Wednesday, August 7, 2013


(first published in the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST)

Snowden has no island
'Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" is the pathetic cry of the title character, played by Charles Laughton in the1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when he frees the heroine from the hangman's noose and whisks her into the safety of sanctuary inside the cathedral, just in the nick of time.
The life and times of Victor Hugo were full of revolutionary turmoil, brutal injustice and futile defiance, yet his tales are not without life-affirming acts of asylum and grace. Finding sanctuary from the long arm of the law and vengeful officials was not just a literary theme, but a fact of his own life.
Hugo had to hole up in exile in liminal lands such as the Channel Islands to enjoy some autonomy from the domineering realms of France and England, though his unyielding defence of press freedom caused him trouble even in exile, and he was expelled from Jersey, finally settling in nearby Guernsey, where he composed Les Miserables.
Questions of sanctuary, and the quality of mercy, are very much in the news these days, given full court press of US President Barack Obama's manhunt for National Security Agency (NSA) "hacker" Edward Snowden, who revealed the president to be a tool of an out-of-control security state with an unquenchable thirst for secrets and secrecy. Mr Obama's New Cold War warriors deprive people of privacy in the name of security, saying that the law is on their side, when not hiding behind the cloak of state secrets.
The sheer, often-overbearing might of the US was on display when the plane of Bolivia President Morales was forced to land due to the suspicion that Mr Snowden might be on board. This heavy-handed wheeling and dealing to deny Mr Snowden asylum in this jet-patrolled, drone-prone and widely wiretapped world is a pox on Pax Americana.
A dingy airport transit lounge is as close as Mr Snowden has come to finding a cathedral hideaway, but his captors are honing in, ready to pounce.
Mr Snowden's early and repeated declaration of interest in going to Iceland is telling. Given a choice, he'd rather live in a small neutral country than play into the hands of great power rivals who sport robust spying systems of their own. But he has no way to get there.
So where can a principled fugitive from justice find sanctuary nowadays? Is there a single house of worship in the United States that isn't bugged, that couldn't be overrun by an aggressive Swat team? During the Vietnam War, Canada was North America's lofty cathedral, a recognised asylum for draft dodgers, a breezy alternative to the rough justice of imperialism. Are there any countries left in the world willing to be cathedral Canada today?
Many netizens knew early on that Facebook was full of privacy holes, but we trusted Skype until Mr Snowden told us not to. Was Skype's free-from-eavesdropping image crafted by deliberate misinformation? Mr Snowden's revelations not only showed the public that the two internet giants were untrustworthy, but that two presidents were too. George W Bush gets worse press than the charming Mr Obama, but their disregard for privacy is comparable; if anything, Mr Obama has been worse. They are the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum poster boys of the NSA's looking-glass world.
With bugging comes illicit knowledge and with illicit knowledge comes the power to blackmail. Not only is the US hoovering up the world's digital dirt, but in acting upon this ill-begotten information, Mr Obama is bringing back the ugly politics of J Edgar Hoover.
After a fortnight of US wheeling and dealing, countries who have unspoken reasons to fear US wrath, large and small, are suddenly out there doing the loyalty dance, rejecting in July the same political fugitive that their media outlets cheered so loudly in June. Look how quick little Ecuador got in line. Portugal and France caved, Brazil bowed out. Even the big government of India showed itself to be stuck in a colonial mentality. It's ludicrous claim that the US is "not snooping" reveals India's self-destructive desire to be more like the US, in the worst way possible. India is apeing the US security state, by shoring up a spy state of its own, designed to monitor the email and phones of at least 900 million people.
Even Russia's steely Vladimir Putin flip-flopped, saying Mr Snowden must stop "work aimed at harming our American partners". Partners? Partners in espionage? Was the Russian won over by Mr Obama's wily, poker-faced bluff, or did the US bring some special pressure to bear? Mr Putin can still save face and make a sop to popular opinion by allowing the "hacker" to move on unmolested. But where to?
Will Mr Snowden find a temporary Tahiti in Latin America, only to be served cold justice by the mean-spirited Captain Blighs of the US security state? Going back to the "land of the free" would lead to a life decidedly unfree, a land of handcuffs and a loaded trial, followed by incarceration, probably for life.
China remains the world power most capable of resisting US pressure, but it also ranks among the least sentimental about individuals who speak truth to power, despite its storied history of courtiers who upbraided unruly emperors. If the state-to-state summitry so popular in the world today speaks to anything, it is that one political machine tends to grasp the needs of another political machine better than the lone men and women who dare to stand up to the machine.
Where have all the Channel Islands gone?
For a young man with nothing left to lose, Snowden has shown considerable pluck, but also a kind of scrupulousness. By all evidence he has not been swayed by money nor expedience, choosing to hole up in a tiny room somewhere, rejecting the easy out accorded a defector, which he refers to as "petting the Phoenix".
Mr Snowden's revelations put pressure on the US, home to the biggest spying network the world has ever seen, to move from darkness to light, or in the immortal words of Victor Hugo, to move "from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life".

Philip Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.

Saturday, August 3, 2013


               (by Philip J Cunningham, first published in the Bangkok Post, August 3, 2013)

Unresolved issues of history continue to haunt and distort the present, all the more so when hidden from view. Historical controversies need a good airing from time to time, not so much to salvage the past as to save the future from repetition of past mistakes. When factual distortions are part of the problem, silence is not an answer.

Japan’s militarists pose a case in point. There’s no shortage of foreign media noise when ludicrous denials are made about issues like the Nanjing massacre and comfort women, or when war-criminals are glorified at Yasukuni Shrine, but more attention needs to be directed to Japan’s ongoing argument with itself.

The latest domestic flare-up is between Japanese defenders and detractors of the Peace Constitution, known as such for its war-renouncing clause. The 1947 Constitution was conceived under US guidance as an antidote to militarism, and it remains in force today, a remarkable testament to both its peaceful vision and practical durability.

On the one hand you have the gentle and reclusive Miyasaki Hayao, anime auteur extraordinaire and Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, who broke with his characteristic reticence to state, “taking advantage of low voter turnout and changing the Constitution without giving it serious though is unacceptable. I am against it.”

On the other hand you have Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro, tough-talking political blueblood so impatient to revise the Peace Constitution that he carelessly invoked the Nazi perfidy of changing the Weimar Constitution before people realized what was going on, saying “why don’t we learn from that method?”

The two latest salvos cut to the quick in the battle for the hearts and minds of Japan in this moment of national disquiet. It’s an argument between those whose find strength in peace versus those who find strength in war, a battle between the better and lesser angels of Japan’s sometimes militaristic nature.

Mr. Aso and Miyazaki hail from the same generation, born just months apart at a time when Imperial Japan was at war with China and gearing up for daring attacks on Pearl Harbor and other ports across Asia.

Although both men were mere toddlers during the Pacific War, seven decades later it continues to haunt them. Tokyo-born Miyazaki was left with a life-long fascination of airplanes --tales of daring aviators and social breakdown are repeating themes in his work. The provincial Aso, who was a crack shot with the rifle as a youth, a shooter in the 1976 Olympics and something of a Yasukuni crackpot in old age, has a career trajectory shaped by the guiding hands of an elite family with links to both war criminals and postwar elite. The family firm Aso Cement, which he helmed in the 1970’s, had a history of exploiting Allied POWs for unpaid slave labor during the war.

On a lighter note, Aso Taro has been dubbed Japan’s number one manga fan, based on frequent media sightings of him reading boy’s comics, an association further bolstered by his claim of reading ten or twenty manga a week in graduate school, including Golgo 13 and other teen fantasies about assassins and warriors. Around the same time, Miyazaki penned the apocalyptic manga series, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which launched his lifework of creating morally nuanced animated films laced with themes of flight and escape.

Though the famous manga reader and famous anime maker may find themselves on opposite sides of the fence on the question of constitutional revision, they share a similar need to address, in their work and their published comments, the unfinished business of Japan’s ruinous Pacific War.

They are fellow travelers in time, members of an aging and fading generation touched by the zeitgeist of a dark war, a war whose controversies still make newspapers headlines today. What they share, despite different approaches and forks in the road long since taken, is a need to deal with the legacy of that war, to explore and examine what it means, to draw what lessons can be drawn, to make peace with a violent past.

Miyazaki is an ardent defender of the Peace Constitution, but he is no more willing than his political nemesis Aso to consign to the dustbin of history the entire war generation of Japanese men and women, many of whom were hapless ordinary folk doing their best to survive. It is precisely this kind of nuance that animates Miyazaki’s best work; his characters are idiosyncratic, individualistic, stubborn and even odd, but rarely does one encounter villains of the cardboard cutout variety. Indeed, his latest film, The Wind Rises, is about the decent, hard-working men who created the Mitsubishi Zero, as fine a piece of aviation engineering as any American aircraft of that era. 

There are surely descendants of victims of wartime aggression in Asia who will be puzzled by Miyazaki’s latest creation, because the stigma attached to the losers of World War II is so great it extends to the products by which they were known. In Asia there are those who, for reasons of history, reflexively hate the Mitsubishi Zero, just as in the West there are people who reflexively hate the Volkswagen, a functional people’s car that happened to be commissioned by Hitler.

Shunning industrial products is one thing, tarring a nationality with a single brush is quite another. Outsiders can get away with castigating Japanese of the war generation as fascists and fanatics in the same way that outsiders can portray an entire generation of Germans as willing executioners of Hitler, because they are not looking at people as individuals but as types.

Such stereotypes are inaccurate and unfair. The horror of war does not reflect the DNA of a so-called race or the innate traits of an imagined nation, but is rather part of a universally shared human predilection for folly and frailty, for errant leaders and over-eager followers, for political bloodlust and heartlessness in the heat of battle.

What Miyazaki’s films teach us is that there are all kinds of people in every society, and decent people can be found in the worst places at the worst of times, despite nationalistic posturing and the daunting social pressure to conform.

                           The official trailer for The Wind Rises:   KAZE TACHINU