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Okinawa waits as US Marines’ move to Guam struck by delays

TOKYO — Indigenous people on a tiny Pacific island that suffered through foreign rule and the ravages of war are now in a battle against the world’s most powerful military.

The Chamorro people on Tinian are opposing the U.S. military’s plan to use a big chunk of the island for live-fire drills, saying the training could destroy their sacred land and rich natural environment.

The move to set up a live-fire range on the island is part of a wider project to relocate thousands of U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa Prefecture to Guam under a Japanese-U.S. agreement.

Local opposition on Tinian is also just one of several issues, including labor shortages on Guam that have persistently delayed the relocation plan.

Tinian, part of the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, is a five-minute ride by propeller plane from Saipan. Guam is about 200 kilometers southwest of Tinian.

About 3,000 people, including Chamorro, live on the island, a resort destination known for pristine beaches and beautiful scuba diving spots.

Japan colonized Tinian before World War II, and the island thrived on sugar cane. More than 10,000 Japanese lived there at one point.

During the war, the strategically located island became one of the bloodiest battlefields in the Pacific theater.

U.S. forces occupied the island in August 1944 and built an airfield, from which B-29 bombers took off to carry out air raids on Japan’s mainland and later dropped the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, the island has once again become embroiled in the two countries’ security and defense policies.

The Japanese and U.S. governments reached an agreement in 2012 regarding the 19,000 or so U.S. Marine Corps personnel stationed in Okinawa Prefecture.

The plan is to keep about 10,000 Marines in the prefecture and transfer about 9,000 overseas: 4,100 to Guam, 2,700 to Hawaii, 800 to the U.S. mainland, and 1,300 to Australia as part of a rotational deployment there.

The Guam transfer plan includes a project to build a large live-fire training range on Tinian, where aviation activities would use rockets, while tanks and combat vehicles would practice firing at stationary and moving targets.

The training range will be built on the U.S. military lease area that covers about two-thirds of the island.

The U.S. government in 1983 signed a 50-year leased territory contract with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, enabling U.S. forces to use the lease area for training. The United States can extend the deal for another 50 years.

But long-time residents, particularly native people of the island, feel the talks on the contract ignored their voices and feelings.

“Here is a sacred place for Chamorro people where the spirits of our ancestors live,” Juanita Mendiola, the 54-year-old president of the Tinian Women’s Association, said in late March.

She was standing on the U.S. military lease area located in the northern part of the island, pointing at megaliths known as latte stones. Chamorro people built the latte stones mainly between the ninth and 15th centuries in the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.

Chamorro people in the Northern Mariana Islands have a history of being ruled by others, such as Spain, Germany and Japan.

They now have American citizenship but no voice in U.S. presidential elections. They are concerned that once the live-fire training begins, noise damage and soil pollution will spread, and latte stones will be destroyed, as well.

Mendiola’s association and other pro-environment groups filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy in July 2016, demanding a halt to construction of the training range.

A court dismissed the lawsuit in August 2018, but the legal battle has continued in an appeals court.

“We are patriots,” Mendiola said. “We understand about national security. But we also need to secure our home.”

Robert Neller, a U.S. Marine Corps commandant, said at a U.S. Senate hearing in April 2018, “There’s still some environmental impact issues with those training ranges, specifically on Tinian.”

The growing protest from islanders has become a key factor in delaying the Okinawa-to-Guam relocation project.

For some residents in Tinian, protesting the relocation project comes from their self-determination on their own land.

“A lot of people feel we need the military here because it provides economic benefits,” said Sen. Sabina Flores Perez of the Guam legislature.

But Perez, who is Chamorro, feels a sense of danger.

In Guam, a live-fire training range is planned at the Andersen Air Force Base located in the northern part of the island.

“If the live-firing training leads to destruction and contamination of the land, we will never be able to take back the present nature,” she said. “I think we’re at a point where we’re saying, ‘We can’t continue this path.’

“If we look back at our history as Chamorro people, we’ve lived here for over 3,000 years without the U.S. military. I think now’s the time to reclaim that sense of self-sufficiency, and we have it within us.”

The sentiments expressed by people like Mendiola and Perez have also been heard in Okinawa Prefecture.

Some citizens in Guam and Okinawa Prefecture have recently joined hands to work against the construction of U.S. bases.

“It’s really time to come together and support each other in our resistance,” said Monaeka Flores, co-founder of Save Ritidian, a citizens group that opposes the live-fire training range project in Guam.

In northern Guam, heavy machinery can be heard at the U.S. Naval Base Guam North Finegayan. Within the base is a large plot of land fenced with barbed wire. The site is expected to become the main encampment for Marines relocated from Okinawa.

Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero welcomes the expansion from an economic point of view.

“Any increase in population is going to be good for the economy because you have more people that are going to buy your groceries, going to your retail stores, going to your restaurants, going to your hotels,” Leon Guerrero said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

“I do support the military buildup, but with conditions that they have to respect our environment, they have to respect our culture, they have to respect our people,” she added.

Under the military plan, about 6,300 Marines and family members will move from Okinawa to Guam.

Housing, schools, roads and water and sewerage will be built. And the total project cost is estimated at $8.6 billion (more than 900 billion yen).

Michael San Nicolas, the delegate from Guam to the U.S. House of Representatives, said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun that many contractors, even from the U.S. mainland, expanded their businesses to Guam when the relocation plan was initially announced.

But as the project has failed to stay on schedule, some companies have pulled out their investments and business plans from the island.

The U.S. and Japanese governments initially agreed to start moving Okinawa-based Marines to Guam in the early 2020s.

However, the future of the project remains uncertain.

In February this year, the U.S. Marine Corps told the Guam legislature that the major force flow will begin in the second quarter of fiscal 2025 and take 18 months to complete. Specifics of the plans were not disclosed by the U.S. military.

But several sources familiar with the matter in Guam and in both the U.S. and Japanese governments suggest it might take another decade from now to start the relocation.