Just the tip of the iceberg?
Former Marshall Islands president calls for full investigation of officials suspected of involvement in bribery scandal
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
On Dec. 1, two naturalized Marshallese citizens pleaded guilty to bribing Marshall Islands lawmakers in exchange for passing a proposal for the creation of a business zone in Rongelap.
The bribery scandal involving former Chinese citizens, Cary Yan and Gina Zhou, rocked the Pacific island nation and disgraced the parliament’s proposal to establish the Rongelap Atoll Special Administrative Region or RASAR which was designed as a tax haven.
Yan and Zhou were arrested by Thai authorities in Thailand in November 2020 at the request of the U.S. government and extradited to the U.S. on Sept. 2. They pleaded guilty to bribery charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and each facing a maximum penalty of five years in prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to court documents, Yan and Zhou handed over $7,000 to "a close relative" of an unidentified Marshallese legislator, pledging additional money in the future and “specifying that this money would be used to induce and influence” other RMI legislators to support the RASAR resolution.
“I hope this case will deter similar efforts by others, not only Chinese, but sinister elements from other countries/outside institutions promoting their own interests at the expense of the local populations,” former president Hilda Heine said in an op-ed piece published Dec 9 by the Marshall Islands Journal.
The Marshall Islands’ Office of the Attorney General is currently conducting its own investigation into the case.
There could be more than meets the eye, Heine said. “How do we know if similar but bigger amounts were not taken on other occasions, not yet brought to the surface?” she wrote. “There might be those who say ‘$7,000 is not a lot of money so let’s forget about this.’ That would be a grave mistake to think along that line.”
It's not about the amount, she said, it’s more about the action.
“One small action leads to bigger ones,” warned the former president who is now serving on the parliament.
The RASR project was once touted as an economic salvation that would turn the Marshall Islands into becoming the “next Hong Kong.”
In April 2018, Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi addressed hundreds of entrepreneurs, government officials and politicians at the Asia World Expo in Hong Kong, where he unveiled the grand design for the atoll, which has 61 islets that sits just 3 meters above sea level. Proposed to be built on a former nuclear wasteland, RASAR was advertised as a utopia for foreign investment with relaxed tax and visa requirements.
But the U.S. investigators discovered that the business hub was initiated by Yan and Zhou, who stood to benefit from the project. Yan and Zhou are heads of a New York-based non-governmental organization that hosted the Hong Kong conference.
According to the indictment, Yan and Zhou paid flight, hotel and entertainment expenses for RMI officials – at least two of whom had voting power over the bill – to travel to New York and Hong Kong for the Rasar launch. The prosecutors said Zhou paid an interest-free “loan” of $22,000 to an RMI official who had officially sponsored the Rasar bill and taken other actions in attempting to have it passed.
“It’s so easy to get corrupted when economies are weak, poverty is rampant and basic needs are not met,” Heine said. “Small island countries with weak economies are breeding grounds for bribery. Poverty makes people susceptible.”
Heine said the Rasar scandal has thrown the Marshall Islands’ situation into sharp relief. “The “officials” are actually high government officials who swore not to enrich themselves by using the color of their office,” she said. “If high officials can accept bribes, does that mean bribery is rampant across the RMI government?”
And If we allow this to go unpunished, we are opening the floodgates for similar bribery efforts toward government officials and other people in this country
Letting the culprits off the hook is not OK, Heine said. “If we allow this to go unpunished, we are opening the floodgates for similar bribery efforts toward government officials and other people in this country,” she warned. “Examples need to be made by making Rasar officials accountable and by sending signals to others that bribery is unacceptable and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
The Marshall Island, she said, must be governed by the “rule of law” not one that encourages “survival of the fittest among us.”