|| The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, participated in the 22nd Pacific Islands Forum’s post-forum dialogue on August 6, 2010. In an interview with the Samoa Observer, he described the results of the Forum as well as his views on U.S. policy towards the Pacific Islands.
“I want to thank the editor-in-chief of the Samoa Observer, Sano Malifa, for allowing me the opportunity to share my views on matters critical to the Pacific region. I also want to thank Mr. Mata’afa Keni Lesa for his time and hard work in conducting the interview,” Faleomavaega said.
“As I have maintained for more than two decades, U.S. engagement with the Pacific Islands is critical not only for the region but also for U.S. interests. That’s why I am pleased that the United States Agency for International Development will finally reopen offices in the Pacific in both Fiji and Papua New Guinea,” Faleomavaega added.
“I want to thank Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, both for ensuring that USAID returns to the region and for enhancing U.S. engagement with Pacific Island nations,” Faleomavaega said.
The full text of the interview is pasted below.
Eni speaks his mind
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 11:02
by Mata’afa Keni Lesa
The streets of Apia are deserted. It’s nearly 4pm on Saturday afternoon and knowing that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s likely most town dwellers have either returned to the village or Savai’i for the long weekend.
Not this writer though. An appointment at Apia Central Hotel with a member of the United States of America’s Congress was reason enough to enjoy the relatively traffic-less streets as we sped through to get there on time. “Faleomavaega?” asked the receptionist, who looked like he had been expecting me.
Yes please. He handed over the phone - which I found totally unnecessary - since Faleomavaega’s voice was clearly audible from the reception area. His room was two steps away.
“How are you Keni, good to see you again,” he beamed as we walked to a table in the middle of an empty bar and restaurant area. Sporting long pants and a University of Utah sweater, the Congressman opens a CD case.
“Is the stereo working?” he asked a hotel staff. “Can you play this for us?”
It turned out the music was one of his finest collections of Hawaiian songs.
“I love music,” he tells me. “This how I relax, I like to listen to a few songs and I love Samoan and island music. I take my music everywhere with me.”
We could’ve kept talking about music. I knew Faleomavaega has one of the finest voices in both Samoas and was quite keen to hear from him.
But we had more serious things to discuss. The Congressman is in Apia for a night on his way to American Samoa. He attended the Pacific Islands Forum meeting held in Vanuatu, last week.
“I wanted to come [to the Forum] because of my continued interest on the situation in the region, the situation with Fiji and the latest development on the situation in West Papua,” he tells me.
He is controversial about his view on Fiji.
“I’ve been very critical of New Zealand and Australia’s approach to engaging Fiji,” he says. “Of course we all don’t agree with Fiji not having a democratic form of government but I also believe that we have to appreciate and understand the complexities facing Fiji.
“I’ve always said that. In the course of 20 years, Fiji has had four military coups, one civilian coup and three constitutions. I honestly felt that this is the time for the Pacific nations to pull together and to engage Fiji.”
New Zealand and Australia’s approach to punish Fiji has caused some ‘bad developments,’ the Congressman points out.
Faleomavaega and Governor Togiola Tulafono (right) are key people in the territory.
“I respect Prime Minister Tuilaepa’s position. He is certainly entitled to his point of view but I still believe that we should continue to engage in Fiji. The man is down and I don’t think kicking him in the head is going to help the situation in Fiji.”
But is it anybody’s fault that ‘the man is down,’ the Congressman is asked.
“I think it is the development that happened in Fiji’s politics,” responds Faleomavaega.
“I think we have to appreciate that Fiji is not like other countries in the islands, we have to understand that Fiji has had a very colonial legacy from the time of the British control.
“We have to understand that Fiji is not a homogenous society. Some 350,000 Indians now live with some 400,000 Fijians and unfortunately the British just took off in 1970 leaving the poor Fijians and the Indians to fend for themselves and try to figure out their future.
“In the time of Prime Minister Mara, he was able to work coalitions, work it together with the new system but after his leadership, things kind of became a little unstable and that’s what happened.”
Faleomavaega says what’s reported in the mainstream media is not necessarily what’s happening in Fiji.
“One of the things that is really amazing is the way the media played Fiji being under a military administration. You’d think that there are barriers on the roads/streets with police, military army and soldiers all over the place. You don’t see one, not in Nadi not in Suva. And here’s the one thing that is really surprising, the tourism industry in Fiji is going by leaps and bounds.”
You have been very outspoken on your views to engage Fiji, but if you look at stuff coming from the American embassy in Suva, you seem to be contradicting them?
“Well I’ve been very public,” he says. “Of course our ambassador is simply following whatever Washington is saying and Washington knows that I have been very public about my views. I was very critical of US foreign policy towards the Pacific region.
“We don’t have a policy towards PI countries, our policy only includes Australia and New Zealand.
“And whatever New Zealand and Australia want done, we just simply follow it.
“I totally disagree with that.”
When Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited the Pacific, Faleomavaega says she ignored most Pacific countries.
“When she announced visiting Australia and Papua New Guinea only, I said well I’m really glad she wanted to come to the Pacific but what about the rest of the island nations. Don’t they count as well?
“I was very frank about the idea that we now a new foreign policy towards the Pacific called Fly by Diplomacy?”
China’s growing influence in the region doesn’t seem to bother the Congressman too much.
“Washington seems to have expressed some concerns about China’s presence in the Pacific,” he admits.
“I congratulate and commend China for its efforts in helping the Pacific islands nations because what is America doing about it? Nothing.
“One thing I will say is that I’m glad that finally with the Obama administration, secretary Clinton and Campbell have made this announcement at the Forum that USAID is going to be re-established and the office is going to be based in Fiji and also I think in Port Moresby. For seven years, I’ve been complaining about the fact that we don’t even have USAID presence in the region.”
The United States should not view China as an adversary, he warns.
“I look at China not as an adversary but as a partner to work together with the USA in solving some of the global issues that we’re now confronted with,” he says.
“There is no way that the United Nations and the USA can do anything without China being involved.”
The Congressman has also been very outspoken about the issue of West Papua.
“We are very concerned about some of the developments that have come out of West Papua in terms of the Indonesian government and its treatment of the West Papua people.
“I met with Indonesian leaders who attended the forum on the post dialogue and I’ve been waiting very patiently for how many years now thinking that the implementation of the special autonomy law since 2001.
“Almost nine years now, it seems to be a very slow process on how the Indonesian government has done this
“I know a new President has just been elected and he’s trying his best under the circumstances but at the same time, the situation in West Papua I believe is something the Obama administration should not neglect or dismiss.”
Issues in American Samoa are very dear to the Congressman. His facial expression changes from being relaxed to a more serious look when he is asked about the tuna cannery issue – StarKist especially.
“We’ve had some very interesting developments,” he says. “The last 40 or 60 years, the whole tuna industry, not only globally but even here in American Samoa has changed completely.
“Some 20 countries now compete for the same market. Right now Thailand is the number one tuna canning country in the world exporting some 360 million dollars worth of canned tuna to the USA, employing well over 20,000 workers.
He talks about three major canneries in the United States being Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee and Star Kist owned by the Don Wong Company out of Korea
“What I mean by the change of the way tuna has been processed is that for years, the basic operation out of Pago was to buy the whole fish and then the cleaning of the fish –which is very labour intensive business. Approximately 90 per cent of the value of the canned tuna, comes out of the process of cleaning.
“What’s happened is this American company called Bumble Bee changed its tactic by buying their loins that are being produced out of, Thailand, Fiji where the workers are paid about 70 cents an hour.
They bring it over and they simply can it in California and sell it, literally almost duty free.
“So by doing that, it puts companies like Star Kist at a disadvantage. That’s why I’m arguing to salvage the only tuna cannery that is willing to stay in Samoa.
“I’m having a battle with the Bumble bee and other companies like Chicken of the Sea because they are pressuring Star Kist to do the same.
“The latest development now - if the reports are correct – is that a company called Tri- Marine is in the process of negotiating with the ASG local government for a long term lease agreement on the facility that Chicken of the Sea left.
“That they are now negotiating with Chicken of the sea for the lease remaining (three years) on what they need to do because I think what the Governor wanted to do was buy the lease from the Chicken of the Sea for $5 million dollars.
“I said we should sue Chicken of the Sea for leaving us the way they did. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t owe them a penny.
“The thing that really upset me was the fact that they just stood up and left without even a courtesy of letting us know of the concerns they had. And that really upset me.”
The tuna industry is important to American Samoa, he says.
“That’s why I proposed this bill called ASPIRE. The problem is that the other two canneries, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea objected strongly against what I was trying to do on some sense of balance to help a company like StarKist [and keep 2000 jobs in American Samoa].”
There is potential for StarKist and other companies to set up shop in (Western) Samoa.
“I encouraged Star Kist to look to Western Samoa. There is also another canning company I encouraged to come to W. Samoa to set up shop because this company has the capacity. Not only can they can and process tuna, but they can also process vegetables
And things where there is tremendous potential here.
Western Samoa has got more land capacity to grow crops, agricultural production things that can be canned not just tuna but canned vegetables and fruits.”
Faleomavaega suspects StarKist plans to establish a loining plant here.
“It would provide jobs for our people here to process the tuna,” he says. “Since so many of our people (working in American Samoa) are from W. Samoa - I would say 70 to 80 per cent of the workers – the plant will help them tremendously.
The cannery issue though is not the only one troubling the territory. The economic prospects for the future are not promising.
“From last year since Chicken of the Sea left, I don’t know what long term economic development plans is in place,” the Congressman says.
“All I’m trying to do is to salvage, to cut the bleeding of our economy in such a way by bringing in some more federal aid.
“But even if I do this, it may be good for the next 10 months.”
The absence for forward plans worries Faleomavaega.
“What I did was 15 years ago, I said don’t depend too much on tuna industry because the time is going to come when they are not going to be around and we better prepare for this. Have a plan B in place.
“D-Day did come and what happened was that there was no plan. So that’s what really concerns me. I think we can really pull out of this and we just have to tighten our belt.
“Two things are most paramount in any government, transparency and accountability.
“I think these are the two fundamental issues that we have to work towards. And then also with a proposed long term economic development plan so that we could all pitch in and work.”
The Constitutional Convention held recently brought to the fore some critical issues.
“I was selected to be a member of the convention through my village of Leone. There were proposed changes in the constitution there were some very controversial ones too,” he says.
“I think one of the serious issues or questions that was never really resolved in the Constitutional Convention was the apportionment of the members to the senator as well as the house.
“The other controversial issue was the Governor offering a proposal to the extent that Am Samoa will have the right to refuse to apply any US law (federal law) that the US passes to the territory.
“The question of political status was never clear. I thought we were going to debate the issue but we never did. The other problem too was that we had this political status report that was issued four years ago cost $1.4 million and we hardly used it from the constitutional convention the organising committee prepared the documents, I think they only used four provisions of the recommendations of this political status.”
The recent shooting in American Samoa where a police officer was killed outside the Court house should be a wake up call.
“It came about as a surprise but I say why should we be surprised?” asks Faleomavaega.
“There seems to be a lot of connection with the drug trafficking and I think this is something our leaders have to take some stronger action.
“What happened here was that the lady that was indicted is the mother so when you look at things like this, it hits right at the heart of our Samoan culture
“Our police officers don’t carry handguns simply because it only encourages criminal elements.”
The drug trade is deadly business, he points out. In Mexico for example, at least 20,000 killed are killed every year as a result of drug trafficking.
“There are serious implications about the presence of drugs,” says Faleomavaega.
“My question is; are our local law enforcement capable, do we have the sufficient resources to counter this?
“People say they are shocked [by the shooting] and I say this tells you something about the drug trafficking that’s going on in Samoa.
“What this man did was to preserve the honour of his mother in a very difficult situation so now we have to make some very serious decisions.
“Are we going to arm our officers and do we have enough resources to put down the trouble with drug trafficking.”
Asked if he supports the death penalty against the alleged offender, the Congressman says it’s difficult to say when the hearing is pending.
Two years after the Obama administration, Faleomavaega is pleased with the progress being made by the new President.
“He has brought a lot of credibility, a sense of willingness to engage, both countries that are adversaries and all those countries that allies,” he says.
“I think he has also tried to appeal to Muslim countries and to those who are believers of the Muslim religion that they should not look at America as an enemy. The speech he gave in Cairo, I believe was very telling in terms of how he felt about Muslim issues.
“When he took office, our economic situation was really going down the tubes, very difficult times where he has had to make some very difficult decisions.
“Today, while our economy is levelling, the jobs have been very difficult to come through in this situation.
“The American people, I think what our president and even the democrats are saying is that we must remember what condition this country was in before president Obama came in.”
As the first coloured President, Faleomavaega says there is still that stigma in America.
“A report I read somewhere says that that it’s 400 times the efforts made to assassinate this president than any other president.
“Obama is 49 years old, he’s holding up very well, personality wise. He is not like the others, very different, very methodical and very thorough in his doing.”
Obama’s election typifies the freedom available in the United States.
“Only in America can you have someone whose father is from Kenya and whose mother is a white woman from Kansas to marry then his father leaves him when he is only two years old and he was raised by his white mother and white grandparents. He was raised in Hawaii in which he was never exposed to the race issues.
“I say it with a sense of pride about the uniqueness of the American democracy.”