In hindsight, there may have been no better way to bookend a trip to the 2012 biennial conference of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) than by visiting Beijing and Hiroshima. Two unique and very different cities project to the world the themes which underscore the work of peace studies today: the need for revolutionary action in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and the need for nonviolent resistance against the forces of militarism which still leave us on the brink of global devastation. Though this year’s recent IPRA conference did not quite pay homage to revolutionary nonviolence, it did contain substantial presentations indicating some roads we must follow and still uncharted paths.
My time in China was simple: meet with a few activists, visit Tiananmen Square, and have some moments trekking up the Great Wall. In bustling Beijing, considering the 1.34 billion people who make up China as a whole, it is hard not to think of the enormity of the issues facing the country and its citizens. Though centuries apart, the scale of Wall and the images embedded in ones memories of the Square — from Chairman Mao leading the People’s Liberation Army against nationalist forces in 1949 to unarmed students stopping tanks in 1989 — speak of grand struggles for radical change, for egalitarian economics, and for participatory democracy. One needn’t be a fan of Mao to recognize that, on a cold Friday morning in the middle of November, intergenerational crowds of thousands (not mainly tourists) still line up early in the morning to pay their respects to the man who most symbolizes for them progressive social change.
With the recent close of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party amidst official proclamations of “China Shining Brightly under the Party Flag,” it seems clear that little short-term change is likely to occur in a nation now fraught with a closed political process and stratification between rich and poor rivaling Western capitalist countries. Though reports of the fragility of an “unsustainable” regime continue to grow, with certain signs of increasing resistance to neo-liberal economic practices, substantial change in a country with a large and loyal militarized portion of the population will be slow at best.
The opposite message — that another world is possible and emerging — was the theme of Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos Horta’s keynote opening address to the IPRA conference, held from November 24-28, 2012 in Tsu City, in the Mie prefecture of Japan. Ramos Horta, former President of East Timor and founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, wished — with some notable skepticism — “good luck” to the nonviolent activists of the world, explaining that his cynicism about the power of peaceful change is somewhat mitigated by the fact the he was kept alive, and Timor’s freedom struggle was largely won, through committed acts of civilian resistance and solidarity. The proudest aspects of Timor’s ten years since independence, Ramos Horta reflected, involve their successes at achieving both national reconciliation and the unique ways in which they have developed a commission on truth and friendship with their former colonial overloads in Indonesia. Ramos Horta’s strongest urgings, in reviewing the opportunities and challenges of a “rising Asia” which includes the divergent powerhouse perspectives of China and Japan, of India and Korea and Pakistan, was that solidarity must be expected not just from rich to poor or from the Global north to the south, but across the world to better all people’s basic conditions.
These themes were stressed in the following plenary, “Conflicts Violence and Agenda for Peace in Northeast Asia,” which brought together scholars from China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in an engaging interactive experience. Nanjing University’s Liu Cheng related that the younger generation of students in China, while conditioned to be suspicious of Japan based on the history of the two countries, have been open to greater understanding based on principles of negotiation developed in the growing field of peace studies. Kozue Akibayashi of Japan’s Ritsumeikan University emphasized the need for these emerging fields to include a gendered perspective in formulating policies regarding peace; her feminist analysis suggested that the United Nations 1325 edict on women, peace, and security needed to be included in all of our work. Respondent Francis Daehoon Lee of Seoul’s Sung Kong Hoe University challenged the assembly to envision solutions to our potential future “imaginary territorial disputes;” he also has been at the forefront of the concrete international campaign to safeguard against the return of dictatorship in his country by spotlighting the dangerous electoral campaign of the heir of the late dictator, notoriously repressive Park Jung-hee.
A proud example of some excellent international cross-fertilization between North and South, East and West was on display in the work of the nonviolence commission, where Bangkok-based author Chaiwat Satha-Anand spoke on innovative tactics in our modern-day movements, including the use of cyber-space and the importance of humor. We were reminded that “sometimes we are so surrounded by the violence that we lose sight of what day-to-day people are doing.” Though, according to Chaiwat, definitional lines of what constitutes nonviolence understandably get blurred as people get more tactically and strategically creative, it is our job to hold onto the often positive small realities that enable people to live their lives.
That point of view seems especially present in the daily life of Hiroshima, a city which describes itself as “a call to unity in the quest for human survival.” When one is shown around as I was, by two Hibakusha (survivors of the 1945 U.S. Atomic bombing of the city), it is hard not to feel a constant and overwhelming need to apologize for what our country had done. As I learned more about the very specific and targeted nature of the decision to drop the bomb on a town of simple civilians, the sorrow of it all was hard to deny. The attitudes of my hosts, however — artist Junko Kayashige and educator Miyoji Kawasaki — could not have been further from those emotions; they lavished me with presents from the city’s peace museum, and shared detailed stories of 67 years ago. “That was the past,” Kayashige-san said with passion. “Now we must look into the future, to build for peace together.”
All roads in Hiroshima seem to lead to political action for disarmament and nonviolence: from the petitions available (more prominent than even the gift shop!) as one exits the museum, to the popularly-posted City Proclamations, which in 2012 called for a transcendence of rage and hatred, an end to a nuclear and atomic energy policy which cannot ensure the safety of the people, and “bold leadership” for an abolition of all nuclear and atomic weapons. Hiroshima, indeed, is a town which has transformed its tragedy into a living monument to ongoing civilian resistance to militarism and war. All peace practitioners would do well to study historical efforts for peace, and IPRA remains one significant channel for doing so. The Asian and Pacific examples that IPRA helped highlight last week pave a path from our human failings to the possibilities of unforeseen future success…