AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 47

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Session 47: Politics as (Un)Usual: People Power in Asia

Organizer: Samantha M. R. Christiansen, Marywood University, USA

Chair: George Katsiaficas, Wentworth Institute of Technology, USA

Discussant: Samantha M. R. Christiansen, Marywood University, USA

Have we entered a new era of political action in Asia? This panel will explore and compare popular mobilizations and uprisings in various Asian nations and consider what these efforts say about the role of the state and formal political party politics on social change. The panel will present case studies and theoretical discussion considering how power is exerted upon political parties and states from outside the formal political sphere, how power can be generated through interest mobilization and autonomous groups, how such mobilizations have functioned in relation to each other and the state, and how to conceive of political action outside the narrow confines of strictly “politics.” The panel opens with a comparative paper to provide context for the papers that present case studies and focused discussion of popular mobilization by non-state actors in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Cambodia, East Timor and South Korea over the last thirty years. Side by the side, the papers create a wide lens though which to consider the relationship between political agency and state structure. The diversity of geographic arenas is mirrored by the diversity of actors and tactics represented in the case studies. The discussion will seek to draw even more comparative considerations from the wide rage of audience expertise available and will endeavor to stimulate an active audience and panel conversation regarding the state, politics, and people power in Asia.

Asia’s Unknown Uprisings
George Katsiaficas, Wentworth Institute of Technology, USA

In the past thirty years, economic development of East and South Asian countries has been both spectacular and widely known, yet their social movements have received far less attention. While uprisings against communism were widely covered in the West, Asian movements—which predated and far surpassed European ones in terms of popular involvement and longevity—have often been overlooked. This paper will provide history and analysis of uprisings in more than six Asian countries. Beginning with the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 and continuing to Thailand’s recent unrest, an overview and comparative perspective on these events will be developed.

The May 18 Uprising's Continuing Process of Development, 1980-1997
Na Kahn-chae, Independent Scholar, South Korea

Korea’s May 18, 1980 Uprising lasted for 17 years, an insight that deserves academic interest at two points. Firstly, this Uprising is the most salient vehicle of democratization of Korean Society and Politics. Secondly, the May 18 Uprising shows a very impressive developmental process; the great victory by the people’s protest movement at its final stage of 1997 came after the total defeat of May 1980 by heavily armed marshal troops. While there were not a few examples of tragic defeat in modern Korean history, this Uprising creates an example of a winning social movement instead of the repeated defeats. This movement also boosted other social movements in Korea and other neighbor countries. This presentation focuses on this Uprising in two aspects. One is the developmental process of the Uprising focusing on the time dimension. Its continuing process of 17 years and the process of unending struggle between institutionalized political power and un-institutional people's power, showed an interesting rhythm of ascending tides and highlights. The other aspect of the presentation is an analysis of the formation and expansion of Uprising forces. Parallel to the advancement of the Uprising, people participation had increased more and more, and solidarities amongst various autonomous groups including students, farmers, workers, and white collars had grown more widespread. People’s participation and solidarities between them is explored as key factors to success in the struggle. The role of state, political opportunity structure and mobilization strategies of Uprising forces will be considered as important factors also.

The East Timor Independence Movement: Waiting for the Political Moment
Shane Gunderson, Florida Atlantic University, USA

Through a case study on the East Timor transnational peace movement, I argue that collective actors failed to galvanize momentum to intercede and suppress genocide in East Timor because intellectual cues that maintain frame resonance were not conducive to turning a grievance into something requiring public action and because movement organizations were unable to rebound from strategic setbacks through “venue-shopping” to place the conditions of the Timorese in front of the public as problems that need to be solved through institutional policymaking. This study uses Robert D. Benford’s (1993) framework and analyzes the dynamics of frame disputes identified and elaborated as diagnostic, prognostic, and frame resonance disputes. Using in-depth, qualitative archival data and interviews with activists, journalists and others familiar with the movement, I demonstrate how these important non state actors enlisted public intellectuals as well as journalists effectively during the years: 1982-2002 to gain momentum for East Timor to become the 191st UN member state on September 27, 2002. A key element that is examined in this study is how transnational peace groups and non-governmental organizations urged the United Nations and the US Congress to intervene to prevent the US President and the US Department of State from continuing assistance to Indonesia. Asian studies will have a better understanding of intellectual work that creates social change by understanding how momentum can be achieved by waiting for just the right political moment to create a public outcry.

Independent Unionism In Cambodia - Caught Between Representation And Apathy
Erik W. Davis, Macalester College, USA

Since becoming legal just over 10 years ago, Cambodia's unions have transformed rapidly, a result of new non-agricultural waged labor, international trade policy, and a vibrant period of experimentation. With only three independent unions and a hostile environment, unions have relied upon alliances with political parties and international solidarity activists to pursue their goals. Based on multiple interviews with unionists and union officers over six years, I describe independent Cambodian unions as potential sites of enormously effective collective power, caught between the need for political top-cover domestically, and a generalized international apathy. After briefly introducing the Cambodian labor situation, its expansion and restructuring of wage work and national inequality, the presentation focuses upon the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), the largest independent union in Cambodia, with an estimated 80,000 members. Originally founded as a part of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, the FTUWKC has been the most militant and effective of the three major independent unions in Cambodia since its beginning. A period of withdrawal from formal alliance with any political party began hesitantly, shortly before the founding president of the union, Chea Vichea, was assassinated in 2004 as part of a multi-year campaign of violence and intimidation of FTUWKC; his brother Chea Mony assumed leadership of the union thereafter. Since then, the FTUWKC has struggled to find ways of protecting itself domestically without subordinating its goals to those of political parties, while remaining consistently frustrated with outreach from international solidarity activists.

The Dynamics of Students and Party Politics in Bangladesh’s 1981-1990 Anti-Autocracy Movement
Samantha M. R. Christiansen, Marywood University, USA

On the same night that the radio announced Hussain Muhammad Ershad had seized power by a military coup d’état in Bangladesh, a small group of students formed an ad hoc demonstration and carried banners in the streets protesting the take over and demanding democratic elections. Over the next eight years of Ershad’s autocratic rule, students were the major oppositional force faced by the regime. The two main political parties were largely ineffectual at opposing Ershad, and at times even cooperated with the government in order to undermine the opposing party. The political infighting of the parties, in fact, empowered Ershad’s regime further. The students mobilizing against the dictatorship thus had two major obstacles. First, was the obvious suspension of democratic freedoms, but second, was the political parties’ refusal to cooperate and form a united oppositional force, making a mass mobilization almost impossible. The student wings of the political parties were caught between the orders of the party and the pull of a united student opposition. Based on extensive oral interviews with student participants of the student movement, this paper examines the ways that the students were challenged to overcome the party divisions within the mobilization and the ways that students both balanced party concerns and also pushed the parties toward a greater cooperation. It concludes with an examination of the aftermath of the uprising, in which the major parties (and political infighting) have once again dominated the political climate of Bangladesh.

Governance without (State) Borders: Human Rights beyond the State
Helen J. Delfeld, College of Charleston, USA

This paper suggests that looking at the state as a discourse rather than a positivistic entity will help us understand how people might better access human rights. External actors (such as other states and NGOs) working to increase access to rights often treat the state as real and effective. The result of this last finding is that some actions taken by these external actors may strengthen the state, but may not improve people’s access to rights. This study consists of a two-pronged investigation of the difference in governance discourse between the local level and the state level on the island province of Palawan in the Philippines. With a team of researchers, I interviewed 207 people involved in rights-oriented programs, both state and non-state, as participants or providers to unearth the underlying discourse of governance at the local level, which is surprisingly non-state-centered.