Koror – On Oct. 28, 2015, Palau President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, an ambitious ocean conservation initiative aimed at protecting Palau’s own marine resources as well as the world’s tuna stocks. This landmark legislation creates a no-take marine sanctuary covering 80 percent of Palau’s exclusive economic zone, where no fishing will occur. The law also creates a domestic fishing zone covering approximately 20 percent of Palau’s EEZ in which traditional and domestic fishing activities will be allowed to provide fish solely for the domestic market.
The underlying principle behind this monumental legislation is for Palau to capitalize on its leading role in environmental stewardship by turning the conservation initiative into tourism dollars. Establishing the marine sanctuary secures the cornerstone of Remengesau’s vision to realign Palau’s economic foundation into a niche market destination attracting “high value, high end” tourists.
The signing of the marine sanctuary law was an unmistakable — and unparalleled — political event held in a stylish open-sky evening on the grounds of Palau International Coral Reef Center. Many government officials and traditional leaders attended this full-blown event glutted with food, drinks and entertainment such as traditional dance and live band. It was a triumphant celebration following the long drawnout battle in the Olbiil Era Kelulau (Palau National Congress) for the approval of President Remengesau’s defining legislative achievement and where his legacy ultimately rests on.
It was in this occasion that an influential senator, Hokkons Baules, and Speaker of the House of Delegates Sabino Anastacio, key players in the passage of the marine sanctuary act, delivered statements of support that captured the political expediency of the partnership between the two congressional leaders and Remengesau.
The political alliance continued in a striking manner, bridging the previous and the current administrations as Baules took over the senate presidency alongside Anastacio’s speakership of the House. The partnership has delivered major legislative victories for Remengesau, among which are increase of minimum wage, merging of the water and sewer utilities, state of emergency declaration for drought crisis, loan financing for fiber optic cable and the five-star hotel legislation.
But this marriage based on political convenience hasn’t always fared well with Remengesau. Eager to avoid trouble with his political allies, he has given way to legislative bullies to run roughshod over his appointees and administration officials. He has conveniently kept distance from the attacks made against officials of his administration, preferring instead to making nuanced statements to avoid taking ownership of the problem as the top government official of the land. Nothing illustrates this better than the latest letter from Baules and Anastacio, who have brought to fore the risk of maintaining support in the Olbiil Era Kelulau.
In the Aug. 13 letter to Palau’s Minister of State Faustina Rehuher-Marugg, Hokkons and Anastacio warned that the Palau Embassy in Taiwan and Palau Visitors Authority could have their budget reduced if the state ministry doesn’t adhere to a uniform “policy on tourism.” The letter did not specify what the uniform policy of tourism is. Their demand stemmed from media statements made by Palau ambassador to Taiwan, Dilmei Olkeriil, who called on democratic countries around the world to adopt strategies to counter China's bullying, particularly of small developing countries like Palau. Olkeriil also said a "majority of Palau people support the current diplomatic relations with Taiwan. We are a democratic country and we support and promote our relationship with countries with same system of government such as Taiwan."
This was not the first time, Hokkons and Anastacio, who are both supporters of close diplomatic ties with China, have blasted Olkeriil for her comment. Last year, they questioned Olkeriil’s authority to comment on the Palau-Taiwan relationship as “extremely stable.”
When asked to comment on the congressional leaders’ demand, Remengesau as he always tends to spread the responsibility on everyone involved. “What is more important is that there should be an understanding between the executive and the legislative branch regarding this kind of sensitive diplomatic relationship and situations that Palau faces, such as Taiwan and China for that matter,” said the president, whose response is directed with one eye in support of his underlings and the other placating the leaders of the Olbiil Era Kelulau.
The list of administration officials who have been berated in congressional sessions or browbeaten in oversight hearings without Remengesau’s showing leadership on the various issues is long and frequent. Among them were former Attorney General Victoria Roe, the Board of National Development Bank, Interim Special Prosecutor Melissa Simms, Ambassador Dilmei Olkeriil, and Palau Public Utilities Corporation Chairman Sam Masang.
But while the Olbiil Era Kelulau leaders have attacked the executive branch officials, they haven’t been able to force Remengesau to acquiesce to their controversial policy initiatives such as oil drilling, casino operation and establishing diplomatic ties with China.
Considering that Palau is committed to host the biggest international meeting on its shores with “Our Ocean Conference” in 2020, there is no reason to expect any changes to the existing cohabitation between the three top political leaders of Palau. Whatever strategies President Remengesau is employing, the congressional bullying and the presidential passivity will continue to exemplify Palau’s politics today.