Alternative names: Marshall Islands; Northern Marianas; Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Truk, Ponape, Kosrae — Eastern Caroline Islands); Palau (Belau — Western Caroline Islands)
Location: Western Central Pacific
Population: 180,000
% of population: mainly indigenous
Religion: Christianity, indigenous beliefs
Language: Nine major Malayo-Polynesian languages, English

Micronesia comprises three main island archipelagos — the Marshalls, the Carolines and the Marianas — covering an area of approximately 7.8 million square kilometres of the western Pacific. Of this less than 2,000 square kilometres is land, consisting of over 2,000 islands and low lying coral atolls. The total estimated population in 1977 was 126,239, growing at an annual rate of 4.5%; thus the population today may have reached 180,000 although there is high migration to the USA and elsewhere in the Pacific. Most of Micronesia, with the exception of Guam, has been part of the US administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

The people of Micronesia are an amalgam, reflecting the mongoloid, Polynesian and mela-nesian emigration from South-East Asia which began around 1000 BC. This, along with later migration, resulted in the cultural, ethnic and linguistic divisions which persist today. There are nine major languages, which are mutually unintelligible, although English is widely spoken. The first contacts with the west came with Spanish explorers and missionaries and the Spanish presence continued in the western Pacific until the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following the Spanish defeat the US took control of Guam and the rest of Micronesia was sold to Germany. After the defeat of Germany in World War I, the islands were occupied by Japan, and the Japanese presence was later regularized under a League of Nations mandate. The Japanese saw the islands as areas for Japanese settlement and by 1938 it was estimated that 58% of residents were Japanese. After the withdrawal of Japan from the League of Nations in 1935 the islands were fortified and later became a strategic Pacific battlefield in World War II with the result that many Micronesians were killed and injured.

At the end of the war Micronesia was in US hands. In 1947 a trusteeship agreement between the UN and the US placed the area under US administration as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI). Unlike the 10 other UN Trust Territories, the administering power was able to establish military bases and employ armed forces in the islands, and reported directly to the Security Council (where the US had a veto) rather than the General Assembly. The US agreed to act in accordance with the UN Charter to “promote the development of the inhabitants of the Trust Territory toward self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of the Trust Territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned”.

Military considerations have played an important part in the US administration of the TTPI. Between 1946 and 1958, Bikini and Enewetak atolls, located in the Marshalls, were used by the US as sites for nuclear tests. This resulted in extensive damage including radiation fallout on a number of islands, resulting in the involuntary evacuation of indigenous peoples from Bikini in 1946, from Enewetak in 1947 and from Rongalap in 1954. Since the mid-1940s the US Army missile range located in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands has been an important testing ground for US missiles fired from Vandenburg Air Force base in California. This has resulted in protests by some Marshallese who have demanded an end to testing, the renegotiation of the terms of a lease signed in 1964 for the use of the land, and improved social and economic conditions for the Marshallese people. As a result of employment opportunities on the base, there has been a large influx of Marshallese into Kwajalein Atoll, but since islanders working at the base are not allowed to reside there after hours, they are forced to commute daily from nearby Ebeye Island. In 1978 a UN Visiting Mission commented on the contrast between slum conditions on Ebeye and those on the US base. As a result of protests there have been some improvements in living conditions on Ebeye.

The Constitutional evolution of the TTPI has been slow. Some governmental functions were transferred to the people at a municipal and district level, but it was not until 1964 that certain restricted legislative powers were granted to the people on a Territory-wide basis in the elected legislature of the Congress of Micronesia. In 1967, the Congress created a commission on its future status, which in 1969 recommended that the TTPI become either a self-governing state in Free Association with the USA or be completely independent. In April 1978 all parties negotiating accepted a “Statement of Agreed Principles for Free Association” which provided that the Micronesians shall “enjoy full internal self-government” while the US will maintain “full authority and responsibility for security and defence matters” for a period of at least 15 years, subject to renegotiation. However, if the relationship was terminated other than by the US, or unilaterally by the Micronesians without US consent, then the US “shall be no longer obligated to provide the same amount of economic assistance… initially agreed upon”.

The Congress of Micronesia was abolished in 1978 following the referendum after which (in 1980) the TTPI was divided into four units — the Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshalls and Palau. The four entities were encouraged to write their own constitutions and all had done so by 1980 with the exception of Palau. In 1976 the US had signed a separate commonwealth agreement with the representatives of the Northern Marianas. Their convenant grants them exemption from some American legislation, notably the Jones Act (regarding the use of American ships between American ports), and laws on immigration and minimum wages. The USA gives the islands about US$33 million a year as budgetary aid and there is substantial income from Japanese tourism. The Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands have entered into Compacts of Free Association with the USA. This has led to an ambiguous status for the two former Trust Territories, since the TTPI has not yet been dismantled by the UN Security Council, and this is seen as a prerequisite to diplomatic recognition by the bulk of the world community. For example, the Federated States of Micronesia won self-government in Free Association with the USA in 1986 and declared its independence in 1987, but to date has been recognized as an independent state by only 11 countries. However, it has been able to obtain membership of the 15-nation South Pacific Forum.

Palau, also called Belau, has yet to finalize its acceptance of a Compact of Free Association with the USA and attempts to do so have resulted in political conflict within the island group of 15,000 people. The Palauan Constitution of 1980, often described as the world’s first nuclear-free constitution, had a provision prohibiting the use, testing, storage or disposal in Palauan territory of “harmful substances such as nuclear, chemical, gas or biological weapons” without the express approval of voters in a referendum. The USA, which saw Palau as a strategic military option, insisted that the nuclear-free clause was incompatible with the Compact of Free Association and both before and after the adoption of the Constitution has made repeated attempts to change it, mainly by repeated referenda, and also allegedly by illegal intimidation of individuals and unfair electoral practices. To date, six referenda have failed to reach the 75% level of voters needed to change the Constitution. As with the other former TTPI territories, Palau is in an ambiguous position as the USA has announced that it will unilaterally terminate the Trusteeship; however, since the Trusteeship is the responsibility ultimately of the Security Council, this does not appear to be possible in international law. In the meantime there have been efforts to cut US assistance to Palau, which resulted in widespread retrenchment of public sector workers in 1987.

Economically all the former TTPI entities are underdeveloped territories in which a money economy in urban centres operates alongside a more traditional subsistence way of life in outlying areas. The weakness in the economy is largely made up by US economic assistance and there is a heavy dependence on imported food and materials.

(See also Chamorros of Guam)