When the dream of unity among Micronesia's far-flung islands is mentioned to Roman Tmetuchi, Palau's most prominent politician, the response is a quick, scoffing burst of laughter.
"It would be better to try to unify Canada, the United States and Mexico in a single nation" he says. "That would make more sense."
Paluans do not speak the same language as their closest neighbors, the people of Yap, 280 miles away. They hardly know the Micronesians of Truk, which is 1,200 miles away and accessible only by twice-a-week air flights.In fact, Micronesians speak 11 distinct languages and only the educated few communicate at all with other islanders, in English.
"Separation," says Tmetuchl, "is an act of God. Micronesia was made this way."
A great many Palauans share Tmetuchl's view and most believe these western Caroline Islands voted on Wednesday to reject a unified Micromesia reflecting their desire to go their separate way in the future. About 60,000 Micronesians on a hundred islands were qualified to vote in the referendum to decide whether they'll remain a U.S. trust territory or join a proposed new federated states of Micronesia.
Vote counting started yesterday and the final results may not be known for several days. Most observers believe Palau and the Marshall Islands voted for separatism and that four central districts voted for a federation, which would grant partial independence from 31 years of U.S. trusteeship.
It was a hotly contested election here with noisy public rallies and television debates. The island is plastered with posters saying "Vote no." A large proportion of the six inhabited islands' voters participated in the referendum supervised by the United Nations. Boats began picking up ballot boxes on the outer islands Thursday.
Separation would destroy the long-held goal of the United States for unity in the vast Pacific territory. It is still the nominal policy of the United States that a cohesive island nation should emerge. But the Marianas already have negotiated a separate commonwealth status with the United States and now the Marshalls and Palau seem destined to go the same way.
Palauans, it appears, made up their minds when the constitution which was voted on Wednesday was drafted three years ago.
"We were outvoted in the constitutional convention," recalled Sylvester Alonz, executive secretary of Palau's district legislature. "We wanted to have a loose federation and we were outvoted on that. We also wanted the national government to be here but we were outvoted and it went to Ponape." Fearing federation would mean dominance by strangers hundreds of miles away, Palauans voted 88 percent against federation in a September, 1976, expression of public opinion.
Palauans also look upon themselves as more culturally advanced than the other Micronesians. Many are educated abroad and travel widely and Palauans hold a disproportionately large share of trust territory jobs.
"There is a kind of ethnic chauvinism in Palau" observes Lazarus Salii, himself a Palauan and now territorial planner in Saipan. Salii favors unity but doubts that his own people will vote for it.
He believes that even Palauans would fare better economically as part of a federated Micronesian state. He envisions a powerful fishing industry if the new entity can negotiate its own 200-mile zone, like other nations have done. "That," he observes, "would amount to one very big chunk of the Pacific Ocean."
Most Palauans see it differently, feeling they have more than other districts to offer economically and not wanting to share it with far-away strangers in Yap, Truk, Kosrae, Ponape and the Marshalls.
A consotrium of Japanese Iranian and American businessmen has indicated interest in developing a huge superior for oil tankers on Palau and many natives once saw that as a means to economic independence. Recently, however, public opinion has turned agianst the superport on grounds it would destroy the beautiful island ecology and create a too-rapid growth.
Palauans may also benefit from American military interest in their islands. The United States has indicated it might acquire land for large military training and staging area on one island, giving Palau a sizable tax base for future development.
Although there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way the United States has managed this part o fthe territory, there is not much sentiment for a complete breakaway from American control.
Alonz said that if the vote goes against federation, as expected, Palau will within a month begin separate negotiations for an agreement similar to the commonwealth status arranged for the Marianas.
"What we want is a kind of free association with the United States and we are prepared to bargain for it," Alonz added.He said that John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, author and former ambassador to India, will advise Palau in the negotiations.
But there is confusion over what kind of a deal the United States is willing to make. It has shown that it wants unfettered military rights in Micronesia for 15 years at least and wants some contrl over the islands' foreign affairs.
Palau's politicians say that the United States has already indicated a willingness to discuss separate negotiation with them if the referendum fails here. In accordance with the United Nations mandate, however, U.S. policy is still to support unity of all Micronesia.
Tmetuchl says he is confused by American shifts in policy. "At one time, the U.S. government wanted the whole place unified under one government," he says. "I think they changed their mind after the 1976 referendum here. Now I don't think even the American government knows what it wants."