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A tale of two territories

Updated: Jun 12

Guam activists held a self-determination march in August 2019. File photo by Pacific Island Times

These Islands By Robert A Underwood

The current crisis in New Caledonia/Kanaky over the next step for self-determination does not seem to connect to Guahan’s quest for indigenous self-determination. Let’s attempt to draw some comparisons.

Currently, France manages the territory as an “overseas territory.” A recently approved voting reform in Paris will authorize Europeans who have been residents for at least 10 years to vote in future elections. This has sparked outrage in the Kanak indigenous community. It is clearly a blow to the principle of indigenous self-determination and further dilutes the indigenous management of their homeland.

The crisis brought French President Macron to New Caledonia to engage in conversations. He has announced that this “voting reform” will not be implemented by force. This followed a week of rioting in which six people have died and hundreds have been injured. The French president’s personal attention also brought renewed efforts to establish a strong police presence.

Given the upcoming Olympics in Paris, there is an opportunity to draw attention to this issue on an international basis. Maybe there can be a “decolonization” run for the indigenous people of the Pacific.

In Guahan, Attorney General Douglas Moylan has clearly stated his opposition to the principle of CHamoru self-determination. He issued a legal opinion in response to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s request. Almost all political leaders in Guahan proclaim their support for this path to self-determination, but it remains entirely unclear on how this will be achieved given the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision in the Davis v. Guam case. Any election held in Guam must be open to all residents who have lived in a single location for at least 30 days. Ten years in New Caledonia, but one month in Guahan will do the trick.

Moylan said the road to a locally-authorized locally authorized plebiscite is closed and that other ways could be explored. The attorney general could have ended his official opinion on that note. But he chose to criticize previous efforts to pursue this as wasteful.

Moreover, he attacked “prideful independence,” which he said hurts us economically. He argued that we “must recognize the stark realities that have brought us to our current Western standard of living, for which we are accustomed.” I guess these stark realities must include acceptance of everything that Washington D.C. dishes out.

Had this statement been made by any federal official about Guahan, the charge of colonialism would have been resounding. On Guahan, the colonizer has many allies who have been here on island for more than 30 days. Some were even born here. There is no need for federal officials to opine on this matter. No riots have occurred in Guahan, but five years ago, a powerful demonstration was held for CHamoru self-determination. It was the largest street action in recent history.

Perhaps what we need now is for some general agreement with Moylan’s opinion to be made by federal officials in the Biden administration or in the U.S. Congress. This may spark some unrest. Unfortunately, we won’t hear that kind of clarity from any federal official. Ironically, we may get a statement of support for the attorney general from his relative, Del. James Moylan.

The comparison with New Caledonia is instructive. France acknowledges that it has colonies (overseas territories or collectivities) and routinely passes legislation to alter the status and governing structure of these areas. Both New Caledonia and Tahiti (French Polynesia) enjoy significant levels of autonomy beyond what Guahan or any U.S. territory has. They are also members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Conversely, the U.S. denies that it has colonies. Instead, it has “unincorporated territories” based on Supreme Court rulings (Insular Cases) from the early 1900s. Congress rarely passes legislation on Guahan's autonomy or political status, citing constitutional limitations. Any proposal is summarily dealt with by referring to the Insular Cases.


Guahan never gets visited by any U.S. president since Bill Clinton came to the island in 1998 and actually landed in the civilian airport. Barack Obama made a pit stop at Andersen Air Force Base in 2010, and Donald Trump did the same in 2018. These are the famous “gas and go” stops. Guahan is not just home to serious military facilities, it is a great gas station for those traveling across the Pacific. I hope it won’t take a week of rioting or deaths or injuries to command presidential attention.

It is tempting to argue that New Caledonia and Guahan are widely different societies with different histories. They are governed by different colonial powers with differing legal systems. To expect that the same level of analysis would be applied to both would be to discount this history. All of this may be true. But that seems to argue that the original colonization process should be continued because of the very colonial history both islands have endured.

Furthermore, isn’t it also true that the principle of self-determination and the process of decolonization are supposed to be subjected to the clear eye of international law? What do we mean when we tout self-determination? What is the meaning of “free and open Pacific” as articulated by the United States in its emerging Indo-Pacific strategy? Does free and open only apply to non-U.S. territories?


The United States and France became colonial powers as a result of their activities during the 19th century. To some extent, we conceded that the United States and France were “Pacific” nations in the 20th century as a result of world wars and the world movement toward decolonization.

In the 21st century, the island Pacific has reached a new level of self-awareness and regional identity. Are we still including these two colonial powers as Pacific nations without any responsibilities to redress the original colonization and respect the original people?


If we are not willing to engage in that basic issue, we might as well return to the really good old days when power was exercised without polite speech or visits by various presidents.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to


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