Imaculata Afituk is worried. She’s a housekeeper at a Waikiki hotel and has been living and working in Hawaii for over a decade.
She legally immigrated to the U.S. from Chuuk, a state in the Federated States of Micronesia in the northwestern Pacific. Afituk says she moved to Honolulu to support her family because there wasn’t enough work back home. But now she’s afraid that her legal status is in danger of being revoked.
That’s because in March, she and thousands of other Chuukese people plan to vote on whether to leave the FSM and form their own independent nation.
Supporters say independence would resolve concerns that Chuuk, the most populous of four states in the FSM, lacks adequate political representation and funding in proportion to its population.
But Atifuk fears secession could eventually sever the treaty binding the U.S. and Chuuk and endanger the legal status for her and thousands of other Chuukese residents who are living, working and going to school in the U.S.
“I think it’s going to be a disaster for us Chuukese,” Afituk says.
The Federated States of Micronesia has only been a country since 1986, when more than 600 islands with disparate cultures and languages formed a sovereign nation. The country has always had a close relationship with the U.S., known as “free association,” that gives the U.S. military control over one million square miles of the western Pacific Ocean and allows FSM citizens to migrate freely to the U.S., among other provisions.
The agreement also comes with funding, but that’s set to expire in five years. Sabino Asor, chair of the public education committee for the Chuuk Political Status Commission, believes that given the impending end of U.S. aid, breaking off from the FSM is the best option for Chuuk’s economic future.
“There is no encouraging prospect if Chuuk remains within the Federation,” Asor says.
He says Atifuk’s concerns are unfounded because even if Chuuk votes to secede, it will be a long time before it actually leaves the FSM.
“It’s just for the people to authorize the process to go forward,” he says of the vote. “We will not be independent in March and nobody will be deported in March,” noting that it will take at least five years for Chuuk to actually establish an independent republic similar to the Marshall Islands or Palau. He added that the commission believes some Chuukese people could remain FSM citizens even if Chuuk seceded.
To Asor, the push for independence is about more than just the Chuuk’s economic future. It’s about stemming the tide of people leaving the islands, gaining political power and finding a way for families to remain together and practice Chuukese culture. The vote on secession, he says, reflects the “long-term aspiration for a national identity of a people.”
“There is no other alternative beside it,” he says.
Support for Chuuk’s secession movement echoes the desire for political autonomy that partially drove Great Britain residents to vote to leave the European Union.
Chuuk is home to about 47,000 people, nearly half of the total population of the FSM which also includes Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap. Many Chuukese people feel they’re not getting their fair share of government funding and don’t have enough voting power either.
A 2014 report from the Chuuk Political Status Commission noted that the FSM doesn’t have a popular election for its president and that a required “second reading” vote in the Legislature — which gives all four states an equal voice — disadvantages Chuuk.
Independence would allow Chuuk to access more foreign financial assistance and allow more flexibility regarding economic development, Asor says. He thinks there’s potential to expand the fishing industry.
“We’re not expecting to start out fancy… like the U.S. or California or China or even Taiwan,” Asor says. “We’re just a Pacific island nation like Fiji or Palau. That’s the level of economic expectation that we’re looking to start out with.”
But while supporters of Brexit were also motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, Chuuk has the opposite problem: too much out-migration.
A third of Chuuk’s population has already migrated to the U.S. In Hawaii and Guam, the arrival of thousands of Chuukese immigrants (who are often known abroad as “Micronesians”) have prompted concerns about dependence on social services and sparked anti-Micronesian sentiment. But Asor says for Chuuk, migration has been a double-edged sword.
Chuuk is home mostly to children and the elderly now that so many adults have left to find work, Asor says. It’s tough to grow an economy because there aren’t enough adults to work in a coconut processing plant.
“There’s nobody to replace the (coconut) trees or clean the islands,” he says. “All our villages are becoming empty. These are small islands, when you lose 1,000 (people) you can see the physical result.”
Asor is worried about the integrity of Chuukese culture, families and traditions.
“Families are being scattered,” Asor says, which is a problem because “island societies are built on families.” They weren’t meant to be separated across states and oceans, he explains. “It’s a very disorderly society going on here in response to this endless migration of our people.”
He says he understands why people from Chuuk want to move to Hawaii or the mainland where they have running water, electricity, good education and one day might buy a nice car.
“You have to have a portable generator on most of the islands to have electricity back here,” Asor explains. He wants Chuuk to one day be like Maui, which he describes an island with police stations and other infrastructure.
Instead, “We’re actually losing our population and our culture,” he says. “We’re becoming a nobody in the whole scheme of humanity.”
Asor says Chuuk wants to continue its close relationship with the U.S. and would be interested in maintaining the Compact of Free Association treaty.
But Robert Riley, U.S. ambassador to the FSM, said in a video message that while the U.S. does not take a position on the Chuuk secession vote, the current COFA is with the FSM and would not cover an independent Chuuk republic.
“There is no possibility for a separate compact with Chuuk,” Riley said. “It is a unique document that came out of World War II and it is not something that will be repeated with any other country or any other entity.”
He said if independence is fully implemented, visas would be required for citizens of Chuuk who want to go to the U.S.
“The Chuukese living in the United States would be in legal limbo and they would not have legal status in the United States,” Riley said. He said it’s likely that over time Chuukese people living in the U.S. would be asked to return to Chuuk. “And that’s obviously something that we don’t want and I’m sure you don’t want.”
He added that an independent Chuuk would not be eligible to get funding from the COFA trust fund, would no longer receive certain types of disaster assistance and could lose education and health care grants. The ability for Chuukese people to enlist in the military would also be curtailed, Riley said.
He urged Chuukese residents to be realistic. “Neither the Congress nor the administration is interested in putting together another Compact of Free Association,” he said.
Asor says the ambassador’s announcement was unfortunate because Chuuk wants to continue its relationship with the U.S. He says everyone in the Chuuk Political Status Commission and the Chuuk Legislature attended U.S. colleges and value close U.S. ties.
“Democratic values are part of our political island culture now,” he says. “We do believe in values like democracy and the rule of law. Although we may not do a good job, we aspire to those values also.”
The independence movement raises concerns about the potential for Chuuk to establish closer ties with China and the effects that would have on the U.S.’s military dominance in the Pacific.
“If F.S.M. were to gracefully fall into the long-term sphere of Chinese influence, the ramifications would be tremendous,” Lieutenant Colonel Tom Matelski wrote in The Diplomat, adding that would leave Guam “at risk” and could limit U.S. strategic access to multiple Asian countries for commerce and military response.
Asor told Civil Beat that Chuuk would welcome China’s economic and diplomatic assistance but not a Chinese military presence.
“It’s just not right for regional security and stability to try to bring the Chinese military to be living amongst us,” Asor says.
An independent Chuuk would still seek a close relationship with the U.S. despite the ambassador’s message, Asor says.
“We do still want to regardless of what this ambassador had said,” Asor says. “We are not going to be like Cuba.”
Asor’s explanations mean little to Atifuk who worries about how Chuukese independence could also cut the islands off from disaster assistance.
“When typhoon coming to Chuuk, no more help from the U.S. If someone lost on the boat, no Coast Guard is going to help,” Atifuk says. “If we go back, what are we going to do over there? Our country is poor. There’s not enough work.”
John Akapito, a Chuukese educator who lives in San Diego, California, says he thinks it’s too soon for a vote. He doesn’t think it makes sense for Chuuk to secede without a stronger economy.
“Maybe twenty years from now,” he says.
With Chuukese communities scattered across the U.S. and the northern Pacific, the secession movement has prompted heated debates on Facebook.
“It’s starting to turn me off when I get on social media,” Akapito says. People are “attacking each other ad hominem, it’s just all over the place.”
Debates are raging in person as well. The Chuuk Political Status Commission held a series of educational talks in Honolulu in April. Former FSM president Manny Mori who opposes secession plans to speak about it on October 7 at Pearl City High School. Vid Raatior, a Chuukese academic based in San Jose, California, is circulating a Change.org petition against independence.
Asor says Chuuk is planning to have multiple election sites across the Pacific and on the mainland, including in Chuuk, Pohnpei, Saipan, Guam, Maui, Hilo, Honolulu and Portland, Oregon.
The commission has even asked the Chuuk Legislature for more money to establish additional election sites on the mainland.
“Citizens now in Texas, Oklahoma and Utah are demanding that they be heard on the question of independence,” Asor says, adding that there are about 300 Chuukese immigrants in Minnesota who also want to vote.
Despite Asor’s assurances, Atifuk worries the election process will be rigged. And she’s afraid of what would happen to Chuukese children born in the U.S. if their parents have to move back.
“It’s like what they are doing to Mexico,” she says, referencing the deportation of non-U.S. citizens. She says she’s scared. After all these years, “Hawaii is like home.”
For more information, below are economic and legal analyses regarding Chuuk independence by Honolulu attorney Sherry Broder and Guam firm JDS Consulting.
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