Updated: Feb 8
Chuuk independence vote stalled again; political status commission abolished
By Alex Rhowuniong
A bill that would allow Chuuk to secede from the Federated States of Micronesia has been lying dormant in the FSM Senate. But it may soon reawaken, according to Sen. Matt Kuor of the Northwest Chuuk region.
"I heard from reliable sources that they’re getting ready to introduce it again," Kuor said.
But so far, these are just speculations. "There is nothing yet,” said Andrew May, also a representative from the same region.
After being delayed multiple times, the referendum on Chuuk secession was supposed to be held this year, but the vote seems to have been pushed to the backburner, if not abandoned altogether.
Last month, FSM officials gathered in Weno, Chuuk for the Second Resources & Development Conference that tackled the economic development and infrastructure projects for all four states. There was no sign of Chuuk itching to leave its FSM family.
“The president and the governor have not spoken about a hypothetical Chuukese independence referendum, either publicly or privately, and either during the conference or on its margins,” said Richard Clark, spokesman for FSM President David Panuelo.
“It wouldn't have even occurred to the president to talk to the governor about this either, as the referendum remains hypothetical and the president prefers to discuss what is actual,” he added.
After all, the infrastructure for this movement doesn’t exist anymore.
“The Office of the President has been advised by staff from the Office of the Governor that the Chuuk Political Status Commission has been phased out. The office no longer retains funding or staff, and the physical space it resided in has been closed,” Clark said.
The commission was created in 2012 to study potential future political status options for Chuuk. In 2014, the commission recommended “independence” with a separate Compact of Free Association with the United States.
“The Office of the President is informed by the Office of the Governor that the Chuuk Political Status Commission is, for most intents and purposes, no longer an existing entity. Its founders, however, largely continue to reside in the State of Chuuk,” he added.
The governor’s office had previously advised the national government that the referendum scheduled in previous years had been delayed “due to budgetary concerns at the Chuuk State Legislature,” Clark said.
The referendum was originally scheduled to take place in March 2015. The governor of Chuuk postponed the initial referendum, citing the need for greater citizen awareness and a lack of preparedness. The Chuuk State Legislature delayed the second planned referendum in 2019 for a year, and also suspended the commission. The third delay in February 2020 pushed the referendum back two years to 2022.
Will the Chuuk leadership ever get around to taking the independence referendum to the people Chuuk? We made numerous phone call attempts, but Chuuk Gov. Alexander R. Narruhn was unavailable to take any call.
But while there may still be no discussions about Chuuk independence, Kuor has not abandoned the idea. He anticipates it to get resurrected soon. Timing is of essence, he said, noting that 2023 is just around the corner. The FSM is currently renegotiating with the U.S. economic provisions of the Compact of Free Association. While the treaty remains permanent, the economic provisions are set to expire in 2023.
John Pattis, a Chuukese who lives on Guam, is a strong opponent of the secession movement. While Chuuk may try it again, Pattis said Chuukese living abroad do not want any part of the movement.
In its final report, the commission claimed it had rallied strong support for independence, and it was confident people would approve it.
Kuor confirmed that Chuukese living abroad were very influential in the first round of the discussion. They want to maintain the status quo and the FSM’s free association with United States.
For the most part, those advocating for Chuuk’s secession
from the FSM are concerned about the way funds are appropriated to Chuuk.
Chuukese living in U.S. jurisdictions are living the “American Dream,” said Ann B., a Chuukese who lives on Guam. “Most who are voicing their concerns about secession live on American soil, so it’s safe to assume that they won’t be affected by what Palikir does when it comes to Chuuk’s appropriations of money.”
But she agreed that the struggle in Chuuk is real, hence many Chuukese are leaving in record numbers to seek better education, better jobs and better health care.
“Part of the problem for Chuukese is, what’s done and what is not done to that funding appropriation that is out of (Chuukese) hands,” Ann B. said.
Kuor cited, for example, the FSM Congress’s 52 percent pay raise announced on June 10 last year. He wonders what portion of the 52 percent was taken out of the appropriation for Chuuk. But the state does not have any say in it, Kuro said.
"The bottom line is the Chuuk leadership wants Chuuk's appropriation (to be managed) as we see fit," Kuor said.
He said the sooner Chuuk seceded from FSM, the sooner it could figure things out on its own.
He said this is ideally the right time to revive the secession movement given the FSM is being dragged into the growing geopolitical tension in the region.
In 2018, Robert Riley, the U.S. ambassador to FSM, made it clear that it would not offer the free association to Chuuk like it did with the FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau.
“That, certainly, is their prerogative to use that tone of language,” Kuor said. “But could they just let us go when things are heating up with China?”
But what if we turn the table on them, he asked, hypothetically. “We say, our waters may not be much, but it's still our waters and you cannot have that," Kuor said. "We go to renegotiate and deny them that.”
Washington will heave a sigh of relief at the possible abandonment of Chuuk’s secession.
“The island is contiguous to forward-deployed U.S. forces on Guam and boasts one of the largest and deepest lagoons in the Pacific,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit Rand Corporation and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.
In his blog published on the Rand website on March 6, 2020, Grossman noted that Chuuk’s natural features along with its strategic location made Chuuk lagoon an ideal base of operations during World War II for the Imperial Japanese Navy.
“And this is precisely why Chuuk's decision is so important for Washington. By forgoing the secession referendum once again, Chuuk will remain in the COFA, allowing the U.S. to retain exclusive military access to Chuuk,” Grossman wrote.
“If the COFA no longer applies to Chuuk after a successful secession vote, then China would be able to interact with Chuuk bilaterally and on military issues.” (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)