Sheila Babauta. (Photo: Cami Diaz Egurrola)

The Pacific region is in the spotlight as a zone of competition for power between the US and China. In New Zealand, the government is weighing up a potential role as a junior partner in AUKUS, the nuclear submarine military pact between Australia, the UK and the US. AUKUS is designed to contain China’s influence in the Pacific, and is among a range of agreements that would open the door to greater military activity in the region.

Further north, Mariana Islanders are navigating plans from the US to increase its military presence and activities in their islands.

Since World War II, the Marianas have been strategically important to the US because of their proximity to Asia. Tokyo, for example, is only a fourhour flight from Saipan, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. There are 14 islands in the Northern Mariana Islands, which is a US territory.  

For New Zealand and other members of the independent Pacific, the story of the Marianas gives insight into the impacts of militarisation, and life for Pacific peoples under the authority of the US.

 Sheila Babauta is an Indigenous daughter of the Mariana Islands. In this conversation with Teuila Fuatai, she reflects on whats happening in her islands, and why she’s an advocate for demilitarisation.

 

I was born and raised on the island of Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. My dad is Chamorro, the Indigenous people of the Marianas, and my mum is Pohnpeian, Indigenous to Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

When I was growing up, I learned very little about our political status and relationship to the US. But if you look at a map, you’ll understand why the US puts so much value on our location. We’re very close to Asia — to China, Taiwan and Japan.

At school, we learned about US history, the US constitution, and the 50 states of the US. Our own history didn’t really feature.

Our islands have been colonised for more than 500 years. First by the Spanish, then the Germans, and then the Japanese. After World War II, we became a UN trust territory, administered by the US. Then, in 1975, we opted to be part of the US as a commonwealth.

As a self-governing territory of the US, we have our own local government. We also have a non-voting delegate in the US Congress. And while we’re US citizens, and can live and work anywhere in the US, we don’t participate in the presidential elections because we don’t have any federal voting rights. We also receive a lot of funding from the US federal government for social and community programmes. For example, the federal government awarded us US$185 million in funding for health, education, and housing last year, which will be spread over several years.

One of the most complex aspects of our relationship with the US is our connection with the US military. It stretches back to World War II, when we were under Japanese occupation. In 1944, the US invaded the islands of Saipan and Tinian as part of the larger war offensive in the Pacific region targeting Japanese military bases. Fighting broke out, and locals fled, with some hiding in caves. After about two weeks, they were found by US soldiers. The soldiers gave them food and water and led them out of the caves into safety. They were then taken to camps set up by the US military where they reconnected with family members. Some of our elders living today were young children when this happened.

In Saipan, it was our first experience with the US military, and over the years, that history has become a huge part of our identity. Many stories shared by our elders are about how the US saved us, how US soldiers protected our families. Those stories have become deeply embedded in our history, our perspective, and our homes. And at important events like Veterans’ Day ceremonies, and Memorial Day services, the stories are retold.

Sheila Babauta, age two, with her grandmother Carmina Weilbacher Jack at Micro Beach, Saipan. 1991. (Photo supplied)

At the same time, the US military itself has a significant presence in our communities because so many of us enlist in the US armed services.

My brother-in-law was in the military. My partner is also a veteran. My dad’s brother is a veteran, too, as well as my mum’s brother. Many of my relatives and close friends are either currently serving, or were previously in the military.

There aren’t a lot of options for young people in the islands. When I finished high school, we didn’t have a four-year degree pathway at our local community college, so I went to the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. I graduated with degrees in finance and international business, and went on to work in Hawai‘i before moving to Washington state. My sister and her husband, who was in the military at the time, were stationed there. I wanted to be close to them, and I’d also found a good job in the Seattle area.

During that time, I didn’t come back to Saipan for seven years. When I did visit, it was right after Super Typhoon Soudelor in 2015. I remember how different the island looked, like it had just had a big haircut, because so many trees had been cleared in the storm. Saipan was disheveled, but so beautiful. And I felt really connected to home after being away for so long.

At the same time, the Chinese investor boom was in full swing. There were plans to build a massive casino and a series of hotels for tourism. The development was totally unsustainable, and it was taking place around my home in the northern part of the island. By then, my sister and her family were back in Saipan, and of course, my parents were here. All those things came together, and I knew it was time to move home and be part of what was happening in our islands.

Sheila Babauta at Ritidian beach, Guam. (Photo: Sylvia C Frain)

In the Northern Marianas, our biggest industry is tourism, which took a big hit during Covid, and our biggest employer is the local government. Often, our young people will finish high school, attend a local college or trade school, then work in the service industry or government. Jobs aren’t always well-paid or secure.

The US military offers a different route. You get free education, travel, adventure and, of course, a steady income. There’s free housing, and your family can come along once you’re married. Your healthcare is covered, which is a huge drawcard because affordable healthcare in our islands is difficult to access. There’s also a lump sum sign-on bonus — sometimes up to $15,000. Coming from Saipan, where our minimum wage is $7.25 and well over a third of our families live in poverty, that’s huge.

The military has benefits and options that people literally give their lives for. It’s a ticket out. And I completely understand why so many of our people sign up.

These benefits, alongside our history with the US military, often make it difficult to discuss other aspects of our relationship with the US, particularly when it comes to the militarisation of our islands and wider region.

First, unlike on other islands, like Guam and Tinian, on Saipan the military doesn’t have a big physical footprint. We don’t have huge, dominating military bases and lots of personnel stationed here. In fact, it doesn’t look like there’s an impact at all until there are training exercises, and we get big military trucks driving around the island, or when a large ship docks.

Second, from a young age, we’re encouraged to join the military. Every year, military recruiters visit high schools throughout the Marianas. The ASVAB test, which is the entry test for the military, is almost part of high school. Everyone takes it — I took it — and you get to see if a career in the military is an option. To do the SATs, the test for college or university entry, I had to put in a lot more effort. I paid a fee to take it, and had to find transportation to our local community college on the day of the exam. The ASVAB test is free, and we all took it at the school cafeteria.

Third, I think there’s a general lack of understanding around the real dynamic of our relationship with the US and its military.

This relationship came into focus for me during my time as a local government representative. I was elected in November 2018 and spent four years in office. At the time, we were considering a massive US military exercise programme that would directly impact our islands of Tinian, Pagan and Guam. Titled the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands Joint Training, the programme was first proposed in 2015 and was led by the US Navy. Legally, the military has to publish an Environmental Impact Statement for big training plans. Following that, there’s a community consultation process. The EIS documents are usually thousands of pages long, very technical, and difficult to understand. This one was 1400 pages in length.

As a member of local government, I attended a meeting organised by the military about the proposed training programme. It was supposed to give people information and enable feedback.

The meeting was poorly advertised and not a lot of people from the community turned up. In terms of expertise, the military brought its own environmentalists and high-ranking officers. I think it was supposed to make us feel important, like we were being taken seriously. The room had also been decorated with pictures of turtles and whales. The whole thing was very performative, and eventually I learned that we got a very one-sided picture of what they wanted to do.

Essentially, they proposed bombing ranges on the islands of Guam, Pagan and Tinian, as well as the use of beaches for vessel landing practices, and the sea around the islands for military exercises and sonar testing. They wanted 20 weeks of live-fire training on Tinian each year, with 22 weeks set aside for non-live activity. Weapons storage, danger zones, and air and sea space restrictions were all needed. The entire island of Pagan was also identified as a high-level bombing range for exercises from the land, air and sea for 16 to 40 weeks each year. On Tinian, it was up to 45 weeks per year.

None of this was made clear by the military in the meeting it held. I only learned of the true picture through community advocates who opposed the plan and opposed further militarisation. They broke down the 1400-page EIS document and identified what the real impacts were so we could all understand.

I was shocked and heartbroken at what was being proposed. I also struggled to understand that the US military was behind it.

Sheila Babauta, age one, with her parents Diego Babauta and Dolorina Weilbacher Jack Babauta at Susupe Beach, Saipan. 1990. (Photo supplied)

From a young age, I’d been told stories about the US soldiers who saved our elders during the war. I knew them to be kind men, who shared water and bread with our elders and families when they found them. We’d always been taught the US cared about us.

This proposal trampled all over that. It became clear that my home, the Marianas, was really a sacrifice-zone to the US military — that the people and land here are ultimately dispensable. It opened my eyes to the reality of our situation and how we’re viewed by the US.

I also knew I wanted to do more to address the ongoing militarisation around us.

That year, we founded Our Common Wealth 670, which is a grassroots organisation designed to share information about militarisation that’s happening in the Marianas. I spent another three years in local government before moving full-time into roles with advocacy organisations.

A large part of my work now is about finding creative ways to raise awareness about plans like the one I’ve described. EIS statements, and the community consultation process, aren’t designed to enable regular community members to be on a level playing field with the military. They don’t want us to properly understand how many acres of beach they will dredge to practise vehicle landings, or the hundreds of bombs they plan to drop for target practice. Or that we won’t be able to live in parts of our islands for large chunks of the year because of destructive military exercises.

The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Joint Training proposal is still being discussed. The military is expected to release a revised EIS later this year, and hopes to have a decision on whether it can proceed by the end of next year.

I understand that conversations around demilitarisation aren’t easy or popular in our communities because of our historic, and personal, ties to the US. When we talk about the military in the Marianas, the images that immediately come to mind are our family and community members who’ve been in the armed forces, not the environmental destruction and devastation that we know occurs.

We are a small community, and we all know someone who is currently serving, or who has died in battle. My mum’s youngest brother died in the Iraqi war. My god-brother died with him. They were our first local men who died in the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, and since then 11 more have died. The community gathered and grieved, and we’re still grieving. It is very personal and it makes conversations opposing the military hard. I think it’s the main barrier for our people in seeing the bigger picture that we’re trying to communicate.

At the same time, there are communities that have resisted and questioned the US military because they were directly poisoned by toxic waste that was dumped in their villages. The village of Tanapag, which is two villages away from me on the north-western coast of the island, has gone through this. Significant levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were detected in its village area and soil. PCBs were once used widely in electrical equipment like capacitors and transformers. The US Environmental Protection Agency banned their use in 1979 because they cause cancer. However, in the early 1970s, the Department of Defense distributed about 50 ceramic capacitators to the village of Tanapag to mark property boundaries.

Over the years, a lot of people got sick and cancer rates skyrocketed. Eventually, local residents formed an action group and connected themselves with legal advocates. They forced the US military to take responsibility and clean up its mess. Over 40,000 tons of soil was treated in the decontamination process, which took more than 12 years and finished in 2003.

Military ships at Saipan. (Photo: Sylvia C Frain)

We’re also trying to bring the role of the US military, as the largest single consumer of fossil fuels in the world, into our conversations about climate change. In the Marianas, we live intimately with climate change. We see the bleaching of our coral reefs. They look very different today to what they did when I was a kid.

We also have invasive species that have been introduced, such as the brown tree snake on Guam. The snake arrived via a US military ship. It eats birds’ eggs, so there’s been a severe decline in the bird species and population on Guam. Now, it’s rare to hear any birdsong on Guam. A  couple of months ago, a brown tree snake was found wrapped around the wheel of an aeroplane after it landed on Saipan.

We also hear about villages and concrete structures which have disappeared completely due to sea level rise, and houses that were once off in the distance, now on the edge of the island because the shoreline has crept in.

Typhoons and super typhoons have also become more frequent, unpredictable and severe. Before we had Super Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, we hadn’t have a typhoon for 20 years. Since then, we’ve had at least eight different typhoons. They vary in strength, but they have a huge impact. They cause so much anxiety and fear in our community, and when we get a warning, everyone drops everything to prepare. That puts an additional financial strain on households, because we have to stock up on supplies like canned food, gas and water to see us through.

During typhoons, we also become very aware of the help we receive as a US territory. For example, when Super Typhoon Yutu hit in 2018, we had representatives from the federal disaster management agency, FEMA, on the ground with our local government agencies. After the storm, the US military came in and assisted. They helped distribute goods and transported community members who needed to get to shelters. They cut down trees and cleared roads. They even set up reverse osmosis stations by the beach, which meant we had access to clean drinking water. For an island which has never had a decent water catchment and distribution system, and mainly consumes water bought from the store, it was amazing to see. It really displayed the level of resources the military has, and fed into that love and respect our community has for the US.

I think, at the heart of it, that admiration and sense of dependency is what we need to overcome to see the reality of our relationship with the US.

Too often, I’m told: “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” People say that to me before listing all the ways the US contributes to our lives, and how that enables us to eat and live.

First, I feel anger, and then sadness — extreme sadness that we believe we can’t feed ourselves. I come from a family of farmers, fishermen and hunters, and we’ve always fed ourselves. I was raised with that level of empowerment, which at the time seemed so basic. It was simply about surviving and nourishing oneself and one’s family.

Right now, we’re in a place where it’s hard for many of us to see a life without the US hovering overhead. Our sense of dependency has become so ingrained that we’re weighing promises of economic benefits like mass job creation, new public infrastructure and business opportunities against significant damage to our islands through destructive training action and increased militarisation.

I want us to look beyond that.

I’ll say it again and again: We are far more than our relationship with the US and its military. They are not the only things that give us value. My people have existed here for thousands of years. We have our own ways of caring for each other, and ways of  living in harmony with our environment. In comparison, the US is a young and inexperienced authority.

We have our beautiful culture and people. We’re located next to the Marianas Trench, the deepest point in the world’s ocean, and we’re a place where humpback whales come to mate and birth. We have so many reasons why we should be known, not just for our strategic location and relationship with the US.

We need to see our home differently. Of course, it becomes difficult when we talk about security and the geopolitical environment because questions always come up around the risk of China invading us. We’ve seen war on our islands, and been invaded many times, so I understand this is a real fear.

I just don’t believe our ongoing militarisation by the US, for their own benefit, is the answer.

We have such a diverse community that includes Chinese residents and tourists. We also have many overseas visitors who come as students and go on to be residents. The current geopolitical tension and ongoing militarisation of the Marianas only harms those relationships and how we show up in the world.

Let’s allow ourselves the space to dream of a home as an independent people. To really untangle the true nature of our relationship with the US, and heal from what we continue to experience as one of its territories.

Sheila Babauta and her nephew Josiah at Paupau Beach, Saipan on her 32nd birthday. 2021. (Photo supplied)

Sheila Jack Babauta is a member of several organisations that raise awareness about community and environmental issues, and militarisation in the Marianas, including      the Friends of the Marianas Trench, Micronesia Climate Change Alliance,  and Our Common Wealth 670. She also served for four years in the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands from 2018.

As told to Teuila Fuatai, with special thanks to Dr Sylvia C Frain for her input. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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