Public Hearings About CNMI Political Status Commission Held

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Bill to create second commission under consideration

By Dennis B. Chan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 25, 2016) – Submerged lands control, rampant militarization, and the federal immigration takeover headlined concerns raised at a public hearing last night on a bill to establish the second Marianas Political Status Commission.

The commission would review whether the CNMI desires to continue its relationship with the United States or if another political status would suit its goals of self-government.

This was the fourth hearing on the bill and while most of the concerns were with the "aggressiveness" or the "one-sidedness" of federal policies, the Covenant, the document negotiated by the founding fathers of the Commonwealth, was also questioned.

John Tagabuel, executive director of the Carolinian Affairs Office, supported the bill as it would launch a political discussion and "education" on the CNMI’s relationship with the United States under the Covenant.

Tagabuel said people "know very little" about the Covenant" and "why" they are under the sovereignty of the United States.

"These are not clear to me and especially to the Carolinians…whom I represent," he said. He noted that the resources of land and air were not given to the United States but submerged lands were. "Why? I don’t know," he added.

Tagabuel pointed that the U.S. President by a "stroke of a pen" took hundreds of miles of submerged lands, or the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, away from the local people. He asked if the Covenant gave this right for a president for this action.

He said the U.S. is "treating us like a U.S. territory" like Guam or American Samoa, who are "non-governing political entities," he said. This treatment makes the Sec. 103 of the Covenant, on the right to local self-government, "meaningless."

"Are we are a territory of the U.S.?" Tagabuel asked. The bill in question would provide the people "greater understanding" so that future generations can "attain true self government that is respected and protected," he said.

Daniel Quitugua, vice president of the Northern Marianas Descent Corp., supported the bill and spent time lamenting on the habits of "procrastination" practiced by post-Covenant government leaders that pitted the government and people in a "disadvantageous position" and cost them "millions of dollars" since the time of the Covenant.

Quitugua, referring to the U.S. takeover of local immigration a handful of years ago, said instead of correcting immigration "deficiencies" warned by U.S. Congress then, leaders gave the "usual action of procrastination and wavering."

This, over "remedial and corrective action," he said, speaking to local labor and immigration issues that drew national attention years ago.

Quitugua said this "11th hour" action was not an effective use of power.

He said procrastination was a political disease that "we cannot cure ourselves from."

"We are our own worst enemy," Quitugua said, but also pointed to the "arrogance" of the federal government to unilaterally seek land for "destructive uses" must be intervened.

He said the political status review must assess the U.S.-local relationship and present "political options."

He suggested a joint resolution from the Legislature be sent to the U.S. President regarding this review of political status.

"It is not anti-American" but "democratic" and "embracing of the American dream" to raise these concerns, he said.

Liana Hofshcneider, a founding member of the Matua Council on Chamorro Advancement, drew attention to the U.S. and international agreements that led to the closure of the CNMI’s garment industry that affected not only the local government but the programs and services they provided to the local people.

"Those have been taken away in a one sided federal policy," she said.

The council leader also pointed to the 200-mile exclusive economic zone that she called the "refrigerator" of ocean resources and submerged lands of the people. And also directed concern to how a U.S. president "unilaterally and one-sidedly asserted the Antiquities Act" to "take away the rights of our indigenous people" referring to the three northern islands as part of the Trench Monument.

Still, she conceded that issues of immigration control were largely "90 percent our fault." She added, though, that the employees who worked at local immigration were forced to transfer from jobs they had worked for more than 10 to 20 years.

"If this happened in the state of Georgia, there would be repercussions," she said.

Richard Seman, secretary of the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, spoke on his personal behalf as one who was 16 years old when the Covenant was enacted and one who has married and has had children since that time.

He now believes that "the society we are in" or "hoped to be" was not the one local people felt they would have almost 40 years ago.

Seman said there was no sense in trying to change political status but urged more education and a need to discuss issues with the U.S. The CNMI "must sit down" and talk issues as there are among us those who "feel less than American," he said.

The legislation before them would give this discussion "direction," he said. "Let’s not wait another 40 years" before more formal discussion.

Seman believes "it is very American to bring" these issues before "people with political power," adding that many "minority issues" like women’s rights or slavery where fought for in the United States which is "not perfect."

Seman believes over time things "can change. "It’s time for us to make that change for our people," he said.

Pedro Deleon Guerrero claimed that during his time in the local Legislature back during Covenant negotiations, he and other lawmakers were never given the opportunity to read the Covenant. The proposal was only presented as a resolution to approve the Covenant, he said, which he voted for as well as the plebiscite to ratify it.

"The sentiment of our people then was we wanted to opt out of…the Trust Territory," Deleon Guerrero said, referring to the form of U.S.-administered government among Micronesian Islands back then.

He added the local people wanted the opportunity to be American citizens and to be "better off economically." "Well, that is not the case I see today," he added.

Deleon Guerrero believes that people then and he, himself, did not understood what the Covenant meant by "sovereignty," which he believes the U.S. is "taking advantage of."

He urged that the U.S. government be brought to the table to define "under sovereignty of the U.S. in black and white," adding that the Covenant "does and does not" do this. "That must be clarified," he said.

Deleon Guerrero also drew concern to submerged land talks that he believes were "not taken seriously" because of federal interests.

"What are the interests? Military, military. No more, no less. It’s the military," he said.

Richard Hofschneider argued that the CNMI was not equal among the rest of the 50 U.S. states, saying that the power of representation U.S. Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) was not on par with the other representatives in Congress. "We have to correct that," he said.

Hofschneider stressed that for their message to be taken seriously they have to look to their "southern brothers" in the Marianas in Guam, and the self-determination and decolonization movement there. Otherwise, he foresees, that U.S. policy makers will not listen to position that is not unified.

Pointing to the "aggressive" militarization on Guam and the proposed and ongoing military actions in the NMI, Hofschneider believes it would "be a futile attempt for us to speak just for the Northern Marianas."

"We have to start talking about freedom. And true freedom," he said.

A monumental task

Sen. Arnold Palacios (R-Saipan), who chairs the Senate committee that held the public hearing last night, called the issue before them, "monumental."

The Senate has held four public hearings, one each on Rota and Tinian, and two on Saipan, but senators feel a lack of concern or input from the larger community.

"This is not just about legislating traffic," Palacios said. "We are going to be talking about the foundations of governance and this is something that should not be taken lightly."

Seeking to allay an impressions that the Senate is "dragging its feet" on the bill, Palacios said, once the commission is set in place it will have a lot of work to do and this garners the worry of a lack of resources to complete its work.

"We cannot do this half-heartedly," he said, noting that the first political status commission, which his father partook in, took more than five years to prepare its findings, after village meetings after village meetings, on each island, that he recalled took a lot of family sacrifice.

"This is our future we are going to be talking about," Palacios said, adding that they need to be careful on how they craft this and move forward so "it not fall apart."

Sen. Sixto Igisomar (R-Saipan) said, referring the lack of objectors to the bill that night, said he has been receiving phone calls and Facebook messages from dissenters who have asked to "please stop this" bill, or "don’t do this," or "why are you going to take my passport away?"

Speaking to the questions the Covenant leaves people, Igisomar asked, "Are we a political union?

"…How much is that to be self-governed? [Does that mean] administratively or in totally?"

Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian), for his part, hoped for more participation from the general public.


Private businessman Alex Sablan told Saipan Tribune that "there is a lot of logic to have another round of discussion."

Sablan, though, believes that lot of the arguments made stem from negotiations that did not take place or should have taken place in the "first round," like the insistence that the CNMI be able to vote for the United States, or the exclusive economic zones or submerged land concerns.

Sablan said he personally believes there is a lot of logic to having another round of discussion. "But based on the provisions under the U.N., the Commonwealth is going to need to take a hard look at what true provisions of the Covenant have been violated to the degree that it requires the U.N. to step in and make a decision, if we ultimately make the decision to go to a different status."

"I don’t think we have enough harm that has been done. I understand a lot of the impact of immigration is impact the future of the Commonwealth, and we don’t want to be another Puerto Rico.

Sablan, instead, pointed to "902 talks" between the CNMI and the White House requested last year pursuant to the Covenant that Sablan believes could be the avenue that CNMI makes it case.

If the seriousness of these issues—which are military and labor issues—are not taken into consideration by the United States, Sablan said, then the CNMI will "have cause to go before the UN and argue the point that there isn’t a respect for our self-government."

"I don’t think we’ve taken enough of these issues to the United States…If the United States continues to take a deaf ear, a blind eye, to the problem then I think there is an argument but I don’t think we’ve set ourselves up to take it" to that next step.

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1541 permits free association with or full and equal integration into another political state, but that these options are subject to strict limitations to prohibit unlawful colonialism.

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