Micronesia's Chuuk islanders could have voted in an independence referendum yesterday had the vote not been suspended last week. Chuuk Governor Johnson Elimo signed an executive order to postpone the vote because of technical reasons, and demanded Chuuk's Parliament to find a new date for the referendum to be held.
The Federated States of Micronesia are a Pacific country, east of the Philippines, with a population of 106,000 people. It is made up of four states, each with its own government and legislative: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap (see map, click on it to enlarge). Chuuk is the most populous of the four states: 54,000 inhabitants, most of them members of the Chuukese people, which has its own language. The capital of Micronesia is Palikir, which is located in Pohnpei.
Formerly a Spanish -and later German- colony known as the Caroline Islands, Micronesia is an independent state since 1986, in free association with the United States. The deal is based on the Compact of Free Association (COFA), whereby the United States fund Micronesia through an annual subsidy. In exchange, the United States can use the Micronesian territory for their military operations and needs.
Referendum in 2015, independence in 2017
The current COFA expires in 2023. The government of Chuuk is dissatisfied over the current distribution of COFA funding among the four Micronesian states. The Chuukese government thus established the Chuuk State Political Status Commission in 2011 in order to analyze what should be the best option for Chuuk bearing in mind the COFA expiry date.
The Commission issued its final report in 2014. The document argues Chuuk is undergoing "political and economic inequities" under Micronesian government, and says the Chuukese cultural identity is in danger. After ruling out statu quo and US statehood, the Commission concluded that "the national independence option" is "only" one that "offers real potential for a modern, healthy and productive Chuuk." The Commission believes an independent Chuuk could negotiate a better COFA with the United States.
The Commission's report sets a timetable for independence. The referendum on independence was scheduled to be held in March 2015 -the vote has been postponed. If voters choose independence, a Constitution should be drafted in October 2015 at the latest. The Constitution should be put to a new referendum in March 2017. After an election, the new government of Chuuk would declare independence.
Chuukese Governor says country not ready
Elimo said the referendum needed to be postponed because not enough public awareness on the importance of independence exists. Elimo also quoted shortcomings in the work by the Commission, which according to him have prevented the referendum from being held. Moreover, Micronesia was yesterday holding a general election, and it was unclear whether a simultaneous referendum on independence was technically feasible.
Meanwhile, Micronesian President Manny Mori approved on January 27th the creation of a task forced aimed at convincing the Chuukese people that independence is not in their interest. Since the referendum was postponed, Mori decided to suspend the work of the task force. In a statement, Mori announced that he will be proposing a meeting between the governments of Micronesia, Chuuk and the United States in order to "to address the underlying issues raised by Chuuk State during the initiated movement to secede."