case, is it possible then to assume that the "national interest" may have been subordinated to the interest of a few individuals?

Whatever side of the political equation one is on, it would seem that history bears this out. Hundreds of Marshallese marched to the Nitijela in August 2003 and asked for a delay in the ratification of Compact Two to allow time for a thorough review to ascertain the agreements long-term implications on the nation. The Kwajalein landowners-community also asked for a delay in the MUORA II signing, as there remains 13 more years to hash out a mutually agreeable deal. Likewise, groups of concerned citizens reminded our leaders that the Changed Circumstances Petition, FEMA, federal programs, and crucial matters have not been addressed satisfactorily. Yet, president Note ignored everyone and shouted from the Nitijela chamber "All systems are go." As one taxi driver said at the time, what the president meant is: "Go for broke" or "ettor non rub."

Let us ask again: if Reverend Harry Sam entreated Almighty God to bless the "dog and pony" signing, who then, said prayer at the genuine Senko-Zackios Compact-Two signing the night before? Perhaps, knowing the answer to this question may help us understand better the nature of the problems we faced today.

Fred J. Pedro is the radio host of V7Emon-FM Radio in Majuro, Marshall Islands

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