The tiny South Pacific island state of Palau has agreed to temporarily resettle 17 Chinese Muslims being held in Guantanamo Bay prison. The men are ethnic Uighurs from China's north-western Xinjiang province; they were cleared for release four years ago by U.S. authorities but have had nowhere to go. They can't be returned to China for fear they'd be mistreated and their resettlement in the U.S. faced fierce political opposition. Palau's current President, Johnson Toribong, said his country was “honored and proud” to take the detainees. We speak to Palau’s former president Tommy Remengesau, who stepped down in January, about the island's decision.
"It’s the long-term ramifications. What is the view of the very people we’re trying to invite to Palau as tourists? What will they think of Palau if they know that we are hosting Guantanamo Bay detainees?"
— Former Palau president Tommy Remengesau on the hosting of Guantanamo Bay detainees
John Hockenberry: We were talking with Judge Urbina not only about his unique way of sentencing white-collar criminals, but also about the final disposition of the case of the Uighurs. It’s not a sentence exactly, it’s a resettlement. The tiny South Pacific island state of Palau has agreed to temporarily resettle 17 Chinese Muslims being held in Guantanamo Bay prison. The men are ethnic Uighurs from China’s northwestern Xinjiang province who had been cleared for release four yeas ago by Judge Urbina. They have not been sent back to China for fears they would be mistreated, and there’s been fierce political opposition to their being released in the U.S., at least until Barack Obama was inaugurated. But Palau’s current president Johnson Toribong said his country was honored and proud to take the detainees on this tiny island about 500 miles off the coast of the Philippines. He stepped down in January of this year, former President Tommy Remengesau joins us. As the former President of Palau, do you agree with this notion of being honored and proud to take these Uighur resettled detainees from Guantanamo? Good morning.
Tommy Remengesau: Good morning. Well, first of all, this is obviously a very delicate and sensitive situation for us. While we are a small island country with a very small population, and we do have our island hospitality, this is something that we really should understand what we’re getting ourselves into. What are the long-term ramifications for getting ourselves into hosting these Guantanamo Bay detainees? Especially when you consider that we rely solely on a tourism industry that could have some negative effects on hosting such individuals.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let’s talk about that for a moment. Why would the resettlement of these 17 Chinese Muslims in Palau affect the tourism business, from your perspective as a former President?
TOMMY REMENGESAU: Well we have to understand first that Guantanamo Bay has been a sticky issue not just for us, but around the world, and today no country has agreed to host these people. The important thing for us, of course, is we must understand…the hosting is the easy part. It’s the long-term ramifications. What is the view of the very people we’re trying to invite to Palau as tourists? What will they think of Palau if they know that we are hosting Guantanamo Bay detainees?
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let’s talk about this a moment, this sort of regional political perspective. Palau doesn’t recognize the People’s Republic of China and still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan as the representative of the Chinese nation. Is it likely that this decision to take the Uighurs is inflammatory, would be viewed as inflammatory to the government in Beijing?
TOMMY REMENGESAU: That’s another issue to take. We’re, of course, on record saying that this China political issue is up to the two Chinas to decide. We would recognize both countries if it was possible. But for now, we do recognize Taiwan and we do want to work with mainland China. The biggest reason for accepting these people is cooperation through our very close cooperation and relationship with the United States. But we’re already doing that by having our sons and daughters fight alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, so this really is not the sole way that we can cooperate with our close ally the United States. But again, what I’m saying at this moment in time is that this situation has not been fully explained to our people. Even as I speak, Congress is not fully aware of what the details of the arrangement are. For example, when you say temporarily, how long is the temporary period? Because it could be a temporary permanent situation as has been the case in similar situations before. This is obviously not a small issue, and please bear in mind that we are a nation of 20,000 people only, tourism is our only industry, we are friendly but we want to give that image that we can be a peaceful place that everybody can come to and feel relaxed.
Farai Chideya: Do you see it more as…you’re someone who served two terms, your father was also president of Palau at one point. Do you see this as almost an affront to your country’s sovereignty, that you are taking these people in at the urging of the United States, or do you see this as totally voluntary?
TOMMY REMENGESAU: To tell you the truth, the timing is very coinciding with the coming to the end of our financial agreement under a special treaty called the Compact of Free Association, so we have to renegotiate this financial package again. If we don’t, everything runs out in 2009. So we’re in a situation where we do want to assure the United States that we are indeed an ally that they can depend on. But I think the important thing at this time is what is the long-term ramifications? What will the impact have on our security, our economic dependence on the tourism industry?
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I think I understand. What is the definition of “long-term” is really part of it because as we know this is temporary, but what does temporary mean? Former President Tommy Remengesau, thanks for joining us.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.