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After a short, sudden illness that ended with cardiac arrest in a Taipei Hospital, the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ second highest ranking official, Minister in Assistance Mattlan Zackhras, died on Aug. 8 at the age of 47.
In a statement, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine praised Minister Matt (as he was known) for “work(ing) tirelessly, at home and abroad, on behalf of the Marshallese people and the Islands that he deeply loved.”
Foreign Minister John Silk would assume Zackhras’ duties, Heine said.
Zackhras, a native of Namdrik Atoll, served in RMI’s parliament, called the Nitijela, from 2004 until his death and, as Minister in Assistance, the Marshall Islands’ equivalent of vice president. Pre-dating his career in politics and continuing throughout it, Zackhras was well-known as a leader in promoting sustainable development projects like copra and coconut oil production and pearl farming on Namdrik.
In 2015, Zackhras helped secure more than $375,000 from the U.S. to support black lip pearl oyster farming as a way to bolster economic opportunity in the face of climate change according to Tom Armbruster, U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands (2012-2016). Armbruster said the project demonstrated the resilience of the Marshallese people as well as Zackhras’ own initiative and positive outlook.
“He was always a welcoming and warm public servant who put the Marshall Islands and its people first,” Armbruster wrote in an email, describing Zackhras’ death as “a real loss.”
Although Marshall Islands’ culture, language and legendary seafaring navigational prowess are millennia-old, the Republic of the Marshall Islands wasn’t established as a self-governing nation until 1979 after centuries of colonization by Spain, Germany, Japan, and finally the United States.
Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the northern Marshall Islands resulting in radiation contamination, widespread deaths and illness, forced displacement and a severe disruption of culture and society.
In recent years, this relatively young United Nations member (RMI joined the U.N. in 1991) has become a prominent example of how low-lying island nations are being impacted by coastal inundation, coral bleaching, prolonged drought and other climate change-related threats.
Andrew Jacobs, the European Union’s ambassador for the Pacific, described Zackhras as a “true warrior for climate action,” saying that his advocacy carried influence around the world “in the mould of former (RMI) Minister Tony deBrum.” Jacobs called Zackhras death “a great loss.”
Writing from the RMI capital of Majuro, Jack Niedenthal, secretary general of the Marshall Islands Red Cross Society, called Zackhras a “go to” senator who always made time to help people and someone who enjoyed celebrating great ideas without seeking to take credit.
“Mattlan was simply a genuinely nice person,” Niedenthal said.
Mark Stege, outgoing director of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, explained that as a leader in Parliament, Zackhras elevated his colleagues’ consciousness about the importance in conservation in the Pacific. Stege said Zackhras was instrumental in building a model of community-driven coastal resources management.
“His continued hard work and quiet leadership championing conservation during these times will bear fruit for the Marshallese people for many decades to come,” said Stege.
Tamara Greenstone Alefaio of the Micronesia Conservation Trust worked with Zackhras on many initiatives for more than a dozen years praised him as a humble leader who “listened with intent and spoke with clarity” to advance climate action and advocate for his country. “Continuing his work,” she said, “is the best way to honor his legacy.”
In an age of political strongmen, when loud voices, bullies and sabre rattlers get the most headlines, Minister Mattlan Zackhras was the polar opposite. Soft-spoken, down-to-earth, genuinely warm and forthcoming, I had the chance to interview him while on a reporting trip to Majuro in May 2016.
While President Heine was overseas and Minister Matt was acting-president, he still made time to meet with me in his office for nearly an hour. Now, as then, his thoughts on climate change, migration, the nuclear legacy and working for his nation’s first female president are worth revisiting.
Below are are excerpts from our interview. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Jon Letman: I want to ask you about migration. As I understand it, the number of Marshallese living outside of the Marshall Islands is now maybe between 30 percent to 40 percent of the overall population. How does your administration see migration? Is it something you want to stop or slow or does it have benefits?
Minister Matt: I think any government in any country would like to see their people remain where they are. In the second set of (Compact of Free Association) negotiations, I would say that we really fought hard to convince the U.S. side that without the proper support to build the right type of medical facilities and education system that we needed and support along the way that would require, you would always see — whether it will increase or decrease — people utilizing this so-called “safety valve” within the Compact agreements.
The provision that allows us to travel (without a visa to the U.S.) — it’s a privilege. I think that’s what we try to tell our people: be constructive or be part of the communities constructively and not become a burden. Unfortunately you have some people that just fall through the crack and go out without even proper training. We want to focus on these trade area trainings, when some of our people go out they can be helpful and be part of the community rather than be a so-called burden that we hear a lot.
Is your administration doing something to create conditions so that people are less likely to want to migrate or less likely to feel the need to and what are the focus areas?
This administration wants to create more jobs. That’s why people just leave — looking for work. Others may view it differently but right now we’re facing a brain drain in our country because the most capable and smart people are going out. I don’t blame them but at the same time we try to instill a sense of responsibility and (patriotism) towards their country because no matter where they are they will always come back and have to pay their share to the country. Again, you don’t want all your capable people going out and a way to stop it is to raise the standard of living. It’s becoming harder and harder to find jobs here in the Marshall Islands. That’s why they go out.
We’ve always viewed ourselves as a major contributor to world peace. Not only because of Kwajalein military base and the ongoing missile testing there but starting back from the nuclear legacy when the strongest atomic bomb was dropped here as a test site. So I think while the U.S. may find Kwajalein of strategic importance, I think it should be a two-way street. The benefit that we get out of (it) is the assistance that comes through the rental of the facility — the lease (through 2066) towards our landowners and rightly so.
In terms of the work force and the small economy there, I see some contribution where most of the workers in terms of the labor force, the majority of it is Marshallese and we have very capable people in the park plants and doing basic stuff. But I would just like to see more training to become more responsible to key areas. We see the value in Kwajalein and the military base but it should be both ways.
You know, they’re benefiting just by testing billion and million dollars’ worth of military equipment on a daily basis or whenever they do their testing. I know the amount of money spent on this and how important it is for the U.S. but I don’t think it should be at the expense of the local people.
We discussed the “right of strategic denial” which gives the U.S. exclusive military control over more than half a million square miles of land, air and water in the Pacific, including the RMI. I asked Minister Matt if he thought the Marshall Islands would be under threat without the U.S. base at Kwajalein.
The concern now is that there is just so much influence of China in the region. So much so that they’re just next door in FSM (the Federated States of Micronesia) because FSM recognizes China — the Marshall Islands don’t. Diplomatically, we recognize Taiwan. But threat — I don’t really see it, but again it’s these big brothers trying to dominate the region. When you combine all three Micronesian nations — Palau, FSM and Marshalls, that’s a big body of water and it’s one of the most lucrative bodies when it comes to fishing. Today they’re not really looking at land — it’s the ocean, because we’re ocean states.
I know this is a complicated question, but are nuclear issues resolved?
To us it will never be resolved until the U.S. discloses everything because most of what we don’t know is still classified. And just recently they were declassified because we worked with the Clinton administration when he was in office and he allowed some of it to be declassified and we found some information like Project 4.1 where we weren’t aware of it when we negotiated the first Compact. You cannot just wash your hands off of an issue that is still impacting the Marshallese people until today. You have a big dome on Enewetak (atoll) that’s leaking and you’re just not doing anything about it.
Runit dome? Is it leaking?
Runit dome — yeah.
Has there been an adequate response by the U.S.?
Well, they’re saying it’s not contaminated. After the testing they just brought in all of the materials and shielded it with a large cement dome over it and just say, “okay, problem solved.”
What do you think Americans today should understand about these nuclear issues?
I think that’s the very unfortunate part of our story, is that we don’t have access to the major networks like CNN. We can be captured a little here and there whenever there’s an article about climate and we link up the nuclear issue with that just to raise the profile again and remind people. But if it was the U.S. and it was the sheer thought of the extent and strength of a nuclear device being tested in their soil that would have been a major issue.
Take Nevada, for example, and try to compare. I think the only difference is that it was done in a different country. And for those who probably don’t really understand, I think it’s on us today, a lot of the youngsters today need to keep the momentum going because most of our leaders that were living back then are dying or they’ve already gone, but they were brave. I live until the day that we will see the full disclosure of all the documents.
Is that central to disclosure?
There’s no closure until there’s full disclosure to this nuclear (issue). I’m glad that it’s being discussed now at the World Humanitarian Summit, the issue of loss and damage. Well, it has to do with the climate change but again, looking at it from humanity’s side. That’s something that we really need to revisit and keep telling the story to anyone and everyone that wants to open their ears and understand.
Last question, real quick — President Heine, I believe she’s your boss.
She is the first female president of an independent Pacific Island nation, the first female president of the Marshall Islands. What is the significance of this?
She’s also the first female president in the Pacific region. I think we’re just proud of her accomplishments. There’s no question that a woman would have been president, it was just a matter of when. It’s a very timely appointment because, we’re seeing others coming into play. And I don’t know about the U.S. but I know for sure about Taiwan. (President Heine) is in Taiwan now for the inauguration of (Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-wen), she took three of our lady mayors with her so it’s mostly a woman’s delegation led by the president. Others were very excited when I attended recent meetings in Guam. They were saying, “Oh, it would have been us!” Palau, they were also saying it should be us.
While some may say that we are not there yet, I think she’s proven so many people wrong and I think she will keep on surprising people. She’s a tough lady and very consistent, no doubt about her education background and how smart she is because she’s probably the smartest person in the parliament today but I think she made history and it’s a positive one for the Marshall Islands.
End note: Three months after interviewing Minister Matt in Majuro, I met him for a second time by chance at the East-West Center in Honolulu at a meeting of Pacific Island nation leaders. When I saw Minister Matt, I called him over and reminded him of our previous meeting. He quickly smiled and took my hand and, as before, was approachable, genuine, and full of warmth.