Sunday, August 02, 2015

Ghosts of Palau's Past

I've been lost in Power Point presentations for the past few days.

I'll be teaching for the next month at Kobe University in Japan. My course is an accelerated one and so I'm teaching a month-long course in just a week. I don't normally prepare Power Points for any of my lectures in Guam, but since my students here in Japan will be primarily those who did not learn English as a first language, the visuals and potential outline skeleton it provides will help keep them engaged. My course focuses on US militarization in the Asia-Pacific Region, and it will link together US strategic interests from Okinawa, to the Philippines, to Guam, to the Marshall Islands and Hawai'i, while also linking together the popular movements for demilitarization or decolonization against those bases. For me, este kalang un guinife-hu mumagahet. I am been working on this issue as an activist and an academic for many years. In 2011 I published my article "The Gift of Imagination: Solidarity Against U.S. Militarism in the Asia-Pacific Region" in the journal Pacific-Asia Inquiry. For years I have gone on research trips to Okinawa, South Korea, Palau and Hawai'i all seeking to understand local movements against bases, but also seeking to find ways they are linked together, or ways they can be further linked together.

My last week has been spent working on Power Points for each location, for each movement, for each set of bases. It has been lots of fun, but also very time consuming. I had to chance to go back into my photos taken from so many trips, to see which ones I'll use. I've been combing over this blog taking lines and quotes from my posts that I made from those trips, or just my general ruminations over militarism and demilitarization in the world around me. This has also been an exciting opportunity to return to my dissertation.

In my Ethnic Studies dissertation I challenged a great number of things, or at least attempted my own ways of challenging things. One of them, which I have frequently touched upon in this blog is the "pragmatics of size." Which simply put, refers to the idea that something which is larger, or more visible must be more important or more powerful. I was pushed down this path through my time in graduate school and working with antiwar and peace groups in the United States. For academia Guam does not matter because it is small and it is far away. It can only hold a certain amount of importance because of its size. For activists, it was a similar dynamic. Because of this smallness it cannot or should not ever stand on its own as the object of protest or the object of inquiry.

In academia I found this manifest as people constantly wanted to force Guam into another location, another site, Chamorros into another ethnicity. For literature reviews there was always pressure to not just use Chamorro-based or Guam-based sources, but rather to illuminate their existence by comparing or contrasting them with "similar" groups or "similar" locations. Although Puerto Ricans or Hawaiians or Filipinos or Native Americans or any other groups have similarities to Chamorros, articulating them as an object of knowledge doesn't require that you explicitly make those connections. But there was always this formal and informal pressure, from advisers, to article reviewers, to audience members, to fellow grad students and scholars to give Chamorros meaning by attaching them to someone or something that was more familiar to them.

There was something similar when I tried to talk to antiwar or peace activists. Many of them knew that Guam was something attached to the United States, many knew there were bases there, but few seemed to have a problem with those bases being there. The antiwar groups that I tried to work with and meet with, were very much focused on protesting the Iraq War, preventing a war with Iran and so on, and seemed to think Guam couldn't really matter. They were willing to include Guam in the circle of importance or relevance, so long as it was empty, so long as it was just a name, alongside other sites. But that Guam could not, because of its size, because of its distance, because of the lack of existing knowledge about it, matter that much. So in those discussion, activists were always able to acknowledge a value to Guam in their discourse and organizing, but only if it was alongside other more important or equally empty points. We see this often times in journalism and scholarship. Guam is mentioned, in a chain of signifiers, given no inherent importance of meaning, but just a place that gains meaning because it is placed besides others. "Okinawa, Guam, Hawai'i" or "the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam" or "US Virgins Islands, American Samoa and Guam" or "Diego Garcia, Guam and Okinawa."

I tried my best to counter this in my dissertation, to show ways in which the smallness of a place, its distance, its invisibility actually makes it more valuable, makes it a place that can offer so much, and relatively few people will challenge or notice it. In this course, I am hoping to illuminate this aspect of US militarization to my students. This is of course, as I have argued for years, the value of small places. In a world where technology, whether it be the internet or planes or bombs, means that force can be projected, not just from massive fronts, but from strategically located forward sites, where the size is almost irrelevant. All that matters is the proximity and the flexibility of the site, what you can and cannot get away with. That is why places such as Guam are so important, for both military planners, but also antiwar or demilitarization activists. The smallness is value. The invisibility is crucial.

As I was researching and preparing for my course, I went back through my notes about each different site and came across old newspaper articles that I had copied from Palau. I've copied one of them below, it is from the AP and NYT after Palau changed their nuclear free Constitution after a decade of pressure from the United States. Although Palau doesn't have huge US military bases like Guam, Okinawa, Hawai'i or the Marshall Islands, the traumatic period where it tried to defy US interests and many activists fought valiantly to assert their own desire to be a nuclear free country, is still instructive about in terms of the US role in the region and the limits on sovereignty for those who it sees as being strategically important or under its control.


Palau Drops Nuclear-Free Status
Associated Press
August 7, 1987

KOROR, Palau, Aug. 6— Voters in this island state have voted decisively to drop their antinuclear status in exchange for what their President calls economic survival.
Unofficial returns from a referendum on Tuesday show about 71 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of lifting a constitutional prohibition against allowing nuclear weapons and technology in the islands.
They also voted to eliminate a requirement that approval of 75 percent of voters was needed to pass a proposed Compact of Free Association with the United States.
The compact would give Palau nearly $1 billion in United States economic aid over 50 years. It would also allow United States nuclear-powered ships and ships and aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons to use Palau's territory. Palau, 600 miles east of the Philippines, would also become totally self-governing. It is now part of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific.
With about 1,000 votes still to be counted today, there were 4,304 votes in favor of repealing the nuclear ban and 1,739 against. Fourteen of the 16 states in the islands also approved the change. A simple majority vote plus approval by 12 states was needed.
The vote came as other Pacific island states were adopting or considering nuclear-free zones. The United States has been concerned that such zones would undermine its Pacific defense strategy.
''It was a matter of economic survival for us,'' President Lazarus Salii said after he was assured of the referendum's outcome. ''Every nation has to come up with its own solution, but, I believe I've given an example for other Pacific leaders to follow.''

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