Monday, May 20, 2013


  • Maverick Japanese mayor confuses prostitution with sex slavery
  • Philip Cunningham says it's vital to see use of 'comfort women' for troops as a grievous war crime
  • Monday, 20 May, 2013 
  • 9.jpg

Philip Cunningham

The right-wing revisionism of Japan's ruling party, stacked to the decks with organisation men who are either progeny of former war criminals and war profiteers, or unduly inspired by the warriors interred at the Yasukuni Shrine, is worrisome enough, but even independents are marching to the militant drumbeat.
Osaka's maverick mayor Toru Hashimoto recently said that the so-called "comfort women" - long-suffering and justice-deprived sex slaves and prostitutes - were necessary to Japan's war, and, in the spirit of consistency, he urged the US to use the prostitution services in Okinawa to keep its own "courageous" troops happy.
It's easy to express outrage about the latest verbal gaffe but is there any way in which Hashimoto's comments can be at least partially understood as an honest reflection of a deeply non-Western worldview?
Like the Yasukuni rightists in the national government, Hashimoto showboats his respect for the fighting men of Japan's ruinous war; his basic logic being that extraordinary demands upon women were justifiable because so much was demanded of the men.
In wartime Japan, men served as soldiers on the front line and in doing so put their lives at risk; so it followed, according to the rigid sexual roles of the day, that women should do their utmost to support and comfort the soldiers. It was not just a sexual thing; while being trained for their missions, the young kamikaze pilots were famously "mothered" by mama-sans in bars and hostels near airbases.
Hashimoto's observation that prostitution goes hand in hand with war is not without merit, but it evades a key point. Prostitution is one thing, sexual slavery something entirely different. The real crime was not finding women who wanted to comfort at-risk males, but forcing girls and women to service soldiers against their will. That many of the women were Korean and Chinese, drawn from the occupied territories of nations that had been effectively raped and beaten by the marauding troops of imperial Japan, only made matters worse.
Prostitution is too nice a word to describe the political cruelty of the ianfu system, but the victims weren't all sex slaves, either. Inasmuch as there are historical records of prostitutes plying their trade for the money, revisionists can imagine the entire system as voluntary.
Even those not so naive to pretend the ianfu were happy volunteers have their reasons for validating the comfort woman system. Since the dawn of military conquest, rape has been part of the horror of war. Indeed, it was partly in reaction to the documented horror of the rape of Nanking that the Japanese government upped its bureaucratic involvement in the business of procuring women, both as a means of better controlling its own troops and cutting down on the rapes that undermined civilian support in occupied territories.
Hashimoto's odd comments encouraging US troops in Okinawa to avail themselves of prostitutes can be understood as a reflection of the oddly subservient relationship that Japan's self-styled nationalists enjoy with US power. For most Japanese alive today, the only wars they've witnessed are American wars, the only soldiers they've seen in action are American soldiers, and the only rape cases between soldiers and civilians that they hear about are between US servicemen and Japanese women.
The rightists do complain, with some justification, about American double standards and hypocrisy. Was there not a great deal of soldier-civilian sex going on during the US occupation of Japan? And what about the infamous R&R exploits of US troops in Vietnam?
There are important policy differences, of course, between government-sanctioned sex business and the opportunistic interactions of soldiers and "freelancers" on the periphery of military bases, but even official interference has its supporters.
The thinking goes something like this; soldiers and sex go hand in hand, so it is better to constrain, contain and control the business than leave it to the vagaries of human nature.
In the archaic view of Japan's wartime administrators, it was necessary to "protect" the purity of wives, sisters and daughters of decent society by putting "indecent" women on the front line. When US soldiers marched into Japan in 1945, Japanese authorities were likewise quick to provide women and pleasure stations in the hope of minimising the rape of civilians.
Japan's historic readiness to "sacrifice" women for the comfort of its own and US soldiers before and after the war suggests an imagined fraternity of men that women have good reason to be sceptical about.
While it's understandable that some people oppose the idea of "comfort women" simply because they oppose prostitution, it is important to separate the two. Sex slavery as practised by Japan was a grievous war crime and should be apologised and atoned for, while prostitution is a persistent practice found in every society, about which a wide range of reasonable views is possible.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Who was the real Jit Phumisak? The gifted linguist, willing to risk his college career arguing over a single archaic word? Co-translator of the Communist Manifesto? A radical historian who subversively upended centuries of received knowledge with a bold new history of Thailand? Poet? Composer? Loving son? Jungle fighter?

A bronze statue of socialist intellectual Jit Phumisak recently unveiled by the Jit Phumisak Foundation to mark the 47th anniversary of his fatal shooting. The statue will stand at the site where he was shot dead by villagers in Sakon Nakhon’s Ban Nong Kung in Kham Bor sub-district. APICHIT JINAKUL

Craig Reynolds, who profiled the work and life of Jit in Thai Radical Discourse: The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Todaywistfully noted the elusiveness of a stable identity and the distortions of narrative in biography and legend. Much of Jit's life remains shrouded in mystery; even the circumstances of his tragic death on May 5, 1966 are not entirely clear. The stirring ballad Jit Phumisak as written and sung by the group Caravan suggests that Jit was killed "under the shadow of the great eagle", and it has long been rumoured, though not proven, that US forces somehow had a hand in hunting him down, much like Che Guevera would meet his fate the following year.
There are reports that the headman of the village where Jit was gunned down was rewarded with a trip to Hawaii, but it is also possible that Jit was killed by chance encounter.
Forest monks in Sakon Nakhon are said to have been perturbed by Jit's death, not just because of the violation of life, but because the shooting took place in a protected forest area believed to be sacred and a place of refuge.
I first learned about Jit while studying Southeast Asia at Cornell University, where scholars such as Ben Anderson and Charnvit Kasetsiri lectured on the topic. When I later went to Thailand to study Thai, I found Jit's legend, as expressed in word and song, to be all the rage with politicised students, perhaps all the more so because his name and his works had been previously banned.
As a University of Michigan graduate student researching Thai literature, I took a series on one-on-one tutorials with William Gedney, who turned out to be Jit's co-translator on the Communist Manifesto.
Gedney and Jit lived together at soi Ruam Rudee near the US embassy when they embarked on the career-disrupting translation of the Marxist classic.
Even three decades after they parted, Gedney's deep affection for Jit was evident. One day during class Gedney was beside himself with emotion. He said he had been walking on a street near campus and saw a student who was a dead-ringer for Jit, and it rattled him. Nearing retirement, Gedney was a well-respected linguist with a collection of Thai books some 14,000 volumes strong. He was a quiet man, greatly aided in campus socialising by his warm, radiant wife Choi, who also happened to be the best Thai cook in Ann Arbor.
With the help of a Thai friend, I interviewed her about the years she spent with Jit as a member of Gedney's Ruam Rudee household. The Thai transcript was published by editor Suchart Sawatsri in Lok Nangsue.
Gedney is sometimes described as a key influence on Jit, but he was also curious about the influences on Jit and wondered out loud if it was an arcane academic argument with a haughty professor at Chulalongkorn University over how to best read an archaic word that marked the beginning of Jit's alienation from the establishment.
The argument, in which Jit deployed his formidable knowledge of Khmer, was about an odd word with different possible readings _ phok or phahok, a topic which has been re-examined in detail by Robert Bickner, a linguist at the University of Wisconsin.
A more dramatic turning point came a year later when Jit was rejected by his peers and school authorities for his creative but unconventional (read communist) editing of a university publication. The yonbok or "thrown on the ground" incident at Chula saw Jit subjected to a rude public interrogation by student vigilantes who invited him on stage to defend his violation of hallowed tradition in the campus auditorium, with the result that he was interrogated and then tossed off the stage as punishment, knocked unconscious.
Gedney took care of Jit during this harrowing period when friends backed away in fear and the university's commitment to free expression fell victim to anti-communist mania.
In the wake of Jit's humiliating rejection, and the insinuation of being a communist that went with it, Gedney decided to give an interview to Prachatipatai in 1953 to clear the air. Sadly, Gedney's gallant public attempt to defend a friend who had been thrown on the ground led to him being thrown out of the country a short time later.
That's not to say either of them was a communist; just standing up for American-style free speech in a Cold War client state of the US was radical enough.
Gedney served in the US Army during World War II and US governmental contacts helped him land freelance translating gigs in Bangkok. But the translations that paid the rent eventually put them out of their house. Gedney told me how he had been contracted by a "sleazy, shady character who resembled Jackie Gleason _ Bird, his name was Willis Bird" to do translations for the US embassy.
Gedney agreed to translate the Communist Manifesto into Thai if he could hire an assistant. He got the job and Jit got going on it.
That gem of US government-mandated linguistic work was ruinous to both men, leading one man to end up in jail, and then in the jungle, while the other was deported to America.
Gedney felt so betrayed by the devious hand of Uncle Sam that even 30 years later he could confide to me that he hated to see professors, at Michigan, and elsewhere, stupidly take US government money without realising the strings attached.
Gedney was a linguist first and foremost, but he did have interesting political ideas. He came of age during the 1930s Depression and the Soviet-leaning leftism of that period seems to have left a mark. One day we got talking about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which I fully expected him to condemn, but instead he welcomed it.
"It's about time they got rid of those mullahs and had some civilising influence. The people there need it."
The left-leaning linguist had ample reason to be bitter; he felt his career had been thwarted, especially at Yale and the Ivy League universities, tarred by Cold War paranoia.
Gedney related how it was that he came to leave Bangkok. He had a meeting with a policeman who placed his gun on the desk and let the barrel of the weapon do the talking, hinting that it might be a good time to leave.
A hoped-for intercession on the part of Kukrit Pramote did not materialise, nor did the US embassy help. Gedney packed his books, married Choi, adopted her children, and left Thailand, a land he clearly loved deeply, in January 1954.
The question of who radicalised whom has long been grist for ideological speculation. It's a pity, in a way, because the politics eclipses something more precious; a beautiful, deeply intellectual, mutually supportive friendship.

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.

Friday, May 10, 2013


South China Morning Post
Philip Cunningham considers why, as China rises and American power wanes, the US-engineered fog of ambiguity over the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets is losing its hold

Winds of change
 Friday, 10 May, 2013, 4:51am

Philip Cunningham

The United States should urge Japan and China to “avoid any steps that might escalate tensions in and around the disputed islands”, says Sheila Smith of the US Council on Foreign Relations. It’s a view that resonates in Washington, but is it not the pinnacle of hubris for the US to chide China and Japan, as if they were schoolchildren fighting over a rock, when the US is part of the problem?
US cold-war strategy created the Senkaku/Diaoyu conundrum in the first place, with the Nixon administration fixing it so Japan had de facto control while not denying Chinese claims to the territory. Ambiguity of this sort served to wrong-foot both China and Japan, while seeming to cede the disinterested high ground to the US. It’s been equivocation wrapped in ambiguity ever since.
So far, Barack Obama’s Team America has only muddied the waters, modelling US-Asia strategy on a clumsy ball-court move; the problem is the “pivot” has been anything but a slam dunk. With Uncle Sam’s pivot foot trapped in the drone-war zone along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the other foot dragging in Pacific waters, the feint-to-the-East strategy has rattled China without scoring any points for the allies. Instead it has riled the region, where the response has been to ratchet up defence and military spending.
The pivot – fancy footwork going nowhere – is classic Obama, all finesse but no success, as Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping up the stakes and face off over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. The US is and isn’t committed to defending Japanese sovereignty, a hazy, lazy policy that could drag America into a ruinous battle along the fault line of the world’s three largest economies.
The ambiguous trilateral arrangement brokered by Nixon’s team lasted as long as it did because of the relative weakness of China and the formidable forces the US put forward in the region.
In 1945, the US won the war but lost the peace with Japan, where the imperious mentality has found new fields of dominion, and where the war has been continually invoked and revised by the entrenched right-wingers and Yasukuni cultists who rally around Prime Minister Abe.
With so much American blood and treasure wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US ability to control and influence events on the far side of the Pacific wanes by the day, even as Xi’s China Dream includes brash plans for a blue-sea navy.
With Wall Street preying on the remains of a broken economy, native industry all but hollowed out, and political leadership mired in identity politics and bipartisan squabbles, the US is losing its secure footing if not its mind. Like other empires in decline –Britain comes to mind – the inbred arrogance of ubiquitous imperial reach over the sea will persist long after actual power ebbs away.
At the apogee of its power in 1945, the US defeated Japan and took uncontested control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles, along with Okinawa, and other far-flung islands of Hirohito’s imperial empire, claims later ratified by the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952. Chiang Kai-shek, as representative of rump Republican China during the years of the ruinous civil war with the communists, had a legitimate claim, because China had been a US ally and the isles in question had been administered not from Okinawa but as an integral part of Taiwan under the law of colonial Japan. Obsessed with civil war, Chiang did not assert this right when it might have made a difference, though he later came to regret it.
As Washington issued the clarion call to combat communism and winds of the cold war buffeted the region, the US went from being pro-China to pro-Japan. Historical and geographical claims to the islands were shunted aside in favour of ideological considerations. There was zero chance that the US would hand over the contested islets to the very mainland it was trying so hard to contain, leaving Taiwan and Japan as the only contenders.
US-Japan relations blossomed and grew intertwined to the point where US president Richard Nixon gave word to Japanese premier Eisaku Sato that Okinawa would be returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, but the devil was in the details.
In a case of Beltway below-the-belt politics writ large, details of the Okinawa reversion were contingent on linkages such as concessions in trade, restricting textiles in particular, since “winning” the support of the US textile industry was a key factor in Nixon’s re-election strategy. Both Taiwan and Japan offered concessions for the isles, but Henry Kissinger, who by now was flirting with China in order to wind down the war in Vietnam, was not predisposed to deal with Taipei.
The furtive horse-trading with Tokyo, which was soon to suffer Nixon shock when the president made his famed overture to Beijing, resulted in a deal to keep US nukes off Okinawa (a promise not kept) while the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles were included as part of the Okinawa deal at the discretion of the US.
To fend off the inevitable complaints from China, the US granted Japan administrative control of the islets while taking a neutral position on sovereignty.
The result is quintessential Kissinger; an exquisite balance devoid of morality that flies in the face of common sense. It’s a variation of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too school of diplomacy, most famously put to use in the Shanghai Communiqué in regards to the ambiguous “One China” policy that deemed Taiwan part of China in name but not otherwise. History shows that the cake strategy can work, as long as all sides co-operate.
The hardy wildlife that subsists on the uninhabited isles doesn’t care what the rocky outcrops are called, but for the sake of regional peace, the islets should be kept untrodden by the feet of man. The US should use its cachet with Japan to press for a hands-off policy in order that China might be obliged to do the same.
Call them the “fishing isles”, as China and Taiwan do, or the “pinnacle isles”, as the British did and the Japanese still do, and you get the picture. The dispute is about some jagged rocky outcroppings good for fishing and little else. Better to leave them to the goats and the gulls, than to wreck the world economy and tragically sacrifice human blood over the control of some forlorn rocks.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on May 10, 2013 as Wind of change

Thursday, May 2, 2013



Publicity or propaganda, it's all just a matter of spin

Published: 2 May 2013 

When Beijing changed the name of the Department of Propaganda to the Publicity Department, journalists snickered at the transparency of the ploy, since the spin and the information control system remained the same.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra speaks at the Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, on Monday. Ms Yingluck condemned the 2006 coup, defended her brother Thaksin Shinawatra as a champion of democracy and blasted independent agencies for abusing their power. Photo courtesy of Government House.
But there's another side of the coin _ the paid "publicity" and "public relations" produced by multinational corporations, government speechmakers and even US academics can rightly be considered propaganda too.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently showed his corporation's penchant for propaganda, of which "Don't Be Evil" is empty slogan number one, in an article which slyly puts his company on the good side of the struggle against data mining and privacy invasion _ even though Google is a master exploiter of private information for commercial gain as well as a formidable data miner.
"We fight hard not just for our own privacy and security," Mr Schmidt said, with a touch of noblesse oblige, "but also for those who are not equipped to do so for themselves."
Harvard University professor Joseph Nye likes to brand himself a strategic thinker, but he's also a propagandist, hammering out one anodyne platitude after another, such as "all countries can gain from finding each other attractive", and "the best propaganda is not propaganda". This while hammering home his, and by extension, America's "ownership" of the word "soft power", even though it's not an original concept and in the US context is part and parcel of military strategy.
"When Foreign Policy first published my essay Soft Power in 1990," Mr Nye opines, "who would have expected that someday the term would be used by the likes of Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin?" Clunk. Yeah, who would have thought? He even quotes a mention he gets in the Economist. Wow.
Nothing like a member of the Trilateral Commission tooting his own horn in service of liberal interventionism. "China and Russia make the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power," Mr Nye says in a recent article for Foreign Policy. Yeah, unlike the US, which uses paid intelligence professionals such as Mr Nye, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, to drum up support for US global dominion in the halls of academe, and in compliant beltway media such as sycophantic Foreign Policy, which just happened to name him a "top thinker".
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra recently gave a speech on democracy in Mongolia that reflects some of the same spin and self-serving agenda as the examples above. Here are just a few of the classic techniques employed in her speech.
- Make frequent use of a key buzz word. Check. "Democracy" is mentioned 27 times in the Khao Sod transcript of Monday's speech. "Rule of law" is mentioned five times, mostly for rhetorical flourish it would seem, given that her fellow travellers in the red shirts are threatening the Constitution Court, and her brother is a fugitive of justice.
- Talk to one party with the intent to signal another. Check. The speech was delivered in Mongolia but it sounds like it was scripted for the US Senate floor: "No one should be left behind", "All men and women are created equal", "Of the people, for the people, by the people", "Due process", and "Active stakeholder". What better way to win regard from self-regarding Americans than to make generous use of US buzzwords?
- Talk about poor people to divert attention from your family's enormous wealth. Check. Yingluck is all for "reducing the income gap between 'rich and poor"' and providing "economic opportunities".
- Promote education as a cure-all. Check. "Education creates opportunities through knowledge" including the "knowledge to make informed choices". Good point, so why does her party tend to lose in the most educated electoral districts in Thailand?
- Use ready-made, boilerplate rhetoric to make it sound real. Check. "Thai means free", "A new era of democracy has arrived". The smoother sections of the speech seem to reflect the confident hand of speechwriter Suranand Vejjajiva, who used to write a column for this newspaper.
- Don't reveal your underlying motives. Uncheck. "Many who don't know me say 'Why complain? It is a normal process that governments come and go.' And if I and my family were the only ones suffering, I might just let it be." What has up until this point been a fairly well-crafted piece of rhetoric suddenly starts to sound like a replay from the days when Thaksin was prime minister, moaning and pouting whenever he didn't get his way.
The only sensible phrase in that plaintive complaint is "let it be", and here one suspects the gentle, corrective hand of former "Let it be" columnist Suranand.
- Cherry-pick history to serve partisan agenda. Check. Ms Yingluck talks of "international friends" and the need for "pressure from countries who value democracy" to keep "democratic forces in Thailand alive". But her "suffering" brother was famous for dismissing valid and constructive international criticism, most famously from the UN ("The UN is not my father!"), and also numerous NGOs and even the US, when he launched a bloody, quota-driven crackdown on drugs without reference to "rule of law" or "democracy".
- Invoke martyrs of past democratic struggles. Check. "Many people have sacrificed their blood and lives in order to protect and build a democracy." True enough, but what were the Shinawatras doing? Consider Mr Democracy's whereabouts at crucial junctures in the democratic struggle. Thaksin was a police cadet and then a student abroad working in a fast-food franchise while his age cohorts in the 1970s sacrificed their lives in the streets of Bangkok. In the run-up to Black May 1992, he was making a bundle off government concessions. Even during the red-shirt staged drama of April and May 2010, he was conspicuously absent, in Dubai watching events unfold in air-conditioned comfort, phone in hand, talking to minions long-distance.
Overall, Ms Yingluck's speech is a wobbly piece of propaganda, as such things go, inadvertently revealing when it gets personal but otherwise opaque and full of boilerplate platitudes. It makes mention of important issues. But her breezy, superficial treatment of these dead serious topics is more fitting for a partisan rally than a serious forum on democracy.

Philip J Cunningham is media researcher covering Asian politics.