The Asia-Pacific Peace Research Association (APPRA) held their biannual conference in Penang, Malaysia from August 23-25, 2017. Under the theme “‘Promoting Peace and Upholding the Transcendent Dignity of the Human Person in the Asia-Pacific Region”, discussed regional as well as topical thematic issues such as nonkilling, gender, nonviolent resistance, politics, peace education, populism and religion.
It was my privilege to be invited to coordinate and host a plenary panel entitled “US Military vs Asian Lands People.” Conceived with my colleague Dr. Tom H. Hastings from Portland State University, this panel was an attempt to bridge the geographical and research agenda gaps between the US and our Asian colleagues on the topic affecting all. We did not intend to chronicle the long list of military interventions of the US in Asia. We focus on the role of the United States in being a major driver of global warfare and militarism. Asia and the Pacific region, in our opinion, is the primary recipient of this system.
In my introductory remarks, I laid out the challenge that I have as a peace researcher from the US, a challenge I invite all other peace researchers to embrace.
“As a peace scholar and resident from the United States, I am committed to conducting research that is evidence-based but not value-free to contribute to a more just and peaceful world, where the United States ceases to be the world’s bully.”
800 – that was the number I introduced. 800 is the number that anthropologist David Vine uses in his groundbreaking book Base Nation. How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015). Vine argues that very few US citizens realize that this number exceeds that of any other people, nation, or empire in world history. His book examining the influence and utility of overseas U.S. military bases is in my opinion the best work on this topic to date.
At the time of the conference, President Trump stated his willingness to further escalate the war in Afghanistan and we learned about the US war ship that collided with a commercial tanker near Singapore. Hardly anybody in our nation questions the presence of US military in these regions. While there certainly is critique of the war in Afghanistan, it is normalized as part of the US’s role in the world.
To examine the role of US military vs Asian lands and people, I offered a conceptual framework built on two main connected tracks – diagnosis or analysis and nonviolent responses.
On the response side, two distinctions are operational responses and structural changes. Operational responses are clearly defined campaigns addressing a specific incident of the US military. Structural changes are those efforts that aim at transforming the underlying structures and systems that allow for the status quo of US military power projection. A further distinction is that between internal/indigenous responses from the affected communities and those responses that come from within the US.
For a context as wide-ranging as the US military vs Asian lands and people only diverse responses will be able to transform the destructive systems at play.
In the context of Asia, I believe these frameworks help us examine events like World War II, the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea or Yemen. We can also look at the escalation of tensions in the Korean Peninsula as they are taking place now.
The five panelists presented an interesting trajectory of research contributions that reflected the social, political and cultural landscape of the panel topic. We heard about the US pivot toward Asia and the militarization of islands in a broader perspective by Dr. Jude Lal Fernando. We also heard specific research about base construction in Okinawa by Yasushi Ikeo. Another contribution by Dr. Aslam Khan dealt with the longest war in US history, the one in Afghanistan. Then we had two presentations looking at peacebuilding efforts through tourism, education, arts by Dr. Yoko Urbain and musicking by Dr. Olivier Urbain respectively. In sum, it was a strong mix of explanatory analysis and interpretative practices.
What do I take from this panel? Recognizing that US military interventions and presence in Asia is not done out of benevolence, international cooperation or for humanitarian purposes is the inconvenient reality. First and foremost, we must look at resources and control over them. Then we also must look at power and its maintenance. And finally, we must look at global systems of war profiteering, the hidden structures of violence. We also need to examine how to counter and reverse normalization of the context. Finally, I want to remind us of the need to humanize the entire context of what is being discussed. Abstractions are important to analyze and change destructive systems. The role of the US military is often viewed in terms of geopolitics, national and global security, trade and the economy. We must not forget US military vs Asian people and Asian lands has cost many of human lives and caused human suffering and trauma. In the end, we must always listen to the voices of those affected before prescribing any solution, regardless of our good intentions.
How can these awful problems be solved in our hypermilitarized world? Despite the litany of problems, we also see struggling humans and associations of humans problem-solving at an increased rate. Some of these positive developments, amongst many:
The conference turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to have in-depth discussion about the dynamic processes of peacebuilding with Dr. Olivier Urbain. Moreover, it was an opportunity to talk about directions of peace research in general with Dr. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri and Dr. Olivier Urbain, both of whom are colleagues on the Board of Directors of the International Peace Research Association Foundation. Rigor and relevance were two key conclusions that we expect from the field of peace research. Two lengthy conversations over lunch with Dr. Anwar Fazal (Director, Right Livelihood College, Malaysia), a Right Livelihood Award Recipient, were incredibly inspiring and informative.
Conference delegates also had the privilege of experiencing two tours. First, the the Street of Harmony Tour led by Dr. Anwar Fazal showed the celebration of diversity through various religious institutions side by side in Penang. Second, during a visit to Taiping, the Town of Everlasting Peace we saw the Peace Park, a Peace Avenue and Peace Pole followed by a dinner. This visit was primarily coordinated by the Taiping Rotary Club.
This conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet and greet new and old colleagues. I’ve experienced an incredibly warm welcome by the conference organizers and am very grateful for the invitation to be part of the APPRA 2017 conference.