The islands which now comprise the Federated States of Micronesia were formerly part of the Trust territory of the Pacific Islands, administered since 1947 under a UN trusteeship by the USA. In 1986, after independence, FSM signed a Compact of Free Association with the USA, which made FSM responsible for its own affairs, subject always to the security interest of the US. Michael Powles discussed the background to this arrangement, and its current workings, with John Haglelgam, now a teacher at the College of Micronesia, who served as FSM's second president from 1987 to 1990.
John Haglelgam: I am from Yap, not Yap Islands proper, but from the outer islands of Yap.
MP: Michael Powles: A different state?
JH: One of the smallest inhabited islands in the FSM.
MP: Were you educated there, or did you have to travel for your education?
JH: Yeah I attended elementary school in Eauripik, the name of my island is Eauripik.
MP: And then you went…?
JH: I went to the Outer Island High School – I started the Outer Island Junior High School in 1964, and in 1968 four years later, I went to an American high school in Oregon. Then after that I went to University of Hawaii at Manoa. That’s where I got my BA – Bachelor in Political Science and Masters in Political Science.
MP: And then you came back to the FSM – well, the Trust Territory I guess it was then?
JH: Yeah. I came back to the Trust Territory in 1973.
JH: Then I worked for the Micronesian Legal Services, a federally funded legal programme for Micronesia. I worked there for about a year and then when the election came up in 1974 I ran for the Congress of Micronesia.
MP: What made you want to go into politics?
JH: I guess what made me consider politics is that, first I was majoring in Political Science, so my education was in Political Science, and also I wanted to do something, I wanted to do something for the Outer Island people. The Outer Islands of Yap. I think that was the main thing. Because to me, no matter how you look at it, they were marginalised, and even now to a certain extent, they are still marginalised, politically, socially, and economically. I wanted to help them.
MP: Around about that time, the Americans were doing their nuclear testing in the Pacific – were you aware of that? Were people concerned about it at all?
JH: I don’t think anybody down in the west, the Caroline group, ever heard of the nuclear testing in the Marshalls. It was after, when I got into Congress, that I became aware of it, because they put me on a committee for Rongelap and another atoll in the Northern Marshalls that were affected by the thermonuclear testing.
MP: On the question of independence or self-government, when did you or your friends begin to think about that, and how you would try and negotiate that?
JH: I was not part of the team that negotiated that Compact. I came in towards the tail end of it, but I was fully aware when I was attending UH. When I was going to UH, that was the height of the Vietnam War. The students at UH were protesting the Vietnam War, those of us Micronesians from the Trust Territories, we would join them. The signs that we held up were not for the Vietnam War, but they were ‘Free Micronesia’ signs.
MP: In the 1960s and 1970s was it just people receiving education or educated people like yourself that were in favour of it, or was there a strong popular feeling for independence?
JH: I think there was a strong popular feeling all over Micronesia for independence. I think it was a very realistic feeling. They opted for a Compact of Free Association, because then the feeling was that the Compact would help us to develop our economy, and once we developed the economy, then we can become fully independent. That was the mantra at the time.
MP: Did you take any notice of what was happening further south? I’m just thinking of the timing – Samoa, of course was the first of the Pacific countries to get independence, talking about what was Western Samoa of course, in 1962; then Nauru very soon afterwards, and of course Tonga and the Cook Islands. Were you conscious of what was happening further south? It’s a long way away of course.
JH: Yeah of course, we were fully conscious of what was going on , that was the impetus, that provided – what was happening in Samoa in Nauru, to a certain extent in Kiribati – gave us the impetus to push for liquidation of the trusteeship.
MP: That’s fascinating because a lot of us, I have been involved in Pacific affairs for a long time, we never realised that there was much movement of ideas between the Northern Pacific and the Southern Pacific but you’re suggesting that there was.
JH: There was! We ended up being one of the last UN Trusteeships. That was what we were telling the United States, that we should liquidate the trusteeship. It was becoming embarrassing to have a trusteeship that they administered was one of the last.
MP: Was there a feeling that they were dragging their feet unnecessarily?
JH: Of course. There was a feeling that the United States was dragging its feet because they wanted to hold on to the Trust Territory. It shows in the first negotiation, when they sat down to negotiate the Micronesians made it clear that they want free association but the Americans rejected it.
MP: What did they want?
JH: Territory. They wanted Micronesia to remain American territory or a commonwealth.
MP: Was that for strategic reasons?
JH: Of course it was strategic, they wanted to have control over land, so anytime they want to use land, they can move in and just condemn the land, take it by power of eminent domain and use it. Pretty much like what they are doing in Guam now.
MP: So that’s the Cold War. Now in a funny way, we are seeing a bit of a replay in relation to Guam with US concerns about China.
JH: Yeah. We know that, I just read an article written by an American, saying that the US is bungling its relationship with the Micronesian Freely Associated States. He is strongly recommending that it should be turned over to the State Department instead of the Department of the interior, so that they can talk to the Freely Associated States governments as equals, and not talking down to us.
MP: At the moment you still deal with the Department of the Interior, is that right?
JH: That was the quirky thing about the Compact of Free Association, because bilaterally our relationship is conducted through State Department, but then all the money came from the Department of Interior. So the Department of Interior has a very big hold on the Freely Associated States. It is basically under Compact 2. I can come out and tell you that Compact 2 is really a neo-colonialism system.
MP: When was Compact 2 negotiated?
JH: It has been in effect for 12 years.
MP: What leads you to say it is a kind of neo-colonialism?
JH: Well, the first compact liquidated the trusteeship and gave us full control. We controlled the money, all we have to do is account for the money that we spend. Which we did a really bad job, in accounting for [money]. But after Compact 2 they established a committee, it’s called something like Joint Economic Management Committee, JEMCo, three Americans and two FSM citizens. That was the set up. These people, the members - when they vote, its always straight US-Micronesian line. Three US, two Micronesians, and of course the Micronesians are in the minority so they are always defeated!
MP: Was it membership of three to two?
JH: Yeah, and it is really meddling in the affairs of the FSM. All budgets, year after year, have to be submitted to JEMCo, not only do they review the budget, they can change the budget in any way they see fit.
MP: It’s very strange to say that FSM was independent and had that kind of problem. Does that still continue today?
JH: It still continues! Even if we terminate the compact, when the compact ends, the economic provision ends in 2023, JEMCo is still going always, it stays forever and ever amen.
MP: I read a press report a few months ago of suggestions or debate within the FSM Congress about the possibility of terminating the compact earlier, is that an issue?
JH: I’m one of those that feel we should do that. Terminate the compact of free association in totality, what we’re going to be stuck with is just the perpetual denial right treaty. That means the United States can still deny other countries to come to FSM.
MP: Would you be happy to continue that?
JH: No, I think we should unilaterally terminate it. Even though the US can only terminate it with mutual agreement. I mean why should we keep it? It is of no benefit to us. Under the Perpetual Denial Right, it is really an unequal treaty. It is for the benefit of the US but nothing for us.
MP: Is there any way of trying to still get American money if you terminate that treaty?
JH: No, I don’t think so, I think that’s it.
MP: That’s the challenge isn’t it.
JH: The US might switch their attitude then, and become hostile to FSM, they might just treat us like Iran.
MP: I doubt that! You have a problem, you will immediately become like Kiribati or Tuvalu, small countries of atolls with really no regular outside support.
JH: Yeah, but I think we will have a full grasp on our sovereignty, sovereign independence. Instead of living in this Department of Interior officials are coming in and behaving like they are the super-king of FSM.
MP: I understand. Of course, would there be popular opposition to the fact that less money would mean, presumably, not such good schools, not such good hospitals, not such good roads?
JH: I think there would be opposition, but when you go out to the villages, this compact money doesn’t filter down to the villages. Most money is spent by the government to support their employees. I think probably the most opposition would come from the government.
MP: I understand. Have you ever thought about going back into politics to campaign for that?
JH: No, I think I am right now; three or four more years of teaching and then I will happily retire to my small island.
MP: I can understand that.
JH: Maybe we will become independent.
MP: On your small island?
JH: Yes! [laughs]
MP: Just on the details of the arrangement with the Americans, do the citizens of the FSM have automatic right of entry to the United States?
JH: Well that’s right.
MP: So people can go and live and work there.
JH: But they are curbing it. The US Congress has passed a law, they are going to set up some screening. What’s the screening? Maybe the screening is going to be based on health? If you’re sick, they won’t admit you. On your criminal records? On your ability to make a living in the US. So if that is the case, then we’re going back to pre-compact all over again.
MP: Indeed. Tell me, has the country suffered a loss of population, of people going to the United States, going to the bright lights of the US, emigrating? Has that caused a loss of population?
JH: There is an estimate of citizens of FSM in the United States of about 25-30,000 FSM citizens staying in the US. Amazingly most of these people who stay in the US, the level of education is high school or less. Educated people stay back here!
MP: I ask those questions because in the South Pacific there are similar problems in the case of Niue and the Cook Islands, they have free right of access to New Zealand, and in the case of Niue, it is a real social problem because the population is getting less and less every year and that is a real difficulty for them. But you don’t have that problem so much?
JH: Well I think we have that problem, when you go around in the villages in all the states, some of the villages are like ghost villages. Very few people remain.
MP: That’s what happens in Niue and in parts of the Cook Islands, yes.
JH: Right now, with the negative reaction from the United States, if they come up with some kind of restrictions, I think some of these people are going to come back.
MP: But that might be good actually for the nationhood of FSM in the long run, to have more of these people back.
JH: Yeah, I think it would be good. These people were fishermen and farmers, then they went to the US and they put themselves on welfare. That is the important reason for going to the US is to be on welfare!
MP: John, it’s now some 25 years since independence. When in 1986 when the independence started, it was just one year before you became president.
JH: That is the confusion in FSM, because we celebrated this year 25 years of independence, but if you remember correctly, in 1986 the trusteeship was terminated unilaterally by the United States. The Security Council didn’t terminate the trusteeship until 1990.
I think initially, from 86 on for about ten years there was optimism in the FSM. But the progress that we made, political progress, social progress, economic progress, everyone was looking forward to more development. But I think right now we seem to be falling into a space where we don’t expect anything to be done anymore.
If somebody really studied the effect of the compact on economic development, I think that they would see that the compact was a barrier to economic development, instead of a catalyst for economic development. Most of the farmers in Pohnpei are from the other states in FSM, or they’re from China or Korea.
MP: I can understand the challenge.
JH: The most popular thing now is to go the United States.
MP: John, during your period as president, you would have attended meetings of the Pacific Islands leaders in the Pacific Islands Forum. Do you think that’s valuable to FSM?
JH: I think it is very valuable. When I was president, I tried to realign FSM foreign policy to bring FSM closer to our neighbours to the south. That is the reason I brought in the fisheries patrol boats. We ended up getting two patrol boats from Australia, because I wanted to create that relationship with Australia and New Zealand and the other countries in the South. My analogy was always - we attached ourselves to the US. It’s like a fishing boat attaching itself to an aircraft carrier. Every time the aircraft carrier increases speed, the fishing boat is about to sink!
MP: I would to like to end on an optimistic note, but I think your feeling for the future of FSM is not very optimistic at the moment.
JH: It is not primarily, because I dislike what the United States is doing, it is bringing back neo-colonialism, not bringing back but creating a neo-colonialism in the FSM, not only in the FSM but in the Marshalls. Once the compact is terminated in 2023, no more, don’t expect any more help. That’s why I think it is important for FSM leaders to start the conversation on what we’re going to do to oppose compact.
MP: To replace the compact?
JH: Not replace the compact, but what should we do? To what country should we turn? How should we create a relationship with other countries, like China?
MP: Well, China has been putting quite a lot of emphasis on relationships with countries in the Pacific. They built the fishery, the tuna headquarters in Pohnpei.
JH: They also built the beautiful Pohnpei State Executive Branch building.
MP: Yes, they did that in Samoa also.
JH: I don’t think we should expect China to completely replace the United States.
MP: I don’t think they would probably want to.
JH: What I’m saying is it is more like preparing us mentally, preparing the FSM citizens mentally, to live with less.
MP: Does FSM receive development assistance from Australia or the Asia Development Bank?
JH: I think yeah, I think we receive from Asian Development Bank, mostly in the form of loans, I don’t know what we get from Australia but the most visible one from Australia is the patrol boats.
MP: That’s fascinating.
JH: My motive for getting the patrol boats was partly to kill two birds with one stone. The first one, I want FSM to establish a good surveillance program because when I came president, our surveillance people were using a sailing boat! That’s one reason, I wanted FSM to establish a good surveillance program for its exclusive economic zone, but the other one, was to bring FSM closer to Australia, and lure Australia to build an embassy in FSM. That would also be accredited to the Marshalls and Palau.
MP: Did that succeed? Did they build an embassy?
MP: We interviewed for this same project Young Vivian, who was Prime Minister of Niue, I’m not sure if you’ve met him, he’s about your age or a little older – he says that he regrets terribly that when Niue got self-government in the 1970s that they didn’t go for complete independence, and cut off all ties with New Zealand. The problem is now of course that the Niueans are going to New Zealand and society is really collapsing in Niue. On a smaller scale of course, there’s very few people compared with FSM, I think it is the same problem that you have.
JH: Yeah it’s our problem but we’re heading in the same direction. It is too bad that the politicians, instead of thinking about curbing this travel to the US, they’re encouraging it. I think four times we have attempted a constitutional amendment to allow dual citizenship. Everybody is voting, thinking that if we have dual citizenship, it would be only with the United States. They don’t know that they’re also allowing citizenship with other countries.
MP: At the moment you have separate citizenship, but you have the right of access to the US?
JH: Yes, and we don’t have to use visas. I think they’re going to, maybe next year, start curbing the citizens’ right to travel to the US. Their ability to support themselves in the US, their health, and other criteria.
MP: John, I think we should probably wind this up now, from what you’re saying I think there’s only one solution: you need to go back into politics!
MP: It’s cheeky of me to suggest that!
JH: My island is almost independent, I don’t worry about Eauripik.
MP: I imagine you will have a long and happy retirement there.
JH: I can always go fishing. All I need is maybe once every month and I’ll be happy.
MP: Very good. Thank you very much.