Japan's pacifism in peril, again

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan. Credit: Chatham House

Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to tinker with Japan’s pacifist constitution – but peace activists are organizing to thwart him.

Abe has announced plans to amend the Constitution by 2020, to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics, using the charter’s 70th anniversary as a pretext.

Abe says the revisions are necessary for Japan to be ‘reborn and move strongly forward’. Many Japanese activists disagree, arguing Abe’s real agenda is to revise the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9. They fear this will take Japan back to its pre-war past, when the military used emergency laws enacted in the name of national security to hijack political power.

One of Abe’s oldest opponents, now 102, sees dangerous parallels to the 1930s. ‘Back then, I was arrested by the military authorities merely for supporting the communist party. Never again,’ she says.

It is not yet clear exactly what changes Abe is proposing, but he has successfully watered down the peace clause in the past. And the prime minister possesses the strength in Japan’s parliament to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary for a formal constitutional revision.

It is less clear whether he can secure a simple majority in a public referendum, which is also required for revision. Currently, 50 per cent of Japanese voters oppose any constitutional change, with 63 per cent against revising Article 9. It is likely Abe will take a step-by-step approach – first proposing non-controversial amendments to get the public comfortable with revision, and then introducing more contentious changes.

He is floating a broad range of possible constitutional changes, seen by many as sweeteners, to camouflage his real ambitions. Gimmicks include a constitutional amendment mandating free higher education. Abe is also suggesting giving legal status to Japan’s Self Defence Forces, a potentially popular policy when 87 per cent of voters think Japan’s security is threatened, especially by North Korea and China, according to a Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) poll.

Civil-liberties advocates and peace activists are already organizing resistance. In May thousands of demonstrators gathered in sites across the country to protest against Abe’s controversial new Conspiracy Act, which allows greater surveillance of those suspected of a crime. Opposition activists see the Act as a pretext for silencing dissent ahead of a referendum on constitutional reform. ‘This bill can be interpreted to make me a target of surveillance, just for participating in an anti-government protest like this one,’ said one young female protestor.

Ironically, Abe’s actions are reviving the vocal opposition and activism he seeks to quell.

Forest bathing

Forest bathing in Japan

A group of women enter the bamboo forest garden at Hokokuji Temple in Kamakura, Japan. © Roni Bintang/Reuters

The neon lights, packed streets and urban sprawl of downtown Tokyo are one take on modern Japan. But there is a quieter, less hectic side beyond the country’s seething cities. More than 70 per cent of Japan is mountainous, and two-thirds of the land is forested. So it is little wonder that Japan’s rivers, mountains and forests play a central role in its spiritual and cultural life.

Shinto, the ancient ethnic religion of Japan, contains important elements of nature worship. Natural elements in the landscape – waterfalls, mountains and rivers – as well as earthquakes and storms are thought to embody spirits, or kami. Japanese mythology also includes tree spirits like the dryads of Greek mythology, known as kodama.

A century before poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge sought spiritual and social regeneration through nature, Matsuo Basho, Japan’s most celebrated haiku poet, renounced urban life. Basho journeyed out of Edo (modern Tokyo) and immersed himself in the Japanese wilderness. His close observations of trees and forests in all seasons – from the aoba wakaba (green, young leaves of summer) to a crow on a bare branch in akinokure (late autumn) – provide enduring reminders of the fundamental connections between life, art and our nature.

Less stress

Today, forest and mountain walking remain popular pastimes. Every year, thousands of Japanese urbanites reconnect with nature through pilgrimages to the 88 temples of rural Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s major islands, or along the ancient forest routes of Kumano, which stretch across the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka. The popularity of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Princess Mononoke (1997) has encouraged a younger generation of forest walkers to visit the Mononoke Hime no Mori (Princess Mononoke Forest) on the lush, subtropical island of Yakushima.

Writers, artists and musicians have long argued that communing with nature refreshes the human spirit

But the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’, or shinrin yoku, brings a walk in the woods to a new level of intensity. Forest bathing doesn’t require a swim suit. It’s about submerging yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woods.

A 2004 study from the Nippon Medical School suggests what many of us know intuitively: time spent in a forest lowers stress and promotes improved physical and mental health.

Based on these findings, some municipal governments in Japan are promoting certain sites as designated forest therapy bases.

‘Experience shows that the scents of trees, the sounds of brooks and the feel of sunshine through forest leaves can have a calming effect,’ says Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Centre for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University.1 Participants are encouraged to immerse fully in the landscape, stimulating all five of their senses by experiencing the sound of wind, the heat of the sun, the colour of the leaves, the feel of the bark and the smell of the trees.

Working life in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, is notoriously stressful. Six-day work weeks are the norm, and although company employees receive paid vacation, workplace pressure makes some people afraid to take time off. Even schoolchildren put in long hours, with many attending juku (cram schools) after regular school hours.

Daily grind

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 22 per cent of Japanese employees work 50 or more hours a week, compared to 11 per cent in the US and 8 per cent in France.2 Unpaid overtime has become such a severe problem that it is now associated with a host of physical and mental illnesses. The Japanese language even has a word for it: karoshi, meaning ‘death by overwork’. In 2013 alone, 133 people died from work-related causes including strokes, heart attacks and suicide.3

For many people, forest bathing offers a soothing remedy to the daily grind.

Writers, artists and musicians have long argued that communing with nature refreshes the human spirit – what Wordsworth called a ‘never-failing principle of joy’; the 20th century gave these ideas scientific footing. The theory that human fascination with other living things influences our mental development stretches back to EO Wilson’s 1984 book, Biophilia.4

But the future of the immersive forest experience is under threat in modern Japan. Decades of government spending on public works aimed at reviving rural economies have seen large chunks of forest felled to make way for roads, dams and other infrastructure projects. In 2014, the government earmarked $52 billion for public works spending. Since Japan’s economy collapsed in the early 1990s, the state has pumped trillions of dollars into these ‘concrete white elephants’. Critics say stimulus money would be better spent encouraging rural tourism. Such a shift could both boost the economy and improve the health of the country’s weary workforce. Time in the woods might be just what the doctor ordered.

Tina Burrett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo. Her partner, Christopher Simons, is Associate Professor of Humanities at International Christian University, also in Tokyo.

  1. Japan Times, nin.tl/forest-therapy.

  2. OECD, nin.tl/oecd-balance.

  3. Japan Times, nin.tl/japan-karoshi.

  4. EO Wilson, Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984). See also Stephen R Kellert, Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development (Island Press, 1997). .

Minorities report


The votes of Burma’s minorities could be decisive in November’s elections – if they are counted. This man is from the Rakhine ethnic group, which makes up about 3.5 per cent of the population. © C.E.J. Simons

When the nominally civilian government took power from the military in March 2011, it brought with it hope for change.

Most dramatically, the government’s reforms allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) to contest parliamentary by-elections in April 2012, following her release from house arrest in November 2010. Hundreds of political prisoners were released and laws passed to provide better protection for human rights; restrictions on media freedom were reduced; and preliminary peace agreements were reached with many armed ethnic groups.

Yet despite this, many repressive laws remain. In November 2014, Aung San Suu Kyi declared that the international community had been too optimistic. Human rights groups concur, arguing that significant backsliding occurred in 2014 on the progress made since political reforms began in 2011, especially regarding minority rights.

Challenges and opportunities

The outcome of this November’s elections will be decided partly by the votes of Burma’s ethnic minorities. The majority Burmans, who make up approximately 68 per cent of the population, will vote alongside 134 official minority groups.

But recent reforms present challenges as well as opportunities for Burma’s religious and ethnic minorities, including the Chin, Karen, Kachin, Naga and the much-persecuted Muslim Rohingya.

In northwest Burma, the government-initiated peace process is bringing new opportunities to Naga communities that until recently fought against the military. A new generation of village chiefs is embracing UN development projects and eco-tourism to connect with a globalizing world.

‘The authorities will bring ballot boxes to the village, but whether our votes will be counted or will end up in the river, we don’t know’

Attitudes to outsiders are mixed. When I visit Burmese Nagaland – one of the first foreigners to do so – I meet teenagers clutching Chinese mobile phones who are excited by a future beyond their village. Their grandfathers are more sceptical of change. Inside their bamboo huts, they sit shrouded in pipe smoke, while the younger Naga tell me excitedly about plans to build a hostel in the hopes of attracting tourists.

Asked about the impact of the upcoming elections on their village, the Naga are equally cynical, regardless of generation: ‘The authorities will bring ballot boxes to the village,’ the chief tells me, ‘but whether our votes will be counted or will end up in the river, we don’t know.’

As the election will be closely contested, representatives of both the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and opposition NLD are courting support in remote communities.

On the mountain road into Nagaland, I cross paths with a general who is touring local villages ahead of the election. I eat at the same ramshackle restaurant; the only item on the menu is dried goat meat. The general, suspicious-eyed and rotund, chews on the best meat, while his underlings eat goat offal that smells as horrible as it sounds.

Back in the village, the Naga tell me they have little time for current President Thein Sein and the USDP. As one villager tells me: ‘The USDP representatives come here and tell us what the government has done for us and that we should be grateful.’

The majority of the Naga I meet support the NLD. An elderly Naga woman with tattooed legs explains, ‘When NLD campaigners visit they ask us what we want the party to do for us. They listen to our needs rather than telling us why we should vote for them.’ Village support for the NLD is so high that one man has turned his meagre home into a local party headquarters. The NLD flag flies proudly above his doorway. Nearby, his blind wife peels vegetables with surprising speed and skill.

Constitutional deadlock

The National League of Democracy has been travelling the country to garner votes. Here, youngsters listen to leader Aung San Suu Kyi giving a speech in Thanlyin township, August 2015.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Since the reform process began, the Burmese government has agreed ceasefires with many of Burma’s ethnic armed groups, not only the Naga. Ceasefire accords allow the government to avoid conflict on multiple fronts in border areas, and thus to focus on countering political opposition in central Burma. However, efforts to conclude a common National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) have so far failed.

As negotiations proceeded during June and July, fighting continued in several states, including Shan and Kachin. Ethnic armed groups’ demands for regional autonomy and a federal system of government remain major sticking points. The current national constitution contains no provisions for regional autonomy. The very first line of the constitution prohibits secession.

Without support from the military, the Burmese constitution is impossible to amend. Constitutional provisions guarantee the military 25 per cent of parliamentary seats; the constitution also requires the support of 75 per cent of parliamentarians to pass an amendment, giving the military an effective veto on constitutional reform. In late June, Burma’s parliament voted against amending the 75-per-cent rule ahead of November’s election.

Constitutionally, individuals with a foreign spouse or children are barred from contesting the presidency. This means that Aung San Suu Kyi – who has two British sons – cannot hold the country’s top job.

Some ethnic minority groups have accused the Nobel Laureate of spending too much time campaigning to lift this constitutional bar rather than focusing on the issues that affect the lives of ordinary citizens. A journalist and activist from Kachin states that ‘the Lady should devote more time to discussing transport, devolution of power, human rights and even stray dogs – these are the issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives.’

Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the government’s renewal of its war against the Kachin in 2011 has further alienated support for the NLD. She has also been criticized by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama for failing adequately to condemn rampant anti-Muslim violence that began against the Rohingya people in Rakhine state and has since spread across Burma.

The Rohingya make up around 800,000 of the country’s 56-million population, and rank at the bottom of Burma’s social hierarchy.

Currently, Burma’s constitution does not include the Rohingya among the country’s indigenous groups, categorizing them as ‘non-national’ or ‘foreign residents’. The Rohingya were officially deprived of citizenship under a 1982 law enacted by the then-ruling military junta. Living in squalid refugee camps or makeshift villages in Rakhine, the majority of the Rohingya will be unable to take part in this year’s elections.

No vote

Owing to a lack of access to information, even officially recognized minorities may have difficulty exercising their voting rights. As Mai Democracy, editor at Chin World Media, explains: ‘In rural areas where most minorities live, few have access to television, or even radio. There are few newspapers published in minority languages, and those… face distribution and funding difficulties. The mainstream media pay little attention to issues facing minority groups. When minorities do appear in the press, it is usually in connection with an insurgency or inter-communal violence.’

A perceived lack of interest in minority issues among the Burman has led many ethnic groups to form their own separate political parties to contest parliamentary elections.

‘The Lady should devote more time to discussing the issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives’

In November, parties such as the Chin League for Democracy and the Karen National Party will compete against the NLD, potentially creating a third force that could thwart the League’s ambitions to take power. According to Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of national newspaper The Voice: ‘The NLD should make a pre-election pact with ethnic minority parties not to contest the same seats. Otherwise they will play into the government’s plans to divide and rule.’

The ultimate test of Burma’s reforms will be whether there is a real transfer of power after the election.

The military has promised ‘free and fair’ elections, but it remains to be seen whether it will honour the results. In elections in 1990, although the NLD won by a landslide, the junta refused to relinquish power. Burma’s transition is likely to be long and protracted. Any long-term change must be bottom-up and inclusive of the country’s diverse peoples.

Tina Burrett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo.

The Japanese doll’s house


A Japanese woman walking Magdalena Roeseler under a Creative Commons Licence

Just like the Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons, living in Japan is often like living in a 1950s vision of the future, where modern innovations sit alongside entrenched gender roles.

After living here for the past 8 years, my affection and admiration for my adopted home runs deep. Recently declared the most liveable city in the world, Tokyo offers safety, superb services and endless cultural and culinary stimulation.

But when I became pregnant late last year, my perspective on Japan developed a new dimension.

Although for many living outside the country, Japan’s association with hi-tech gadgetry evokes images of tomorrow’s world, the country languishes in the past in terms of gender equality. Indeed, in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, Japan ranks 104 out of 142.

Wherever in the world you live, becoming pregnant can seem like becoming public property. Strangers – often well meaning – offer unsolicited opinions and advice.

In most places, although sometimes irritating, such interventions can usually be politely ignored. But in Japan, I found my personal choices limited in ways I never expected. At 5 months and visibly pregnant for the first time, I was asked to leave my gym for the duration of my pregnancy, despite medical evidence that regular exercise reduces complications during childbirth.

In fact, I was not even asked in person: while I ran merrily along on a treadmill, my husband was asked to tell me to leave, adding to our shared sense of indignation.

The birthing options offered to women in Japan are also limited compared to those available in other developed countries. Pain relief, such as epidurals, are only offered in a limited number of private hospitals. Furthermore, my pregnant Japanese friends describe being put on restrictive diets by their obstetricians in order to prevent them from gaining ‘too much weight’.

Although it must be noted that Japan has some of the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that it also has one of the lowest birth rates, which at 1.4 in 2014 is below replacement level.

Japanese business culture is a key contributor to the country’s low fertility rate. The practice of recruiting new graduates into ‘jobs for life’ makes it difficult for employees to take career breaks or to find new positions when returning to work after raising young families. Long hours, 6-day work weeks and a corporate drinking culture where junior employees cultivate the connections necessary for promotion, make it impossible for many women to balance family and working life.

Blatant discrimination also inhibits women’s advance up the career ladder. Equally qualified female graduates often find themselves railroaded into low-level administration in Japanese companies, while their male counterparts take the high road to upper management.

In Japan’s boardrooms, the ‘bamboo ceiling’ – so called for being tough and opaque – prevents women’s progress. Only 2% of Japan’s most senior executives are women, compared to 35% in Norway and 20% in France.

A lack of childcare options adds to the difficulties for Japan’s working parents. In 2014, approximately 21,000 Japanese families could not find a nursery place for their child.

Restrictions on immigration have limited the availability of home-based childcare providers. As a consequence, about 70% of Japanese women leave the workforce after giving birth. Many women never return to paid work; those that do find themselves restricted to jobs that waste their talents.

In 2012, women accounted for 77% of Japan’s part-time and temporary workers. As a result, women earned 26.5% less than men in Japan, versus a 2011 OECD average of 14.8%.

Legally, childcare leave is available to both men and women. But in 2013, only 2% of Japanese fathers took paternity leave, likely owing to cultural expectations that women should be the stay-at-home parent and to concerns that taking leave would negatively affection promotion prospects.

Women are also grossly under-represented in Japanese politics. Only 11% of Japan’s parliamentarians are women, placing Japan 129th in global league tables of female political empowerment, below Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In April 2013, Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe announced that he wanted women to ‘shine’ in the Japanese economy, making ‘womenomics’ an essential part of his Abenomics growth strategy (although ironically, the word shine actually means ‘die!’ in Japanese).

But Abe has done very little to practically promote gender equality, devoting more energy to downplaying Japan’s treatment of Korean sex slaves – euphemistically known as ‘comfort women’ – during World War Two than to empowering modern women.

Abe’s lack of commitment to gender equality is not surprising, as he has previously supported redrafting the Japanese constitution to privilege ‘traditional values’ over universal human rights.

In 2005, Abe warned that traditions such as the Festival of the Dolls, celebrating young girls and their hopes for future marriage, could be threatened if government policies were introduced to create greater equality.

During his first administration in 2007, Abe’s Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa referred to women as ‘birth-giving machines’, arguing that if more women stayed home they would produce more babies, and thus more future workers.

Chauvinistic attitudes remain pervasive in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In June 2014, female legislator Ayaka Shiomura endured sexist taunts from LDP colleagues about her single, childless status as she addressed the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly about maternity support and other gender issues.

Abe’s ‘pink’ reshuffle in September 2014, which saw a record-equalling 5 women promoted to his cabinet, backfired when 2 female ministers were quickly forced to resign owing to campaign finance irregularities – scandals leaked by male colleagues sore at being leapfrogged for promotion.

Raising Japan’s gender equality would not only improve opportunities for women, but could also bring significant economic benefits, adding 8 million women to the labour market.

If lawmakers can create the right policies for empowerment, Japanese women could make Japan a place in which I’d be very proud to raise my unborn son.

Tina Burrett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo.

Burma’s Rohingya: the invisible people


© Christopher Simons


Burma is a country full of smiles. From Yangon to Mandalay, tired travellers on the main tourist routes are greeted with beaming faces smeared with thanaka [a white cosmetic paste made from ground bark].

But this is not the case in Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State on Burma’s west coast – home to the majority of the nation’s Rohingya minority.

Stopping at a floating fishing village outside Sittwe, we are met by wary glances and murmurs that ripple through the crowds. As we wander through Sittwe’s market, there is palpable tension in the air.

A skeletal old woman, the only person who speaks to us directly, hawks a pitiful number of small silver fish, like slivers of soap in the mud in front of her. Even in a country where abject poverty is commonplace, the deprivation we see in Rakhine is jarring.

The state is the second poorest in Burma. Despite the hardship, people do their best to live a normal life. At the public beach, we splash around in the water with a gaggle of local children, trying to invent a new game that can be played with their mostly deflated football.

The recent conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and their Buddhist Rakhine neighbours has made life in Sittwe even more difficult.

Historically, the Rakhine majority has resented the presence of Rohingyas, whom they regard as Islamic immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, primarily Bangladesh.

The Rohingya, on the other hand, feel they are part of Burma and claim that the state discriminates against them. The United Nations describes the Rohingya as a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma and as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The Rohingya make up around 800,000 of the country’s approximately 56 million population, and rank at the bottom of Burma’s social hierarchy of ethnic minorities.

Currently, Burma’s constitution does not include the Rohingya among the country’s indigenous groups, categorizing them as ‘non-national’ or ‘foreign residents’, under the Rakhine State Action Plan drafted in October 2014.

Citizenship denied

The Rohingya were officially deprived of citizenship under a 1982 law enacted by the then-ruling military junta, creating a kind of Asian Apartheid system.

This law reversed the Rohingya’s longstanding recognition in Burma, first accepted by the newly independent post-war government in 1948, and then by the country’s first military dictatorship, between 1962 and 1974.

The junta even tried to co-opt the Rohingya into armed struggle against Buddhist separatists in Rakhine who, like other ethnic groups in Burma, were fighting for autonomy and for control of local natural resources.

Today, human rights groups accuse Burma’s government of targeting the Rohingya for ethnic cleansing, and a recent report from Fortify Rights documents how their persecution is a matter of government policy.

Excluded from the March-April 2014 nationwide census, the Rohingya face tight restrictions on freedom of movement, employment, livelihood, access to healthcare and freedom of religion.

Following violence that left 200 dead and thousands homeless, the Burmese government quickly moved to contain all Rohingya in internally displaced person camps – which critics compare to concentration camps

The plight of the Rohingya sharpened drastically in June 2012, when clashes broke out with the Rakhine Buddhists. Following violence that left 200 dead and thousands homeless, the Burmese government quickly moved to contain all Rohingya in internally displaced person camps – which critics compare to concentration camps.

An estimated 140,000 people live in squalor there, with another 40,000 living in equally dire conditions in non-camp communities around Rakhine state.

Aid agencies say nearly half of the displaced people in Rakhine lack reliable access to safe and nutritious food. Denied freedom of movement, Rohingya families typically cannot travel outside their camps, which have no healthcare facilities, leading to avoidable deaths from lack of medical treatment.

For example, in February 2014, the Burmese government rejected Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Rakhine, one of the few providers of healthcare, claiming that the charity was giving preferential treatment to the Rohingya. The organization has since been allowed to resume work, in January 2015.

In 2013, violence against Muslims spread beyond Rakhine, into central Burma. Thousands of people were displaced, dozens killed, and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed.

Why has discrimination and violence against Burma’s Muslims been getting worse?

Ironically, the end of official censorship of the media in 2012 has become a contributing factor. The newly gained freedom of speech is being used by extremist monks such as Ashin Wirathu and his anti-Muslim 969 Group to enflame Buddhist nationalism and stir ethnic hatred.

As government censorship relaxed, Wirathu became active on social media, spreading his message of hate by posting sermons on YouTube and Facebook.

Christopher Simons

In July 2013, Time magazine put him on their front cover with the headline: ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror?’

Some speculate that the Burmese government supports Wirathu in the hope that his rhetoric will distract citizens from the country’s other problems and give a nationalist boost to the ruling party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.

Sensationalism and a lack of professional standards among Burma’s tabloid journalists are also exacerbating ethnic tensions. Anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay in July 2014, for example, were sparked by a post on Facebook alleging the rape of a Buddhist girl by her Muslim employer.

Although the story proved false, the tabloid media quickly picked it up, triggering communal violence. For their part, Burmese journalists frame the Muslim-Buddhist conflict in nationalist terms by offhandedly using loaded words such as ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘immigrants’ to describe the Rohingya.

Government-imposed travel restrictions on local and foreign journalists’ access to the Rohingya internment camps limit accurate reporting.

In February 2014, the Ministry of Information reduced the duration of foreign reporters’ visas from three months with multiple entries, to one month with a single entry, likely as a reaction to the international media criticism sparked by the government’s treatment of Rohingya refugees.

Local newspapers that provide balanced reporting on the Rohingya-Rakhine conflict often face a backlash.

As one editor at Seven Day News explains, ‘whenever we write about the conflict in Rakhine, we get a lot of angry letters and phone calls, especially from the Arakan [Rakhine Buddhist] side. Following criticism of our reporting on the violence in Rakhine in 2012, we decided to give the issue less prominence in our newspaper.’

Self-censorship of this kind can lead to a dearth of balanced information on the causes and consequences of inter-ethnic violence. When balanced reporting is scarce, biased and unprofessional accounts fill the vacuum. These reports go unchallenged, increasing the spread of misinformation.

No end in sight

Three years after violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, no resolution to the ethnic and sectarian conflict is in sight.

As a consequence of the violence, the United Nations estimates that 120,000 Rohingya have fled the country during the past three years.

Christopher Simons

There are now 28,000 documented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but the UNHCR estimates that up to 200,000 more are living in villages along Burma’s Bangladeshi border.

Thousands of desperate Rohingya have also turned to people smugglers in an attempt to reach nearby Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Previously, migrants were often smuggled to Thailand and northern Malaysia by land. But following the recent discovery of mass graves in more than a dozen abandoned camps used by human traffickers in the Thai and Malay jungle, both countries have cracked down on overland smuggling routes.

Seeking to avoid the crackdown, trafficking syndicates have responded by holding their victims in large ships close to international waters, and ransoming them by extorting money from their relatives. Traffickers have reportedly tricked or kidnapped Rohingya children as young as 13 years of age.

Survivors from the ships – which often hold thousands of victims for months at a time – describe beatings, sexual abuse and bodies being thrown overboard. Thousands remain trapped at sea on these ‘boat camps’, as countries in the region refuse to take more than a handful of refugees.

At a special ASEAN conference in Bangkok on 29 May, South-East Asian countries agreed to increase their search and rescue operations and to tackle the root causes of the migrant crisis.

However, the Burmese delegation refused to apologize for its policy of segregation, refusing even to use the word ‘Rohingya’– instead referring to all Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ migrants.

The Burmese delegation at the ASEAN conference refused even to use the word ‘Rohingya’– instead referring to all Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ migrants

Worse, the Rakhine conflict may be paying political dividends to the central government. The Burmese media have reported that two Rakhine insurgent groups that had been fighting government troops have now offered to co-operate with them to patrol the Burma-Bangladesh border in order to keep out illegal immigrants.

Even Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized by her fellow prize-winner the Dalai Lama for not doing enough to voice her opposition to the persecution of the Rohingya in her country.

The Burmese government deserves credit for the reforms it has undertaken over the past couple of years. But a country that does not acknowledge the freedom of all of its minorities can never be called a free country.

Country profile: Burma


Night traffic races around the golden Sule Paya in downtown Ragoon, increasingly dwarfed by new buildings. © CEJ Simons Photography

The village of Laing Khin in Nagaland – one of the remotest areas of northwest Burma – has no electricity or running water.

Yet here, the grandchildren of the Naga headhunters wear T-shirts showing Korean popstar Sy and play football pretending to be David Beckham. Their teenage siblings perch on $500 Chinese motorbikes, wear hunting rifles on their backs and text each other on Huawei smartphones. Globalization has arrived in the farthest corners of the former pariah state.

In less than five years, Burma* has undergone widespread change.

In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, following victory for the military government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the country’s first elections for 20 years – elections widely condemned as fraudulent.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last election in 1990 by a landslide, but the result was ignored by the military.

In 2011, Thein Sein was sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian, government. Since then, progress in human rights has included the release of thousands of political prisoners; a ceasefire with ethnic militia groups; and abolition of pre-publication media censorship.

Burmese schoolchildren enjoy a visit to a temple complex in Mrauk U, Rakhine State.

CEJ Simons Photography

In April 2012, Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in a by-election. In response, the EU and US suspended all non-military sanctions against Burma. President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country. Consequently, economic growth has skyrocketed, driven by surging foreign direct investment, big increases in aid, and rising commodity exports (primarily oil and gas).

However, Burma’s democratic transition still faces many hurdles.

In November 2014, Suu Kyi criticized the US for its excessive optimism about Burma’s reforms. The sudden influx of foreign capital has led to rising prices, with many Burmese priced out of living in Rangoon.

Infrastructure outside economic centres remains poor or non-existent, despite frenetic building, and impedes basic health and education services.

Inequality is rising as regime cronies benefit from post-sanctions economic opportunities. Rural populations have faced eviction to make way for new developments – for example, for the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, a joint Burmese-Japanese venture, 24 kilometres outside Rangoon.

Although the Burmese media no longer operates under direct censorship, the authorities routinely harass journalists.

In October 2014, freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, known for his reporting on ethnic conflicts, died while in the custody of the Tatmadaw (Burmese military). Ownership of the new commercial media by regime cronies – the only ones with capital to invest – acts as a restraint on political reporting.

A woman prays at a temple in Mrauk U, Rakhine State (recently the site of violent ethnic clashes).

CEJ Simons Photography

Thus, Burma still ranked 156 out of 175 countries on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other international observers record ongoing human rights abuses in Burma, including forced labour and the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers.

Political turmoil and ethnic conflict following the country’s independence in 1948 provided the military with its original pretext for seizing power.

Our research suggests that the military will again use ethnic strife to justify its hold on power before this year’s elections. The government has done little to stem the growing tide of Buddhist extremism – such as the activities of the notorious 969 Movement – that has increased violence against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in western Rakhine State.

The government points to recent inter-ethnic riots – such as those in Meiktila, Mandalay and Bago – to argue that now is not the time to reject the stability of military rule.

After decades of totalitarian oppression, corruption, and the regime’s paranoid and incompetent handling of the emergency response to cyclone Nargis in 2008, few Burmese would agree.

*Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989. However, democracy movements prefer the name Burma. Both names have the same linguistic root.

Tina Burrett and Christopher Simons

Dusk falls at Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most important Buddhist sites in Burma.

CEJ Simons Photography

Orange squash: foul play in Ukraine

Harassment, manipulation, intimidation: the three months of campaigning in the run-up to Ukraine’s 28 October presidential elections have been a master class in bullying. President Viktor Yanukovych has been eliminating the opposition since winning office in February 2010. Originally defeated by the Orange Revolution after attempting to rig elections in November 2004, Yanukovych returned to win the presidency legally in 2010, replacing the revolution’s fallen idols, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

Since then, Yanukovych has undone many of the Orange Revolution’s democratic gains. Employing an election strategy similar to that of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych has harassed the independent media, manipulated election laws and interfered in the judicial process to intimidate and discredit his political opponents.

The fate of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko best illustrates the autocratic complexion of Yanukovych’s regime. Tymoshenko was defeated for the presidency by Yanukovych in 2010. Last October, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for exceeding her powers when signing natural gas contracts with Russia in 2009. She is now facing a second trial for alleged tax evasion. Yanukovych has also suggested that Tymoshenko participated in the 1996 murder of entrepreneur and politician Yevhen Shcherban.

Although she may look like an angel, Tymoshenko is no saint. But the timing of the multiple criminal charges levelled against her suggests that she is the victim of political persecution. This position is supported by the European Union, the US and international human rights groups. On 8 August, Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych declared that people serving prison terms are ineligible to run for parliament. Ukraine’s Central Election Commission therefore registered the united opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party without its leader, Tymoshenko.

Journalists have also experienced bullying by the Yanukovych regime. In August, Reporters Without Borders raised concerns about media freedom, stating that ‘independent media are subject to all kinds of harassment, including constant intimidation, raids and prosecutions’. The campaign group further condemned the harassment of Mykola Knyazhitsky, head of privately owned television station TVi. Knyazhitsky is being investigated on charges of tax evasion following a raid on the station by tax inspectors on 12 July. He denies the charges and insists that TVi is being harassed for political purposes. As the only independent national competitor of the pro-government station Pershyi Natsionalnyi, TVi has experienced trouble with the authorities for years. In January 2011, the courts withdrew TVi’s broadcasting frequency in response to a complaint by Inter Media Group, a company owned by the then-head of Ukraine’s Security Service, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky. The court ruling suggests that the judiciary take their orders from the government and that the government wants to curtail public access to information. In such an environment, this month’s elections will be neither free nor fair.

Japan must say no to nuclear!

Kono Taro is not a typical Japanese politician. In a culture that values consensus and moderation, Kono is outspoken and bold. But these are difficult times for Japan, with 2011’s natural and nuclear disasters compounding an already palpable sense of political and economic crisis within Japanese society. The disasters that occurred on 11 March 2011 painfully highlighted Japan’s lack of strong political leadership. Japan’s citizens are desperate for a leader with vision to lead them back to prosperity and security. Given Japan’s political current climate, Kono Taro’s moment might finally have arrived.

Kono Taro

World Economic Forum under a CC Licence

When we meet in his office in Nagatacho, the heart of Japanese government, Kono is visibly exhausted. For months, he has spent every evening in study groups composed of his parliamentary peers, investigating various areas of policy. The objective is to publish a book that will act as Kono’s personal manifesto and launch his bid to become prime minister. Top of his agenda is a radical rewriting of Japan’s energy policy.


Since the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi last year, many Japanese citizens have become concerned about the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. But for Kono Taro, the Fukushima disaster was all too predictable. Kono began campaigning for an end to nuclear power on first entering parliament in 1996. Soon after he was elected, negotiations began on what would become the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The discussions at Kyoto prompted Kono to start his own study group on energy and the environment ‘to see if the Japanese government’s policy on climate change was feasible. The government were talking about adding 20 new nuclear reactors to Japan’s existing nuclear infrastructure. After looking at the science on which the policy depended, I concluded that the government’s policy was unrealistic.’

The power industry’s hold over the media prevents Japan from engaging in a national debate on nuclear power

Kono raised his concerns over the government’s nuclear strategy at the headquarters of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), the conservative party that ruled Japan almost continuously from 1955 until August 2009. The reaction of party elders to his questions startled Kono. ‘They asked me, “Are you a communist?” I responded, “I’m asking a legitimate question, please give me a sensible answer”, but they never did.’

Unperturbed, Kono took his concerns to the media, but was surprised to find that ‘journalists didn’t seemed interested’. The few newspaper reporters who were interested were told to drop the story by their editors. Eventually, Kono was invited to air his criticisms of Japan’s nuclear industry in a three-part television interview. ‘But the day after the first part of the interview was shown, power company representatives came to the channel’s managers and threatened to pull their sponsorship if the other two interview segments were broadcast,’ says Kono. That was seven years ago, and the rest of the interview remains unaired. A radio station that broadcast a similar interview with Kono also encountered problems with the power companies. Long after the interview, Kono was back at the radio station. ‘I ran into some of the journalists who’d interviewed me about the nuclear industry and they said as a result of my appearance they’d almost been fired.’

Legalized bribery

Kono argues that the power industry’s hold over the media prevents Japan from engaging in a national debate on nuclear power. ‘Energy companies buy huge amounts of advertising in the print and electronic media. But these companies are monopolies and don’t need to advertise to attract customers. They don’t buy advertising to sell their product, but to keep the media silent. Commercials are legalized bribery’. In Kono’s view, it is dependence on advertising revenues from the energy companies that has muffled criticism of nuclear power in the Japanese mainstream media since the Fukushima disaster.

Kono is simultaneously a conservative and a radical, a capitalist and an environmentalist, a Japanese patriot and an internationalist

Japan’s nuclear industry uses its considerable financial resources to buy political and bureaucratic support. ‘Senior officials from METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) often receive lucrative jobs in the energy sector after they retire,’ says Kono. Politicians are also part of Japan’s nuclear village. ‘Many members of the LDP receive political donations from TEPCO [owners of the Fukushima Daiichi plant]. Japanese elections are expensive. In terms of time and money, running for office is the equivalent of starting a small business,’ Kono explains. He believes the current Japanese government, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are also beholden to the nuclear industry. ‘The DPJ is helped financially by the energy sector labour unions. The unions fear for the jobs of their members if the nuclear industry is dismantled’, he says. The labour unions’ concerns are understandable, as in Japan’s rural communities, nuclear power plants are often the main employer, with other local businesses depending on outsourcing from the plant.

Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant

kawamoto takua under a CC Licence

To expose the political influence of the nuclear industry, Kono is challenging Japan’s politicians to reveal the amount they have received from the energy companies over the past 10 years. At the time of writing, no one had accepted his challenge.


Kono is one of the few politicians in Tokyo who has never taken money, or any other kind of support, from Japan’s energy companies. His reputation for integrity makes him popular with Japanese voters. At the 2005 election, Kono received the second-largest majority in Japanese electoral history. Even in August 2009, when his party lost office, Kono was returned to parliament with a healthy majority. Kono’s seemingly contradictory qualities give him appeal beyond the LDP’s usual base. He is simultaneously a conservative and a radical, a capitalist and an environmentalist, a Japanese patriot and an internationalist. Unusually for a politician, Kono is open about his ambition to lead his party and country. Unfortunately, the outspokenness that makes Kono popular with a broad spectrum of Japanese voters has led to clashes with traditionalist elements within his own party. Kono was recently sacked from the LDP shadow cabinet. In 2009, his bid for the LDP leadership was blocked by the party’s conservative hierarchy.

‘Japanese voters don’t know the power they have over politicians. This is a democracy, but the people don’t realize that they are the masters and that we politicians are the slaves’

Unsurprisingly, his rough treatment at the hands of his own party has left Kono lacking in party loyalty. To Japan’s anti-nuclear voters, Kono says: ‘At the next election, vote for a candidate who is against nuclear power, regardless of which party supports them.’ Since the Fukushima disaster, Kono has been both saddened and shocked by the sense of helplessness among ordinary voters opposed to nuclear power. ‘People ask me, “what can we do?” They genuinely don’t know how to influence the political process. This is not surprising, since the LDP was in power for more than 50 years. I tell people, “go and see your parliamentary representatives and tell them your views”. But people are surprised and say, “can we do that?” Japanese voters don’t know the power they have over politicians. This is a democracy, but the people don’t realize that they are the masters and that we politicians are the slaves.’ For Kono, this lack of public confidence partly explains why protests against nuclear power in Japan after Fukushima were so poorly attended. Another factor, according to Kono, is the history of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. ‘In the past, a lot of leftwing groups used anti-nuclear marches as a recruitment instrument. People are therefore suspicious of protest organizers’ motives.’

Nuclear distortion

The political influence wielded by the nuclear industry is just one of several reasons why Japan’s government is reluctant to give up nuclear power. Another important factor is the warped sense of security nuclear energy brings to a country devoid of domestic sources of fossil fuels. In 1973, as oil prices rocked as a consequence of war in the Middle East, Japan’s government adopted a national energy strategy centred on nuclear power. Today, concerns over political volatility in the Middle East continue to undermine Japanese confidence in the region as a reliable source of energy. Given Japan’s historically poor relations with Russia, politicians in Tokyo are equally unwilling to rely on natural gas imports from the Russian Far East.

Nuclear power has been sold to the Japanese public as a secure ‘semi-domestic’ source of energy. But this is a distortion, according to Kono. ‘The government’s energy strategy is based on the development of fast breeder reactors, but these reactors are not yet online. They were supposed to be available by the end of the 1980s. The target was then delayed to the 1990s. But in December 1995, there was an accident involving the Monju fast breeder reactor prototype in Tsuruga. A sodium leak at the plant caused a fire, but the scale of the accident was covered up. When the extent of the accident was revealed, the plant was shut down until 2010. But soon after it was restarted, yet another accident forced it to close again. Now the government says fast breeder reactors will be ready in 2050. But this date is a fantasy. Given the massive delays, even if it does come online, the Monju fast breeder reactor won’t be commercially viable. The cost of energy generated by Monju will be so high that no-one will want to buy it.’

Nuclear energy brings a warped sense of security to a country devoid of domestic sources of fossil fuels

Kono is concerned about the safety and security of Japan’s plutonium and spent fuel. ‘The Japanese government has bought 31 tonnes of plutonium to fuel fast breeder reactors. But as these reactors are not viable, the plutonium is in storage in Rokkasho, in northern Japan. The plutonium is guarded by a private security company. They are not allowed to carry guns, so they protected themselves and the plutonium with truncheons. I asked the government what would happen if terrorists showed up in Rokkasho with machine guns. I was told, “the guards would call the police!’’’

An anti-nuclear power demonstration in Shibuya, Japan, September 2011.

t-ohashi under a CC Licence

Kono cites a US academic report suggesting that Japan’s plutonium has not been spiked in the recommended fashion to render it useless to terrorists. Kono explains, ‘you spike the plutonium with dirty radiation so it can’t be taken away. The plutonium in Japan is supposed to be spiked, but the American academics who wrote the paper say the way our plutonium is spiked is easily reversible. The energy companies think they’ll need the plutonium in the future for fast breeder reactors.’

Japan’s plutonium stock is expanding as the government runs out of space to put spent fuel from its existing reactors. ‘Japan turns out about 1,000 tonnes of spent fuel a year. The capacity of Japan’s spent fuel pools will probably be reached within the next 7 to 15 years. But it takes 20 years to test new pool sites, so we are already out of time. Finding suitable sites in a mountainous country like Japan is difficult. The waste has to be buried 300-500 metres deep. If all the pools are full, it means you can’t take the spent fuel out of the reactors. If you can’t take out the spent fuel, you can’t put in new fuel, so the reactors will stop working. The energy companies are trying to get around this problem by reprocessing the spent fuel, a process that creates plutonium. It’s a vicious circle.’

National challenge

Kono’s solution to the many problems posed by nuclear energy is a phasing out of the industry in Japan. His plan involves halting construction of any new reactors and the decommissioning of existing reactors after 40 years. Kono first suggested this plan in 1997. ‘If we’d adopted my plan then, Japan would have been nuclear free by 2037,’ he says. ‘Now it’s 2011 and I am still saying the same thing. Forty years is enough time for us to increase our stock of renewables and to improve our energy efficiency,’ he reasons.

Kono would like to make achieving 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 a national challenge. ‘Japan has the technology, talent and determination to met this goal,’ he says. But with the current government wedded to the status quo, Japan may have to wait for Kono Taro to achieve his ambition of becoming prime minister for there to be a change in Japan’s energy policy.

Nuclear debate intensifies post-Fukushima

Protesters at an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo, 27 March 2011. The signs read: ‘Change energy policy’ and ‘Do not sprinkle radioactive material’.

jeanbaptisteparis under a CC Licence

‘It couldn’t have been predicted,’ claimed Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – the operators of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima – after the earthquake that struck northern Japan in March. However, the Fukushima crisis is exactly the kind of disaster that Japan’s anti-nuclear lobby has been warning of for decades. The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), a Tokyo-based network of scientists, activists and concerned citizens, spearheads the movement for a non-nuclear Japan. It has repeatedly warned that Japan’s nuclear power plants will, over their operating lives, experience stronger earthquakes and larger tsunamis than they were designed to withstand.

The CNIC has documented an endemic lack of preparedness for earthquakes at Japan’s nuclear facilities. In the past decade, earthquakes of a much lower intensity than the recent disaster have damaged nuclear reactors. The July 2007 Niigata Chuetsu earthquake caused TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (KK) nuclear plant – then the largest nuclear plant in the world – to leak radioactive water into the Sea of Japan. After the accident, KK was completely shut down for 21 months to allow upgrades to its seismic proofing. Local residents continue to protest against TEPCO’s decision to partially restart the plant and are angry at TEPCO’s opaque decision-making. According to the CNIC, information released concerning the safety of the plant in the event of another major earthquake inadequately addresses citizens’ concerns.

The CNIC reports that non-transparency, falsification of data and corruption are rife within Japan’s nuclear industry. According to the CNIC, TEPCO was involved in ‘falsification of fuel quality control data… for Kansai Electric Power Company’s Takahama-3&4 nuclear power plants’, and also in cover-ups at other plants. During the Fukushima disaster, a number of reliable sources criticized TEPCO’s slow response to requests for information. Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto revealed that for an hour after discovering the damage caused by the earthquake, TEPCO failed to inform the government. The CNIC filled the information vacuum by providing online broadcasts with analysis from top Japanese nuclear scientists. But as Dr Goto Masashi, who worked on the design of the Daiichi reactors, explains, ‘the information disclosed by TEPCO… is very limited, making it difficult for independent analysts to understand what is happening’.

The Fukushima accident has produced intense debate on the use of nuclear power in Japan and around the world. Since Japan has almost no domestic fossil-fuel reserves, nuclear power has been a national priority since 1973 and its 55 nuclear reactors generate approximately a third of the country’s electricity. Japan had been planning to increase this amount to 50 per cent by 2030 but a public backlash against this policy is now likely.

Meanwhile, the oil and coal lobbies have gone into overdrive, exploiting the Fukushima disaster. Increased carbon-heavy energy production would be as tragic as the prospect of future nuclear accidents – and as unwelcome as the opportunism of those still lobbying for 19th-century solutions to the global energy crisis.

Okinawans battle to close US bases

Japan’s relationship with the US is complicated. From enemies in war to professed partners in peace, the two countries have been intrinsically linked for more than three generations. The people of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, have been caught in the crossfire of this tempestuous relationship.

Geographically distant and retaining its own language and culture, Okinawa remains distinct from mainland Japan.

It currently hosts 75 per cent of US military facilities in Japan, despite accounting for just 0.6 per cent of the country’s territory. In all, approximately 25,000 US troops are stationed there, and the presence of US bases is a reminder of Okinawa’s continued marginalization by the Japanese government in Tokyo.

The US first arrived in Okinawa in 1945, when 180,000 troops landed and began a battle that killed a quarter of the island’s population. They then constructed bases on the island to prepare for attack on the rest of Japan. In 1951, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty ended the occupation of mainland Japan, Okinawa was placed under US military rule and remained a US colony until reverting to Japanese control in 1972. Yet under the terms of a separate Japan-US Security Treaty signed in December 1951, the US continues to own and operate the bases it established in Okinawa during the occupation.

From the outset, local community movements have opposed this military presence. Areas around US bases suffer environmental damage, noise pollution and increased instances of crime.

Suzuyo Takazato, an anti-base campaigner from the Okinawan women’s movement, argues that women are the main victims of violent crimes perpetrated by US soldiers. Although reported incidents of rape are low, she says, date rape is common. Other women’s rights campaigners claim the location of the bases in relatively poor communities has lured many women into the sex industry.

In response to local concerns, in 2006 the US and Japanese governments agreed to move one of the most notorious bases, the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, to a site of reclaimed land in scenic Henoko Bay. The relocation divided local opinion. Some supported the proposed move, while others raised concerns about damage to coral reefs and the habitat of the highly endangered Okinawan dugong.

In August 2009, a new government took power in Tokyo and promised to try to move the base out of Okinawa altogether. But in May 2010, it capitulated to US pressure. Tens of thousands of Okinawans poured on to the streets to protest, all wearing yellow to ‘show the government a yellow card’. An estimated 17,000 formed a ‘human chain’ around Futenma.

Activists from the Okinawa Citizen’s Peace Coalition have not given up hope. As a leading member explains: ‘Even as the Futenma relocation pushes ahead, Okinawans are sending a message to the world: military bases do not improve our security. Rather, bases like Futenma threaten people’s social, economic and environmental security.’


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