Inside the Capitol

Sunday, June 14, 2009

6-22 Best Friends of Palau

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- To nearly all Americans, Palau was an unknown island nation until its president offered to take up to 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in limbo at Guantanamo Bay.
But for American troops stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, Palau is very familiar. They may not have been there but they knew about the Battle of Palau, one of the bloodiest of the campaign to win back the Pacific.
Palau was a Japanese Island, won from the Germans in World War I. Yes, Japan and Germany fought in the South Pacific during the 1st World War. American forces took the islands from Japan in 1944 as we began a string of victories on the march up from Guadalcanal.
This was a case in which the new occupiers were treated as liberators. Conditions had been harsh for the native Palauans under the Japanese. They were treated as slaves and made to dig the tunnels and caves in which Japanese soldiers dug in for the U.S. invasion.
After World War II, the United Nations placed Palau and many other island groups under U.S. administration as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1994, Palau became independent and voted to enter a Compact of Free Association with the United States.
Since then, ties with the United States have remained very close. When my wife and I took a cruise commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, we visited many of the battlefields of the Pacific.
Palau was not included but everywhere in the South Pacific that we stopped, adults and children came to the docks to express their appreciation to the Americans who had liberated them. The ceremonies were deeply moving.
I'm sure our reception in Palau would have been just as touching. When President Johnson Toribiong announced his decision to accept the detainees he explained "This is but a small thing we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau."
China has demanded that the men be returned to their homeland and has pressured countries not to accept them. But the United States fears that these men will be tortured or executed as Islamic separatists if returned to China.
It is doubtful China has put any pressure on Palau because it is one of a handful of countries that does not recognize China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, instead.
China has worked very hard at building close relationships with other Pacific island nations. When we visited Rarotonga last year, a local guide proudly showed us new government buildings the Chinese government had just built them.
In turn, the United States has been very generous toward Palau. Although President Toribiong says acceptance of the detainees is being done as a humanitarian gesture, recent information indicates that it is part of the renewal negotiations for the Compact of Free Association.
There also is a very large chunk of American money for numerous projects that is part of the compact negotiations. Those projects are administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Insular Affairs.
Some Palau citizens are said to be unhappy with the offer to accept the detainees. Whether that has any effect on the Palau government eventually agreeing to accept the detainees may be an indication as to how independent Palau really is.
Here's another sticky subject. In 1981, Palau voted for a constitution that included a nuclear free clause. This delayed Palau's independence because it also wanted a Compact of Free Association with the United States and we wouldn't agree to that until Palau repealed the nuclear-free section of its constitution.
It is reported the detainees are there only temporarily and no compact has been signed yet. So there is some doubt about how this may all end up.
MON, 6-22-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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