Honourable Kessai Note

A member of President Amata Kabua’s cabinet on independence, Kessai Note became the Republic’s third president in 2000. The first non-chiefly Marshall Islander to achieve that position, he remained in office until 2008. Born on Ailinglaplap atoll in 1950, he completed his tertiary education in Papua New Guinea and returned to his homeland to work as an advocate for the people of Bikini atoll. In this interview, recorded in 2011, he told Ian Johnstone about the memories he still holds of the nuclear tests carried out during his childhood.


Mr Note: Well, living several miles, hundreds of miles away from where the testing took place, but even 700 miles away we could even hear the sound of the explosion and see the light in the sky, from the explosion of those testings every day and every night during those years. We would see them from a very far distance, 6 or 700 miles away.

Ian Johnstone: I can imagine. Was that a frightening business, as a child?

KN: Well it was, because we didn't know what it was, and we didn’t know what to expect, but when you see the bright light lighting up on the other side of the road, you really get confused. You don’t know what to make of it. At the time there was very little information going around, we didn’t know what it was, there was nothing on the radio or any place that we could… we were left on our own… I didn’t know what to expect from those.

IJ: Your parents must have been equally confused and worried I suppose.

KN: Oh everybody on the island, and not just the islands we were living on, the entire Marshall Islands, even as far as 800 miles away, everyone was confused, we didn’t know what it was. All of a sudden we'd see the bright light and explosions and all that.

IJ: Did it have any consequences for health? Were you told not to eat the fish from the lagoon or shelter if the wind was blowing towards you, and that sort of thing?

KN: Well, you know, when the testing took place on Bikini they had to move the people away several hundred miles to some of the neighbouring islands. The expectation was that the explosion impact, the consequences would be minimal, but later we found out that that was not the case, people were affected even if they lived on far away islands.

IJ: A lot of your political, professional life and leadership must have been having to deal with the consequences of all that.

KN: Yes it was, because as soon as I came back from college I became the spokesman for the Bikinian people, the victims of the nuclear testing. I guess that’s where I started my public or political career, when I started working for them and started protesting, or claiming for compensation, or treatments from the US government.

IJ: Of course, that’s a fascinating story and huge contribution you made, but before that can we just fill in – I can see how you would move to Ebeye, is that the name of it, where you did your Elementary, and then Majuro – tell me about getting to Papua New Guinea – that’s a wonderful cross-Pacific connection.

KN: Well in 1970 the Australian government provided scholarships to Micronesian students to go to Papua New Guinea or other colleges or universities. At the time Australia was still the administrative authority in Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, after I left. They had to pick students from each of the six districts in Micronesia, Palau, Saipan, Ponape, Truk, Marianas and Yap and I was fortunate to be the recipient of that scholarship from Marshall Islands in 1970.

IJ: Well done!

KN: That was how I got there.

IJ: What subjects did you study in Papua New Guinea?

KN: Well it was an Agricultural College, so basically traditional agriculture.

IJ: Here comes this man from an atoll way up north, where you’ve got fish, coconuts and a bit of taro I suppose, and all of a sudden you’re on this huge…! How was that, what did that feel like?

KN: To be honest it was kind of a cultural shock for me. At the time even Papua New Guinea was unknown to this part of the Pacific. We were mostly associated with the American way of life you know, to some extent, so to speak, but Papua New Guinea was eye-opening for me, a young man from Marshall Islands to travel all the way to Papua New Guinea.

IJ: Did this experience of being in a country that was getting ready for independence, did that influence you in your thoughts about your home country of the Marshalls and the possibilities of self-government or independence for your country?

KN: Well, it must have, because when I came back the Marshall Islands and all Micronesia, were already talking about getting more autonomous in the running of the government in their countries, rather than continue to be a territory of the US. Not just Papua New Guinea but other countries in the Pacific were doing the same thing, like Kiribati and other countries.

So I got back to the Marshall Islands in 1974 or 75 and there was already discussion about some kind of independence, autonomous government or something like that. You know what, when I was in Papua New Guinea, Chief Michael Somare was there, the chief minister at the time, and he later became prime minister. After 27 years, when I became president, I got to work with Michael Somare, we became good friends over the course of seven or eight years that I served as president of the Marshall Islands.

IJ: It’s funny, those connections made while young men, across the Pacific, become very valuable as you become senior men.

KN: Yes of course, and I’ve known Julius Chan also.

IJ: That’s a very strong connection obviously. Now let’s get you back to the Marshalls. There you are, and there is discussion about the possibilities of independence. Was that mostly from the Marshallese people or were the US government people also ready for that discussion? I understand they'd had a thing called the Solomon Report which said that it would be a long time before there would be any real self-governance or independence for you.

KN: Well yeah, the sentiment very strongly came from the Marshall Islands, under the leadership of some of our traditional leaders at the time, Amata Kabua, paramount chief who later became president of the country.

IJ: He was the first president wasn’t he?

KN: He was the first president of the Marshall Islands and served for like 16 years, he died in office. But he led the movement to break away from the rest of Micronesia. We were part of the Micronesian Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

IJ: TTPI wasn’t it?

KN: And we were not just breaking away from that but we were also breaking away from the rest of Micronesia, towards being independent. The Solomon Report that was authorised by President Kennedy at the time, tried to determine the future for Micronesia and what was missing in the report was that there was very little input from the local people. I read the report several times. It was anticipated that Micronesia would continue being dependent on the United States. It was strongly recommended that the US continue to administer the Micronesian people. But it was from the local people that started the movement away.

IJ: It strikes me, what a relationship, the tiniest islands in the world, really, up against, or having to negotiate and deal with the mightiest nation on earth, it must have made it very tough for you.

KN: Well it was, and not only tough, it took a very long time, the negotiations went on for 14 or 15 years before we started getting back on track and to work on our free association compact with the United States, but it took a very long time. We had to bring in consultants and lawyers and economic experts and all that.

IJ: Were you a supporter of the Marshall Islands breaking away from the rest of Micronesia?

KN: I was. I was still in Papua New Guinea when I thought that the Marshall Islands could well be on its own rather than being part of the Micronesian country. But of course I was only a student at the time, I didn’t have all the information I would have needed to form a very firm position on that. On the surface I thought if other countries in the Pacific similar to the Marshall Islands could become independent then why couldn’t we.

IJ: Yes, lots of leaders have said that, you know, we could do this, others were doing it. When did you start to represent and work for the Bikinians?

KN: Well, as soon as I got back from college my father’s older brother was one of the senior officers of the Bikinian community on Kili Island. And as soon as I got back they brought me to the council, the Bikini Atoll Council. I started off as the translator for them. At the time they used to go to the US for a congressional hearing in Washington and they needed somebody to translate for them. I filled that position. Actually I started only a few months after I came back from Papua New Guinea. We started going to Washington on a regular basis, asking for compensation and treatment.

IJ: Did you have anybody in your family who was affected by nuclear fallout?

KN: Actually my father died of liver cancer. It was found that it started, it was caused by radiation. He died of that. Later on, we established the nuclear claims tribunal and during the first negotiation the United States set up a trust fund of $250m. At the same time establishing the nuclear claims tribunal to process claims, to make sure they’re legitimate and make sure the claims are based on the nuclear induced sickness. There was a certain level of compensation that the claims tribunal provided to the families or the victims that were afflicted or affected by nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.

IJ: What about, I gather there were a lot of childbirth problems as well, did that affect you? Were you aware of that? In some ways when you were born in 1950 the effects could have been influencing people and making them sick even then.

KN: Well, one of the presumed conditions given by the nuclear claims tribunal, up to as late as 1958, was a child born with certain kinds of sickness was eligible under the nuclear claims tribunal. We had a lot of that, a lot of thyroid, a lot of cancers. We have the highest cancer population in the world.

IJ: Really!

KN: So the problem is out there.

IJ: When was your first entry into political life, I mean as a politician?

KN: I started working for the Marshall Islands government, still under the Trust Territory at the time in 1975 and I was at the ministry of agriculture, agricultural economy and extensions, and in 1966 the Marshall Islands decided to have their own constitution. In 1977, they had a countrywide election for members of the first constitutional convention of the Marshall Islands. That is the convention that would draft the Marshall Islands Constitution. I stood for that, I ran, and I got elected to that convention. I was one of the 46 members of the convention that drafted the Marshall Islands constitution. I was there for two years and it took three years to write the constitution and present it to the people for approval in a referendum. I was there and that was my first exposure to politics.

IJ: With that constitutional convention, what were you aiming for? Were you aiming for a self-governing or increased autonomy under American direction, or complete independence?

KN: When the constitution was drafted we had in mind that ultimately one day the Marshall Islands would become a full independent country. At the same time we were negotiating with the United States on a relationship rather than a territory. So that’s how the Compact of Free Association was also structured, to give the Marshall Islands ultimate independence. We had in mind that the Marshall Islands would become a full independent country. So we drafted the constitution and subsequently we approved the free association agreement with the United States, and after several years we became a member of the United Nations as a full sovereign country.

IJ: Although total independence hasn’t yet happened, has it? It’s a compact in free association, is that right?

KN: Well, we consider ourselves a sovereign country and I think the United States and also the United Nations, you cannot become a member of the UN if you are not a sovereign country.

IJ: That’s right, and you’re a full…

KN: We have full responsibility of our foreign affairs, except in the agreement with the US in the compact, the US continues to have security and defence responsibility for the Marshall Islands, in exchange for the Marshall Islands to give rights to use some of the land in the Marshall Islands.

IJ: That’s the only – it’s a deal for their military requirements. Of course, you’re full members of the Pacific Islands Forum and so on. You’ve achieved that goal by now, in a way.

KN: Yes we have, we continue to depend on the US to provide financial assistance and other opportunities.

IJ: Can we go back, sir, to the time when all this was beginning and you’re a member of the constitutional convention and you say that you were thinking and those around you presumably, your first president as well, was for independence in the long run. So were you young men seen as revolutionaries?

KN: Well, I believe that’s what we were called at the time because not many in the Marshall Islands population were ready for independence at the time. After some 40 years of being under the Trust Territory people became to be so dependent on the United States to provide everything, you know, food through the USDA program, free schools and free hospital visit treatments, everything was free. The US started off with the US Navy running Kwajalein and that’s where half the Marshallese population was living, they got everything free, even school lunch and people can line up for free food, provided by the USDA (US Department of Agriculture). So we had become so dependent on those handouts from the United States. It was not easy to change people’s mentality, dependency, we had to convince them.

IJ: You were different, weren’t you, from the other colonial territories – if we can call you that – because across the Pacific by and large their colonial masters neglected them really, there wasn’t a great deal that Britain did for places like Kiribati other than an administrative system and so on, but with you it was that you were swamped by your governing power.

KN: We were, even the administrators and teachers and classroom teachers and just about everybody were Americans. To think that you are going to get rid of them would be unthinkable.

IJ: Were you US citizens? Could you go and live in America, United States?

KN: Marshallese nowadays under the new amended compact can travel to the US without visa requirement. They can move to the US and live and work and study and whatever without a visa, and without a green card for employers. Also Marshallese citizens can serve and join the US Armed Forces. There are several hundreds of them in the US Armed Forces now. I don’t think there’s the need to be a US citizen for me I don’t think, I don’t know why.

IJ: You wouldn’t want to be, you’re Marshallese!

KN: Proud of being Marshallese.

IJ: Can we now get to the period and round about the early 1980s when you are moving towards the statement of independence. With whom were you negotiating? Did you have to argue hard with them? Can you remember any fights?

KN: We were fighting two fronts, first of all the rest of the Micronesian leaders did not want the Marshall Islands to be separated from the rest of Micronesia, and at the same time we were negotiating to get out of the Trust Territory with the United States and become an independent country. It was kind of a multi-lateral discussion under different spheres and different purposes. There were obstacles and challenges from every corner. I think that’s why it took so many years to come to the negotiation with the US and the rest of Micronesia.

IJ: That’s a huge test of leadership isn’t it? You have to, without the complete agreement of your people, so you have to kind of keep the people around you informed and lead them, and at the same time break new ground with your governing power.

KN: Well we were doing a lot of public education, we would get on the radio and go to outer islands and local communities like church groups and youth groups and all that to try to explain what it is all about, you know, that Marshall Islands wanted to be a separate and independent country.

IJ: I believe that you finished up with a constitution and a system which were partly United States based and partly Commonwealth or British. Is that right?

KN: I believe so, it is a mixture of the Westminster System and we adapted some of the functions and the separation of responsibilities that are based on the United States constitution. It’s a mixture of both. We had very good legal counsels and lawyers working on that. You've mentioned Alison Baxter as one of those.

IJ: A New Zealander involved, yes.

KN: Yes, very bright constitutional lawyer, she helped us on the draft of the constitution.

IJ: Tell me a bit about deciding- your parliament is the Nitijela is that right?

KN: That is correct.

IJ: Did you think of another name than Marshall Islands? And how did you find your flag and national anthem and all that sort of, the dressings of independence, how was that decided?

KN: The name of the Marshall Islands, we got that from some European captain that came through a couple of years ago, there were names that we looked at when we were drafting the constitution, we thought they were too ancient and probably too complicated to get the rest of the world to even pronounce them, so we ended up stuck with the words Marshall Islands.

IJ: I think we’re in the same boat, we’re still New Zealand, but some of think it should be Aotearoa, but you’re quite right, first of all they need to know who you are and if you’ve got a name – now the flag, how was that reached?

KN: Well we had a public contest and several proposals were presented and we finally landed on that one. We set up several committees to look at that, and even for the national anthem. Actually the one we have, we’ve gone through several national anthems, but the latest one we have was composed by the President Amata Kabua himself. We kind of officially adopted that, that is the current official national anthem now.

IJ: I think with a distinguished name like that as the composer it will last, yeah. How by the way is your president elected? Is that done by the Nitijela or by the people at large?

KN: He is elected by the Nitijela. The current president, Jurelang Zedkaia is the fifth president we’ve had since we became independent in 1979. Not independence, but since we’ve had our constitutional government in 1979.

IJ: Understood. Can you recall for us and describe the actual day when independence was declared? The ceremonies and what went on?

KN: Well we decided early on that May 1st would be the effective date of the constitution, so on May 1st 1979 we had a huge celebration in the Marshall Islands and in Majuro. That’s when the new constitutional government was installed, with the president and with the first Cabinet and with the first Nitijela. After being officially elected, we took the oath of office and that’s how we started off on the first day of May 1979. We had the ceremony outside of the courthouse, it was quite a large area, I remember wearing those suit and ties, we looked very formidable with all those – then it started pouring rain like crazy and we all became wet. It was raining like – man, I remember how cold it was wearing a soaked wet cold suit. That’s how we started, we took our positions and I happened to be one of the first ministers of the cabinet at the time, I remember sitting out in the rain soaking wet, so cold. The mood and the spirit, people were so happy and excited about it. It was a new day in the history of the Marshall Islands. I think with a lot of anticipation and anxiety and expectation and all that.

IJ: Some uncertainty, you must still have wondered how….

KN: A lot of uncertainty, even the compact with the US had not been worked out at that time yet, we didn’t know how much funding support we were getting from the US and all that. But yet we were excited to be a new country and I was excited.

IJ: It wasn’t too long - were you about the third president, sir?

KN: I was the third president of the Marshall Islands.

IJ: But you were also, and you’ll tell me if that’s correct, the first commoner, if I can use that word, not a paramount chief, to take the office, is that right?

KN: I believe so, Amata Kabua and his cousin were paramount chiefs, actually he died in office so his cousin was elected to complete the term for almost three years. Then I was elected president in 2000. I was there for 8 years, then I was replaced with another leader – Litokwa Tomeing.

IJ: So that’s a matter for congratulation isn’t it? That democracy had moved on to the point that it was no longer just the chiefs who were in charge?

KN: I believe so. The constitution gave the Marshallese the right and freedom to choose who ever they want for leadership in the Marshall Islands, not just for president but for other offices like members of parliament, local government, mayors and all that.

IJ: How do you think the Marshalls would manage if it weren’t for the fact of the American money coming in because of their military base and their need to pay you rent and to look after and push money in, would you be able to survive?

KN: Well it would have been very difficult, people will continue to live on subsistence levels, making copra and fisheries and run livestock and things like that. We don’t have much in the way of natural resources or minerals, we continue to depend on outsiders to provide some level of…

IJ: That’s going to be just a fact of life for you, isn’t it ?

KN: For many years to come, until we find some… but I think for the Pacific Island countries we should really focus on what we have, the water, the ocean fisheries, agriculture, for our sustenance but we need to develop some industries that we can export, provide for the local communities.

IJ: That’s right.