The election that put the losers in power

As the new ruling regime in the Republic of the Marshall Islands seeks to consolidate its power, the outlines of a new national agenda are beginning to emerge.   It is an agenda being defined by RMI Foreign Minister Tony deBrum, who is the mastermind of the new ruling coalition.  

The most conspicuous priority of the new regime is for the traditional chiefs under Marshallese landowning customs to retain control of the constitutional government, and use the constitutional structure of governemtn to get more money fromthe U.S. or some other country for the use of Kwajalein Atoll.    Only this will ensure that the democratic constitutional process does not reform RMI law in any way that might diminish the power of the traditional leaders, under the anachronistic feudal landowning system, which was preserved even as the RMI emerged as a nation-state in the modern world.

The reason private landownership based on modern economic models was not implemented in 1986 when the RMI became a nation is that for decades the U.S. had been leasing Kwajalein Atoll and other land in the Marshall for military bases.   Under the traditional feudal system the high chief controlled the lease payments, shared the bulk of all payments with a small circle of lesser chiefs, and the remaining lease payments trickled down to some but not all of the actual landowners.

In organizing the RMI national government, the high chief and the feudal lords of the traditional system used their cutomary powers to influence local politics, and ensure that all land use payments remained under their control once democratic constitutional government was instituted.  Indeed, the first elected President was also the high chief and most powerful feudal lord, Amata Kabua.   During his rule the traditional feudal system and the new democratic constitutional system were managed to ensure that the feudal regime was preserved, and that democratic reforms did not infringe on feudal powers.  But in his wisdom Amata Kabua found a successful balance between the interests of the traditional high chief and lesser chiefs, the role of the RMI national government, and the legitmate interest of the U.S. government.

When Amata Kabua died, his brother, Imata Kabua, was elected President, but his regime was discredited by corruption and deviation from the balanced policies of Amata Kabua.  In 2000 a new democratic constitutional government was formed under a President who was not a feudal lord, but a commoner.   That government survived until 2007, when the political party of its leader, Kesai Note, once again won enough seats to remain in power. 

However, a leadership struggle between Kesai Note and other leaders in his party led to a collapse of the ruling coalition.   The vacuum created enabled the minority party led by high chief Imata Kabua to form a coalition, controlled once again by the feudal lords.        


Minister deBrum has publicly denounced the bilateral RMI-U.S. bilateral agenda developed by the previous administration.   For example, on behalf of the people and the government of the RMI he has announced that the current agreements between the RMI and U.S. governing U.S. Army use of Kwajalein Atoll are unacceptable, and must be renegotiated to provide more finding to the traditional leader of the Kwajalein landowners, high chief Imata Kabua.   Kabua is also the head of deBrum’s political party.

In addition, on behalf of the RMI the new Foreign Minister, Mr. deBrum, has denounced U.S. Senate Bill No. 1756, the final terms of which were under negotiation by the previous administration and the sponsors of that bipartisan legislation.   The most recent draft of the bill would have provided approximately $100 million in supplemental nuclear claims compensation, mostly for health care in an expanded group of 10 atolls where nuclear test related health problems have been identified.  

However, Minister deBrum has rejected the Senate bill and instead has announced that the RMI will work with Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, the non-voting Delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives from American Samoa, to develop a nuclear compensation policy.   Minister deBrum also has announced that he is working with lawyers who are bringing cases in U.S. federal courts to seek compensation beyond that already provided by the U.S. under applicable treaties and Congressionally approved compensation measures in the past.

Thus, both in respect to U.S. military base rights and nuclear compensation, Minister deBrum is seeking funding from the U.S. at levels significantly higher than those previously agreed by the RMI under President Amata Kabua  and the administration of President Kesai Note.   However, the effect of repudiating S. 1756 is that the issue of additional nuclear claims compensation is effectively delayed until after the issue of Kwajalein lease payments is resolved.   This makes the issue of any additional funding for Kwajalein a priority over additional nuclear claims funding.

While the nuclear claims court cases and U.S. reaction to RMI repudiation of the existing base rights agreement may impact the state of RMI-U.S. relations during the next few months, unless some other mutually agreed solution is reached, December 2008 is deadline established by Congress for a Kwajalein agreement.   After that the U.S. will have to determine a new policy toward Kwajalein and free association with the RMI, because funding for Kwajalein will be phased out instead of increasing, and U.S. base rights will end in 2016.


In these times of change, it is vital that the progress made in the RMI toward the goal of a pluralistic democratic society is sustained.   That is the mission and the goal of this blog site.  


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