Saturday, June 19, 2010

SK Soldarity Trip Day 3: Gambling With Governors

Our first visit in Gangjeong village took us to the Mayor’s office. There were spent more than an hour meeting with the Mayor, discussing the latest news in Gangjeong’s fight to prevent the building of a Navy port along their coast. Members of his staff and people from the village later took us around the southern part of the island to give us a history lesson and also show us some of the other sites of militarization on Jeju.

On our walk to the Mayor’s office, I was intrigued to see dozens of houses with tall bamboo poles and small yellow flags. I asked Sung-Hee what the meaning of the yellow flags was, and she said that those houses belong to people who are against the military buildup to in the village. As I walked around, I realized that the majority of the houses had them, some even had several banners, I guess to really really emphasize their disagreement with the construction of the Navy base.

Meeting with the Mayor and his staff was good in terms of giving us a brief history of the struggle and some of the local politics involved. For instance, the current governor of Jeju island was strongly supported in his career by the villagers of Gangjeong, but all of that changed however when he made the decision to build a deep-water Navy port which would displace farmers and destroy the beautiful coral reef-life off the coast of Gangjeong. Apparently, three potential sites were chosen to put this Naval facility, the other two larger areas rejected the plan, but Gangjeong because of its smaller size, with less chance for resistance was chosen. According to village gossip, some bribes were given out to some families in order to get them to support the construction.

A referendum was taken two years ago in the village based on whether or not they should accept the plans of the military or fight it. In this tiny village of 2,000, the vote was more than 90% against the military construction and in favor of fighting it. The Mayor admitted however, that not everyone voted in the referendum, and that maybe 25% of the village does support the construction, but did not show up to vote since they knew theirs was a lost cause.

Since that vote, the villagers have staged protests, rallies, meetings, and even conducted peace marches, where they spend a week walking around the entire island of Jeju. Dozens were arrested during their protests, including the Mayor himself, who went on a hunger strike when he was detained, and was released two days later.
Last November a peace conference was held on the island and delegates came from different parts of the world to express their solidarity with the people of Gangjeong. Around the mayor’s office different messages of hope, support and solidarity could be found, in many different languages. Each of the delegates were given sheets of paper on which we could write messages of our own. I wrote mine in Chamorro, mainly because I hadn't spoken it for several days and missed using it.

One avenue or hope is a lawsuit that the villagers filed in April against the Defense Minister, arguing that the base plan for Gangjeong is illegal, because the government did not study adequately the environmental impacts the construction would have. They are eager to hear the decision of the court sometime early next month.
Finally, a recent election on the island has brought some hope for the villagers, since the newly elected Governor, who will take office in July in more or less words, come out against placing the Navy base in Gangjeong. His explicit position is one of ambivalence and a wish to follow the will of the people of the village, and so he has made no firm promises or the other. The Mayor hopes that once he takes office, they will meet with him and give him their report and hopefully push him towards saving their village.

While for the villagers this is a big victory in the larger struggle to demilitarize Jeju and protect its status as an island of peace, the change in governor does not hold much hope. Although the new governor is against the Navy base being constructed in Gangjeong, he is not against the Navy base at all, but would most likely seek to relocate it somewhere else on the island in order to still have access to the potential money it would provide.

While in Gangjeong today, our Okinawa delegate Shinako was regularly asked by people about the situation in Okinawa. People there are regular flights from Japan to Jeju and the island gets a huge number of Japanese tourists, the people in Jeju were more in-tuned to what was going on there than most other communities we’ve visited. One of the things which Shinako was asked about was the recent resignation of Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s Prime Minister. Most everyone agrees that what brought Hatoyama’s short term as Prime Minister to an end was his inability to keep his campaign promise to remove the US military base in Futenma out of Okinawa. One thing which also played a role in forcing his resignation was that his party was pushed into power in the hopes of renegotiating and rebuilding US-Japan relations, and ridding it of that icky residue of Japan being a puppet of US empire.

People were concerned that ff the newly elected governor of Jeju ends up getting into a similar trap. That if he attempts to change the Navy base plan and seeks to relocate it somewhere else on the island, he might find it unworkable or impossible as well, and in the end put it right back in Gangjeong.

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