Filipinos in paradise: What if Hawaii separates from the US?

Patricio N. Abinales
Filipinos in paradise: What if Hawaii separates from the US?
'Filipinos are the largest ethnic group in the island state, followed by the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. A restored monarchy will have to preside over a sovereign nation that is not anymore of single ethnicity.'

If a scholar or public intellectual from Asia spends some quality time in this, she will be drawn to a number of interesting comparisons of Hawaii, although not with any other state of the American Union, nor neighboring Pacific island-republics. In fact, Hawaii may be better understood if it is placed alongside countries in Asia. 

Let me cite a couple of examples. Because of its forced integration into the United States (courtesy of the white sugar barons who browbeat the Hawaiian monarchy into submission), there is still, up to now, a noisy “sovereignty movement” by certain Hawaiians.

The odd thing is that when asked what kind of regime they would set up in case their movement succeeds, their answer is not that clear. (All the 4 major services of US military withdraw from Hawaii; federal support is cut; and an “independent” Hawaii will now have to negotiate trade treaties with the United States which used to be the main source of the islands’ imports.)

Some want to imitate the idea of a “nation-within-a-nation” that native Americans and the Alaskans have purportedly come to terms with in relation with the federal government. Others are much more ambitious: they want to break away from the Union and become independent. Once sovereignty is achieved, then Hawaii will reach out to other Pacific island communities to build an ocean-wide coalition of nations.

To the question of how this new nation would govern itself, the response of some of the separatists I asked has been this confused silence. Will the current American-type of administrative order continue? Or will this sovereign nation return to the days of the monarchs? Most of the people I conversed with about this tend to lean toward the second.

But the problem is that today’s royal heirs are deeply divided and would most likely spend more time fighting each other than unifying the newly independent island-state. Then there is the fact that the way of governing in the old “glorious” past is difficult to replicate in the 21st century because the old pre-integration Hawaii does not exist anymore. 

The islands have become a melting pot, where vibrant Asian populations straddle alongside the indigenous communities, and whose children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are born here, and hence consider themselves Hawaiian as well.

Filipinos, in particular, are now the largest ethnic group in the state, followed closely by the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. A restored monarchy will have to preside over a sovereign nation that is not anymore of single ethnicity. This was already noticed as early as 1938. It remains true now.

And here, comparing Hawaii to Asia may be most useful. The country that faced and continues to confront this similar condition has been Malaysia, where British colonialism brought in Chinese labor to work on the plantations and Bengali professionals to man the bureaucracy and a budding private sector. The British tied the Malay population to the land. These 3 communities hardly communicated with each other, and this plural society was kept stable by a firm autocratic order. 

When Malaysia became independent, one of the most serious fissures it experienced was the widespread anti-Chinese 1969 riot that forced the ruling Malay elite (who inherited power from the British) to end all pretensions of pursuing any multi-party democracy. A single party – the United Malay Nationalist Organization – still dominates Malaysia to this very day.

A return to the old days of royalty in Hawaii will likely lead to a similar situation. Given the serious economic imbalance between Hawaiians and most of the Asian-American population, and given how limited resources are, there is no other option but to install an autocratic (one party?) monarchy. (Hawaii, like Japan and Singapore, is a piece of volcanic rock where food production is limited. Its main sources of income are tourism and the federal monies that come in support of the camps of the 4 major services of the US Armed Forces.) 

The question is how will the other ethnic communities respond to this? Most likely they will protest this new order, prompting the royals to clamp down on their businesses and limit their associations. Repression often begets more resistance, and, if these confrontations get serious, where will these head up to but…Malaysia in 1969?

The indigenous inhabitants of this place, and many of their sympathizers and fellow travelers, want to leave “the American empire” of which they have been forced to be part. The irony is that, for them, to aspire for a new sovereign future, they may have to make a 180-degree turn and look at what countries in Asia – with the similar inherent limitations Hawaii faces, and with the kinds of populations that have made them what they are – have done to attain their own independence and grow.

And the political trajectories the separatists will see are not exactly that inviting. –  

Patricio N. Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

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