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Micronesia: Politics and Education

Living in the past and Future of the Trust Territory of the Paciffic 

ISSUE:  Winter 1973

The intimate reciprocal relation which John Dewey discerned between education and politics is significantly illustrated by the developing situation in Micronesia. This thought came repeatedly to my mind while I was in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands during the summer of 1971 on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and the International League for the Rights of Man.

The Trust Territory—briefly identified as Micronesia—consists of three island groups in the western Pacific, north of the equator: the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls. These islands are distributed over an ocean area larger than that of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada. But the total land surface of the islands of Micronesia is only 1260 square miles and the very name, Micronesia, means little islands. There are over two thousand such islands in the trust territory, about a hundred being inhabitable. The present population is slightly above one hundred thousand, mostly of Malayo-Polynesian ancestry, culturally diverse, and speaking at least nine different Malayo-Polynesian languages.

These islanders share a history which is extraordinary. They have been subject successively to Spain, Germany, Japan (as mandatory power under the League of Nations), and the United States (as trustee under the United Nations). Spain was in the islands from the sixteenth century to the end of the Spanish-American War. Germany purchased them from Spain, and Japan conquered them from the Germans during World War I. As indicated, the Japanese technically held them as a mandate of the League of Nations, and the United States, having taken them from Japan in World War II, holds them as a trust territory of the United Nations.

At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, when Germany acquired the islands which now constitute the trust territory, the United States took Guam as an island territory as it did Eastern Samoa in the southern Pacific. Guam is geographically one of the Marianas, but culturally it has long been essentially a part of the United States. As all Guamanian auto licenses proclaim, it is here, in Guam, that “America’s Day Begins,” for Guam is a day ahead of the rest of the United States, being on the further side of the international date line.

Despite its trans-Pacific location and territorial status Guam gives the impression of being, as a whole, a suburb of some town in Florida or southern California. Autos galore, miles of paved roads with frequent traffic jams on the main streets of Agana, movies and filling stations and supermarkets, numerous luxury hotels and motels with an atmosphere of resort prosperity adjacent to pockets of poverty. Much of Guam’s Western population is military and temporary, most of the men in uniform and many civilians also connected with the army, navy or air force. The services have, it may be noted in passing, pre-empted many of the finest Guamanian beaches together with contiguous land areas.

As already mentioned, Guam is geographically one of the Marianas and a plane from Guam reaches Saipan in less than an hour. Though politically separated since the Spanish-American War these two islands have more in common than either has with other islands of Micronesia. The Guamanian Chamorros and the Chamorros of Saipan share a kinship heritage and many traditions, and intermarriage between these two groups is frequent. Compared to Guam there are relatively few automobiles, paved roads, supermarkets, or resort hotels on Saipan but there are many more than on any of the other islands of Micronesia. Incidentally, most of the tourists on Saipan are Japanese, many of them honeymooners. To some extent Saipan may have been Americanized through being the administrative headquarters of the trust territory.

The flight from Guam to Yap, the nearest large island of the western Carolines is also brief—less than three hours—but it is a passage from twentieth-century America to an altogether different world. Landing on Yap, the plane comes to a halt near a high, open structure with thatched roof and bamboo benches. One looks about at the tropical setting—giant ferns, mangos, breadfruit trees, flame trees, bougainvillea, oleander, hibiscus, bamboo, cocoanut, bananas––not so different, to be sure, from Guam or Saipan or, for that matter, from Hawaii. But here, at work or walking across the fields, boys and men wear nothing but a loin cloth and women walk along the roads wearing topless grass skirts and carrying bundles on their heads. Many are handsome people with fine, well-shaped bodies, dark brown skin, beautiful posture. Some wear Western clothes but in the tropical heat they seem, and doubtless are, far less comfortable than those in grass skirts or thu, the Yapese word, both plural and singular, for breech cloths. These are usually bright red or blue. Occasionally the two colors are combined and some older men wear white thu, as did a representative of one of the outer islands at a session of the Yapese legislature where I heard Dr. Franklin Haydn Williams, President Nixon’s special ambassador, address the legislators. One soon becomes accustomed to topless grass skirts and singlets, yet it remains startling to meet a motor cyclist (and there are quite a number on Yap) wearing nothing but his thu. Thu and motor cycle may well symbolize much of Micronesia today.

Yap is the most “primitive” of the six district centers of Micronesia. I visited all six—Saipan in the Marianas, Yap, Koror, Truk, and Ponape in the Carolines, and Majuro, one of the atolls of the Marshalls—but I did not get to any of the outer islands which are undoubtedly even less Westernized than Yap. Not only the degree of Westernization but the acceptance of Western values varies enormously in different parts of Micronesia, and this, of course has important social and political implications. But the conflicting desires for their thu and for motor cycles represent a pervasive problem.

Be that as it may, of the many discussions I had in the days I was on Yap, there were two which remain especially vivid in my memory. One was with District Judge Fanechoor, a venerable official of the Yapese judiciary. He is in his late eighties or early nineties—he is not clear as to his age, but he has clear and impressive recollections of his childhood under Spanish rule and his later boyhood in the years of German occupation as well as, of course, of the Japanese period. He reminisced about the cruelties of Spanish discipline, which he contrasted with the rigors of his German schooling. Judge Fanechoor and I carried on most of our conversation in German; this had also been the case in my talk with seventy-four year old Judge Benavente on Saipan, who told me that he had been sent to Yap in 1914 by the Germans to set up the first radio station in the islands.

Though I had heard some severe criticisms both by Micronesians and by United States Peace Corps teachers of the education being provided, in some instances by the Peace Corps workers themselves, Judge Fanechoor asserted that American schools compared favorably with those of the Spanish, German, and Japanese régimes. On the other hand, he, like virtually every Micronesian with whom I talked, complained of the inadequacy of the settlement of war claims and postwar damage allotments and, most of all, of the failure of the administration to redistribute land which had been taken as “public domain” by the Japanese. The enormous importance of this land problem throughout Micronesia can easily be understood in terms of the small amount of land available at best, but on Yap as on other Caroline islands the problems are complicated by the fact that ownership has been traditionally vested in families, not individuals, and involves the entire nature of family structure. A wise native Jesuit, Father Felix of Koror, explained some of this to me when I told him that a Western real estate specialist had assured me that the United States title to “public lands” was clear, since Micronesians had sold and accepted compensation for their land from Japan. Said Father Felix: “These Westerners just can’t understand. For a Micronesian land can’t be a saleable commodity.” Perhaps the best symbol of the difference between Western and Micronesian economic traditions can be seen in the huge stone wheels which constitute Yapese money, hardly a medium of exchange as the West views monetary transactions.

Like the problems of war and postwar damages and of land settlement, the question of the future political status of Micronesia remains unsettled. When I broached this matter in my conversation with Judge Fanechoor he maintained a discreet judicial silence. Even this silence seemed eloquent and I left with a vivid sense of Micronesia’s past and of a man wise in the lessons of history.

Some hours later I had a very different but also impressive interview with another Yapese, a nineteen year old sophomore studying at the Brockport campus of the University of the State of New York. Cy (for Cyprian) Mugunbey, son of Fran Defngin, a public relations officer on Yap, had had one year of high school and his first year of college at Brockport, where his older sister was also an undergraduate. All this had come to pass because of the family’s acquaintance with Professor Sherwood Lingenfelter of the Anthropology Department at Brockport. There are many other Micronesians now studying in colleges and universities throughout the United States. They represent, of course, many different attitudes and points of view. The group that I met at Micronesia House in Honolulu was profoundly critical of United States policies in the Trust Territory, but, I was interested to observe, they express their opposition in ways altogether like those of many anti-establishmentarians on any American campus. Others are enthusiastic about their studies and the opportunities they anticipate of using their experiences for the benefit of their people. If they succeed in bringing the fruits of their work in law and architecture and medicine and engineering and many other fields into harmony with the values of Micronesian culture, it should be one of the brightest aspects of the not always encouraging history of the Trust Territory.

The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was unique among the trusteeships established by the United Nations in that it was designated a StrategicTrust Territory and placed under the aegis of both the Security and Trusteeship Councils. The implications of this distinctive status are ominous when one recalls the significance of the veto in the Security Council. It may well skew the decisions regarding the political future of Micronesia for an indefinite time. Of the other trusteeship areas only Papua-New Guinea remains, administered by Australia; all the others have become self­governing members of the United Nations and it is anticipated that Papua-New Guinea’s trusteeship will be terminated in the near future.

The Trusteeship Council meets annually to review the trusteeships and to inquire into the prospects of realizing the objectives set for all the peoples of trust territories by the terms of the United Nations charter including their preparation for self-government. To accomplish this the trustee nations were charged with the obligation to provide political education, over and above general education, for the peoples of the territories. In Micronesia an important step in this direction was taken in 1965 with the establishment of the Congress of Micronesia, a bicameral organization with a senate having two members from each of the six districts into which Micronesia had been divided for administrative purposes and a House of Representatives with twenty-one members. Whatever the deficiencies of the United States’ presence may be (and on this there is a wide divergence of opinion not only among the native population but among Americans too, including many in the central administration as well as district offices and those in Micronesia as Members of the Peace Corps or as missionaries), I think the existence of the Congress of Micronesia is a notable achievement and a great contribution to political education in a broad sense. I have myself been deeply impressed by the Micronesian senators and congressmen whom I have had the good fortune to meet, both at the United Nations, where I have attended sessions of the Trusteeship Council for many years, and through the visits I had in all six districts of the Trust Territory in 1971.

But another aspect of the political education of Micronesians in preparation for the plebiscite in which they are to vote on their future political status has been less fortunate. Concerning this, Senator Andon Amaraich, one of the two Micronesian Special Advisers at the 1972 sessions of the Trusteeship Council, spoke forcefully at the meeting of the Council on May 24. “The administration’s political education programme,” he said, “has been a total failure…. Little has been done to prepare the people of Micronesia for the awesome responsibilities of self-government; as a result, beyond a handful of political leaders, higher government employees, and the educated élite, very few people even know the rudiments of the political system of the Trust Territory.

“It is said,” continued Senator Amaraich, “that he who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind, and perhaps this old saying has come true with relation to the negotiations regarding the future political status of Micronesia.”

These negotiations have been carried on in a series of meetings, some in Micronesia and some in Hawaii, at which Micronesia has been represented by a delegation with Senator Lazarus Salii and Congressman Ekpap Silk as co-chairmen and the United States by representatives of the State, Interior, and Defense Departments headed by Ambassador Franklin Haydn Williams, President Nixon’s special representative.

That few people in Micronesia “know the rudiments of the political system in the Trust Territory” is perhaps not altogether surprising. That, after twenty-five years, “little has been done to prepare the people of Micronesia” for the plebiscite which was stipulated by the trusteeship agreement is shocking. Professor Leonard Mason of Hawaii, a long-time and devoted friend of Micronesia, expressed the dismay which many share at the 1971 meeting of the Association for Anthropology in Micronesia. Political passions are running high, as the above quotation from Senator Amaraich suggests, and in diverse directions. Four petitioners from the Marianas appeared before the Trusteeship Council at the 1972 sessions and vehemently asserted their desire for closer ties with the United States, even if this involved the breaking up of Micronesia. At the opposite extreme are independence movements, notably in the Truk district and among the young Micronesians at the University of Hawaii and elsewhere. Between these extremes is the movement favoring Free Association, a proposal brought to the fore by Professor James Davidson of Australia, one of the three official advisers to the Congress of Micronesia chosen by the Congress itself. Free Association, currently being discussed by the negotiators mentioned above, means a continuing relationship between Micronesia and the United States with autonomy for the islands except with regard to foreign relations and defense, for which the United States would be responsible.

These and possibly other options should surely be presented as minimal political education throughout Micronesia, in the outer islands as well as in the district centers. Since the United States has not provided this, it might be well if a United Nations mission could undertake this task, since many Micronesians would question the disinterestedness of any purely United States delegation. An international body with qualifications such as those which the Trusteeship Council sends every two years for observation and inspection should be accompanied by educational experts in political affairs. Such a panel could assure the Micronesians of the scrupulous concern of the United States as well as the United Nations and if proposed by the United States should secure for us the good opinion of mankind. It might even obviate the use of a veto in the Security Council.

An even more effective procedure might be the organization of teams of Micronesians representing a full spectrum of political outlook and opinion. Such groups could be constituted by the Congress of Micronesia. Co-operation to this extent between advocates of independence, free association, and continuation of the status quo, as well as modifications of these positions, would be salutary in itself. Teams composed of representatives of these and possibly other proposals could present their views to the citizens of most if not all the island communities. Here would be the opportunity for political self-education of a high order and a unique experiment in the history of politics.


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