Exclusive: Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauru question whether to remain members amid bullying claims

Leaders of Micronesian countries are contemplating abandoning the Pacific Islands Forum altogether, after a fractious vote for a new secretary general sidelined the north Pacific countries, who say they are bullied by larger nations, and left with crumbs.
The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is the Pacific regions most important political body and a powerful voice for the Pacific on the global stage, but the election of former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna as secretary general has exposed a deep fracture between north and south Pacific nations.
Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauru have openly questioned whether they will remain members at all, and Micronesian leaders will meet next week to discuss abandoning the forum.
There is no need really for Micronesia to be part of the [forum], they dont really consider us part of them, Palau president Surangel Whipps Jr told the Guardian.
The Pacific Way is premised on consensus and dialogue, understanding and reciprocity. But there has been little on display in the region this week.
Hampered by an inability to meet in person because of Covid-19, the usually peaceable process to elect a new secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum the regions chief diplomat and bureaucrat descended into barely veiled acrimony this week.
Having served as prime minister of the Cook Islands for a decade before resigning to run for the PIF job, 71-year-old Puna is well known and respected across the Pacific. But his divisive and narrow election by nine votes to eight has exposed a schism between the north and south Pacific, a divide that will be one of his most pressing, and difficult, jobs to repair.
Also this week, Pacific leaders were stunned by Fiji summarily deporting the vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, an influential institution jointly owned by 12 Pacific states that as a shining light of Pacific regional co-operation.
Vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, who had angered the Fijian government with his exposure of allegations of corruption under previous university administrations, had his home raided and was forcibly deported just as the Pacific leaders were sitting down to meet.
The Pacific Islands Forum leaders forum was held online, the first time leaders had not been able to meet in person.
By long-standing convention, leadership of the forum cycles through the regions three major subgroupings: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia.
This year was Micronesias turn, and the ascension of its agreed candidate the Marshall Islands ambassador to the US, Gerald Zackios appeared, initially, a formality.
But other, larger Pacific nations insisted upon their candidates, and, with a field of five, Wednesdays forum ran deep into the night, settled only by a series of fractious votes that ultimately settled, by nine votes to eight, in favour Puna, a Polynesian candidate, over Zackios.
Publicly, the forum said its decision to choose Puna ultimately had unanimous support. All the leaders were very strong in their support for the new secretary-general, forum chair, and Tuvalu prime minister, Kausea Natano said.
But reports from inside the meeting say it was bruising and heated, with the room divided between north and south Pacific nations.
With smaller populations and economies, Micronesian nations feel they are consistently overlooked by comparatively larger Melanesian and Polynesian countries.
Clearly there is no need really for Micronesian to be part of the (forum), they dont really consider us part of them, the president of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr, told the Guardian.
Our friends from the South Pacific did not want to honour the gentlemens agreement, in fact, they keep saying that they dont know anything about the gentlemens agreement.
President of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr Photograph: The Guardian
David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, told ABC radio: if there is no trust, and recognition of rotation between the sub-regions, then there is really no reason to remain in the Pacific Islands Forum.
President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea said Micronesian countries had been treated with total disregard.
To say were [Micronesian countries] disappointed is an understatement.
A statement from the Nauru government said: President Aingimeas position is that if this is the way Micronesia is treated then it is better off withdrawing from the forum.
But Aingimea stressed Pacific nations would stand together on global issues.
Whipps said the Micronesian countries had previously made clear their threat to leave the forum if the gentlemens agreement was not honoured.
What Ive discussed with the FSM president is that we need to act on what we said, otherwise they will think we are just joking.
Whipps alluded to the forums two largest countries, Australia and New Zealand, exercising their outsized influence in favour of the south Pacific, leaving the north of the region with crumbs.
They pushed a vote and now there is a split. Really the two major players in this are Australia and New Zealand, and if those two didnt vote, Micronesia would have won.