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Friday, March 31, 2023

As the US expands its presence on Guam to deter China, cautious locals are barred from voting

Amid high tensions between the US and China, a small Pacific island stands as a nuclear-capable frontline in one of the most devastating wars the world has ever seen.

And as the US military expands its already dominant presence, not everyone who calls Guam home wants to be a part of such a conflict. And yet, the indigenous people who live on the island’s shrinking two-thirds not yet occupied by US military bases have little to no choice on the matter.

“There are many in the community who are critical of the role Guam, as an unincorporated territory, is being forced to play in the conduct and aggression between China and the United States,” said Melvin Won Pat-Borja, executive director of Guam’s government commission on decolonization , told news week.

“As a territory,” he added, “Guam’s relationship with the federal government, and thus the Department of Defense, is one of consultation, not consent.”

The complex history between the US and Guam, an island located about 6,000 miles from California, began with another war fought in 1898 between the US and Spain. The US conquered Guam in a bid to gain control of the Philippines, which also remained a US territory until becoming independent in 1946 after World War II, during which both Guam and the Philippines were occupied by the Japanese Empire.

“Guam and its people have a long and complicated war history,” said Won Pat-Borja. “During World War II, it was one of the few US-held areas occupied by enemy forces. Brutal occupation by Imperial Japan lasted from 1941 until the island was recaptured by the US in 1944.”

Since then, Guam has played a crucial role in a number of US wars, from Korea to Vietnam and even more recent Middle East conflicts, in which US bases on the island have helped facilitate the movement of equipment and personnel. But that US military footprint has also targeted the island’s roughly 150,000 residents, as directly evidenced in 2017 when North Korea began openly threatening Guam amid a war of words with the US

Won Pat-Borja said that “the threat of war, even nuclear war, has become a somewhat normal part of everyday life here in Guam.” This threat has only intensified for the island’s population amid rising tensions between the US and China.

“Now, with tensions escalating in our region,” said Won Pat-Borja, “the people of Guam are once again facing missile attacks by China and witnessing the hyper-militarization of their homeland by the United States.”

Locals, most of whom trace their ancestry to the native Chamorro, also spelled CHamoru, need not speculate on US intentions for Guam given the current geopolitical tensions in the Pacific.

In a December 2021 speech, US Indo-Pacific Command Deputy Chief Lt. Gen. Stephen Sklenka stated that “Guam is a place where our combat power will gather and gather and from which it will emanate.”

“From there we are sending a strong strategic message to our allies and our adversaries that the United States has invested in this region — we are prioritizing the Indo-Pacific,” Sklenka said at the time.

General Sklenka’s statement comes months after a letter signed by three UN special rapporteurs delivered a historic rebuke to the US government about “the impact of the increased US military presence in Guam and the failure to protect the indigenous Chamorro people from the… loss of their ancestral lands, territories and resources; serious adverse environmental impacts; the loss of cultural property and human remains; and the denial of the right to free, prior and informed consent and self-determination.”

Today, Guam is recognized as one of just 17 UN-recognized “non-self-governing territories,” and international experts regularly voice concerns about the island’s relationship with the US

But militarization only deepened when US Marines opened their first new base in 70 years on the island in January. The construction of a firing range at Camp Blaz in the north of the island has been pushed ahead despite protests from local residents against the destruction not only of natural habitats considered vital to the Chamorro culture’s medicinal practices, but also of sacred sites and burial grounds.

“Today, the massive build-up of military infrastructure and personnel currently being carried out in Guam is having a negative impact on natural and cultural resources,” said Won Pat-Borja. “Harms are also being done to the political, social and economic well-being of the people of Guam, particularly the indigenous CHamoru people of Guam, whose historic dispossession continues to this day.”

“Given this impact and the larger goal for Guam and its people,” he added, “the local community has called for transparency, accountability and a greater level of decision-making authority in military activities in Guam.”

Speaking of the island’s commitment, Won Pat-Borja said a number of locals have called for de-escalation in the geopolitical situation between Beijing and Washington, saying, “Many in the community have also called for de-escalation and diplomacy between China and the US, and that.” Understanding of Guam’s role in US national security is increasingly being questioned by the local community.

“Nonetheless,” he added, “the limitations of unincorporated territory status continue to allow the U.S. military to do whatever it pleases in Guam, without consent and without regard for the people who call it home.”

These tensions, which have at times increased and increased over the decades, have led to calls for a new treaty between Guam and the U.S. government that would give the island a greater say in managing its own affairs.

The Decolonization Commission, established by Guam’s legislature in 1997 to address these demands, aims to educate residents about three possible avenues to self-determination: statehood, independence, and freedom of association.

With statehood, Guam follows in the footsteps of Hawaii, which was conquered by the US in 1898 before becoming a state almost six decades later in 1959. Independence would allow Guam to become a sovereign nation like the Philippines did in 1946. Free association would also pave the way to independence, but as part of the pact of free association with the US that currently exists between the Pacific Island States, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

In any case, the goal is for the island’s government to hold a popular vote or referendum, but a 2019 court ruling found that such a vote would violate the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Fifteenth Amendment, introduced in 1870 in the wake of the U.S. Civil War, prohibits federal and state governments from denying or restricting the right to vote of U.S. citizens “on the basis of race, color, or past easement,” and indeed was supposed to do so to disenfranchise a previously excluded group of potential voters, African American men. However, in the context of Guam, the fact that the proposed vote would be limited to “Natives of Guam” was considered “an improper racial classification”.

As it stands, Won Pat-Borja said that “the government of Guam lacks any kind of sovereignty over affairs within the island, and there is a striking lack of equity in the local government’s relationship with the US federal government.”

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