Resisting obsolescence

The Palau Council of Chiefs spearheaded the largest gathering of traditional leaders from different villages on April 19. (Photo: Kambes Kesolei)

Palau’s traditional chiefs revamping their roles to catch up with modern times

Palau’s traditional chiefs, called “Klobak,” have been a cornerstone of Palauan society for centuries, serving as protectors and problem-solvers. 

However, their roles have come under scrutiny for many years amid criticisms that they are out of touch with modern challenges and unable to provide practical solutions. 

How to reinvent themselves into becoming useful has been a recurring topic of local debate even before Palau became a constitutional republic with a democratically elected government. The era of a popularly elected government sidelined the traditional chiefs, muting their voice on most affairs of the island and its people.

They were not completely shunned, but a compromise of sorts attempting to harmonise the traditional leadership with the elected government was concocted. 

At the national level, the Palau Constitution created the Palau Council of Chiefs, formalising a relic used by the colonial powers to maintain influence over the people. They serve as advisers to the president on matters concerning traditional laws and customs.

The council is composed of a traditional chief from each of the 16 states.

At the state or village level, most top-ranked chiefs are given a lifetime status as unelected and paid members of the legislatures, sitting alongside the elected officials to enact laws. They face no public scrutiny and do not have to campaign based on ideas, skills, or experience. 

A lifetime salary is drawn once an individual becomes a chief serving in the state government, which may include the top four ranked chiefs for most villages. 

While the traditional chief may not hold much sway in village affairs anymore, he is still very influential as the head of the clan and trustee for the clan’s lands. 

However, what was seen as the best arrangement between the two worlds—fusing the wisdom of the traditional leaders with the elected officials in a complementary manner— has not borne out as envisioned. Rather, it has led to strife within clans that get embroiled in politics and lawsuits that split families, resulting in the decline of public trust in a once-revered cultural institution.

Being anointed at birth with positions in the Palauan society, optics is not something they regard as important in a governing institution, which is now rearing its ugly head and could push them into history bins as irrelevant and obsolete.

Recognising this juncture of history, the Palau Council of Chiefs, albeit under skeptical eyes, have started an internal dialogue on how to remake their image and become more relevant in modern Palauan society. 

In April last year, the Palau Council of Chiefs spearheaded the largest gathering of traditional leaders from different villages. The event was aimed at inspiring some sort of cultural renaissance to redeem their stature and proactively contribute to a better quality of life among their people. They also looked at how best to complement the existing government structure in dealing with challenges faced by their constituencies. 

“As traditional leaders, we have a lot on our plate: protecting the environment, ensuring healthy living, an economy to benefit the local people, and matters of customs are part and parcel of our roles and responsibilities as traditional leaders,” High Chief Ibedul Alexander Merep said, addressing the more than 200 traditional leaders at Palau’s First Traditional Leaders Forum held last year.

This dialogue has continued with three meetings hosted by each village council of chiefs joined by the 16-member Palau Council of Chiefs. Last month, more than 60 traditional leaders from Ngaraard State kept the process going by hosting a gathering with the Palau Council of Chiefs to discuss various issues facing their communities and devise strategies to tackle them. 

One of the key issues raised was the need to revive customary ways of dealing with infractions in the community and maintaining honor in the family and the community. They believe that traditional values and customs are still relevant in modern society and should be preserved and promoted. They also emphasize the importance of teaching the Palauan language in schools and promoting traditional values such as respect and obedience.

But how will they go about implementing such noble tasks?

The traditional chiefs signed a “Kerradel Declaration” outlining the approaches to transforming their role in modern society. The strategies include encouraging families and clans to resolve disputes without costly legal battles, respecting and protecting the Palau National Marine Sanctuary’s no-take zone, and promoting the adoption of renewable energy sources.

The soul-searching process provides a significant opportunity for Palau’s traditional chiefs to redefine their role in modern society and adopt a pragmatic approach to solving the challenges facing their communities. 

It is a hopeful sign that they are listening to the people and working hard to revamp their image. With continued efforts and progress, they can become more relevant and effective in creating a better future for their people.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.