One Year On: A Symposium Commemorating ‘311’, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011

On 8th March, the Alexandersalen was the venue for the symposium ‘One Year On: A Symposium Commemorating ‘311’, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011’. The event was held with Danish scholars on Japan and Japanese scholars working in Denmark, who had the desire to do something from Denmark for Japan as people prepared to commemorate the first anniversary of the catastrophe that claimed so many lives. More than 70 participants with various backgrounds came to the symposium, including those travelling from Japan and Sweden. I participated in the event as one of the organizers as well as the panel discussants.

The goal of the symposium was not to make a ‘grand theory of 311’ but to commemorate the first anniversary of the event. Professor Takashi Suganuma (Rikkyo University & Roskilde University) reflected this by opening the symposium with one-minute’s silence. Dr. Geir Helgesen (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) followed with his opening speech, referring to the shock the world felt as it watched the footage of the Tsunami on the news, as for many Japan was known to be one of the most prepared nations for natural disasters.

The afternoon’s proceedings begun with Professor Chiharu Takenaka (Rikkyo University, Japan), talking about ‘Reflecting on a year since 311’. Her lecture offered a broad overview of what the Japanese people learned from 311, touching upon the monthly workshop she and her colleagues at Rikkyo University have conducted since 311 to share experiences with students, NGOs, journalists and afflicted local communities. Takenaka mentioned key developments in Japanese society, such as changes in Japan’s relations with US, China and South Korea as people received assistance from them during and after the Great Earthquake. She also pointed out that there were drastic changes in the Japanese people’s views on individuals vis-a-vis communities, democracy, risk, as well as Japan’s position in Asia. She concluded by saying that it is going to be a long process for the people in Japan to integrate the experiences and lessons learned from the Great Earthquake but as Sakura (cherry blossom) in Rikuzen Takata (one of the most severely hit areas) managed to bloom shortly after the Earthquake, people are slowly but surely beginning the process of recovery.

In the first panel discussion, moderated by Professor Toshiya Ozaki (Rikkyo University & Copenhagen Business School), the civil engineering dimension of 311 was taken up. In ‘When one says safe enough and others disagree’, Dr. Kazuyoshi Nishijima (DTU) introduced the basics of risk evaluation. He explained how risks are assessed from an engineering point of view and how that was (or was not) implemented in cases such as Tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plants. Nishijima also explained the thinking called ‘yet still probabilistic thinking’, which he believed should be used much more often to help societies make decisions through calculating how they could optimally allocate limited resources available. Nishijima’s lecture was particularly interesting as it made the audience realize how we, on a day-to-day basis, chose to ignore the possibilities of fatal accidents. Then followed Dr. Anni Greve’s presentation (Roskilde University) ‘Coping with the incalculable: Tokyo after the Great East Japan Earthquake’. Greve spoke about how Tokyo had managed to rebuild itself after several events of massive destruction in the past. Greve found that Tokyo’s unique capabilities to handle serious crises were seen again after the Great Earthquake through her analysis on the professional groups that engaged in the reconstruction process, such as architects, the mayor of Fukushima, school teachers and firemen. She concluded that the effects of 311 are cross-continental, suggesting this as one indication of the process of ‘cosmopolitanization’, as defined by Ulrik Beck.

The second panel discussion was about the civil society dimension of 311, which was moderated by Dr. Mika Yasuoka (ITU & Kyoto University, Japan). In ‘The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japan as an Aid Recipient’, Dr. Aki Tonami (myself) talked about how Japan, which has been mostly known as an aid donor rather than a recipient, experienced and viewed the Great Earthquake, both from the view point of the government and the Japanese NGOs. Overall, the Japanese government and NGOs were very grateful for the assistance offered from abroad. At the same time, they faced operational and institutional difficulties, which could be unique to a developed country that was suddenly put in a position of needing help. Dr. Annette Hansen (Aarhus University) backed this by her notes on postings to the Facebook site for the alumni of AOTS (The Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship) and JICA (The Japan International Cooperation Agency) training courses in Japan in the aftermath of the Earthquake. Her main findings from her presentation ‘Responses to the 2011 Triple Catastrophe on Facebook’ were the number and the nature of messages posted on the Facebook site changed over time as the aftermaths of the Great Earthquake revealed themselves, and Facebook was used as a space for reaching out from and to Japan for those who had once received training in Japan.

Interesting points were raised during discussions among the panellists and with the floor throughout the symposium. One of the audience pointed out the biggest difference between the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake was that use of the Internet – because of that, people’s accessibility to information was naturally much more improved this time around. Another audience member suggested that, while expats living in Tokyo became much more involved in the Japanese society after the 311, Japan has not yet managed to recover its image as so many foreigners left Japan after the nuclear incident. How the nuclear accident has been dealt with and the future of Japan’s energy policy were also questioned.

This last point was indicative of a symposium, which illuminated that, even though one year has passed, it is not ‘over’ yet and the reconstruction process has just begun. The range of presentations and discussions covered reminded me once more of the variety of issues that Japan faced (or is still facing) as a direct consequence of the events of 311.


Aki Tonami
Researcher, NIAS
More information


A brief report from a Burma visit 13-21 February 2012

Mikael Gravers, Aarhus University

The situation:

On the surface there is a more relaxed mood in Rangoon when I visited Burma. However, all agree that the old totalitarian system is still working. People are still arrested during the night. Thus, we are cautioned that the situation could change rapidly again after the by-elections.

There is a struggle in the government and the parliament between hardliners and reformists. The reformist are the President U Thain Sein and the Speaker of the parliament Thura Shwe Man. Recently they proposed to appoint village head men and other local officials by elections. This was rejected by the lower house. Headmen and other officials are appointed by the military. Thus, it is part of the social security for retired officers.

The president has not been able to stop the fighting in Kachin State. The army is not under government control according to the constitution. Arrests of individuals who criticize the army continues. The leader of the “Saffron Revolution” 2007, U Gambira, who was released recently, is in confrontation with the State Sangha Council who has warned him that he will end up in court accused of illegally entering his monastery, defaming the Sangha elders, and assisting the monk Ashin Pyinna Thiha who was evicted for making a political speech in the office of the National League Democracy (NLD), and for meeting Hilary Clinton. Monks are not allowed to act politically. Thus, freedom is still limited. U Gambira, who was dis-robed by soldiers and sentenced 63 years in jail in 2007, entered his monastery last month. The Maggi  monastery had been sealed by the army after the raid in 2007. U Gambira found all the destruction and blood left from the violent raid. He is now accused of illegally breaking into the monastery.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been hackled during their election campaign by the USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party – the ruling party). USDP promised new roads to the voters and tried to impose a ban on the NLD using stadiums for their rallies. She is often prevented from using stadiums for her rallies. In villages near the capital Naypyitaw, officials told villagers that their electricity supply would be cut if they attended an NLD rally with Daw Suu Kyi However, Daw Suu Kyi draws huge crowds on her tour. NLD may take more than half of the 48 seats in the by-elections provided there is no fraud.

Thein Sein focus on the education of the young, and Rangoon University will be reopened in the near future. He said that the young ethnics should replace weapons with computers. One blogger ironically wrote the president and asked for a laptop. The mood is relaxed and cautiously optimistic, although the opposition is rather skeptical about the real intentions of the government. They say that relative freedom is about having the sanctions lifted and otherwise let the army stay in control behind the parliament.

Many international NGOs are ready to let big money flow into development projects and humanitarian aid. This can corrupt more than benefit those who are in need if it is not well prepared and sustainable. There is an over idealized view of the conditions. The old system is still in place and working – or rather not working unless ordered from the top. Bureaucrats are officers – they dare not act without clear orders from the absolute top. And since messages from the top are now blurred for and against, they do nothing! The frame laws are not resulting in specific laws on for example censorships,  the use of ethnic languages in education, investments and financial regulations. There is no rule of law yet.

The Karen:

The focus in following is mainly on the situation in the Karen State as related to the overall political changes. It is based on a very brief visit and the analysis is very preliminary:

The main stakeholders in the conflict(s)are:

  • Tatmadaw, Karen National Union and its Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Border Guard Force (BGF), The Phloung-Sgaw Democratic Party (Karen State), Karen Peace Council (Timothy Laklem), Padoh Aung San and his Peace Force, plus minor groups  of armed persons as well as the government represented by Aung Min (railway minister), Aung Thaung head of Union Solidarity Development Party (the ruling military party) and the final peace negotiations, and Saw Min, PM Karen State.[1]

The ceasefire in Hpa-an in January 2012 between Aung Min and the KNU delegation is obviously only an initial step towards a more realistic agreement. The impression from a two hour discussion with David Tharckabaw (Vice-President, KNU) before we came to Burma is that the KNU leadership is suspecting a Burmese trap. Tharckabaw and the hardliners of KNU seems to have rejected the agreement and there is a deep split within the KNU. Tharckabaw talked about the Karen being cheated so often by ‘ Bamah’ (ethnic Burmans). He also rejected the ‘developmentalism’ of the government. Development in their version, he said, means to take the resources from the Karen State and not real development for the Karen population. He claimed this ‘developmentalism’ is supported by Germany and other EU countries. He also blamed Harn Yawnghwe and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) of supporting this line.[2] This indicates that there is a split among the pan-ethnic organizations, although they seem to agree on a federal constitution. Tharckabaw is in the leadership of United Nationalities Federal Council, another pan-ethnic organization of the armed ethic groups. He dislikes ENC and Harn. But he seems to support Daw Suu Kyi’s strategy: ‘She won’t betray the trust of her people’.

To add to the complexity of the situation, the Karen Peace Council (KPC) under former KNU General Htein Maung and Dr. Timothy Laklem signed a peace agreement in Naypyitaw (7th. February) with minister Aung Thaung and the Union-level peace negotiating team.[3] He arranged a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi 10th. February to the deep frustration of the KNU and many Karen in Rangoon, because he posed as the front representative of the Karen. Aung Thaung thus undermined the efforts of Aung Min who negotiated with the KNU. It is also a clear sign that The NLD and Daw Suu Kyi need much more information about the ethnic situation, its complex political structure and its many actors. Lack of precise information on the ethnic situation can easily generate more mistrust. Many Karen still generalize in their mistrust towards all Bamah. Daw  Suu Kyi again referred to ‘The Spirit of Panglong’ during her tour in the Kachin State. This creates hope – but Panglong was a weak and incomplete agreement and there is a need for a specific political program.

The day after we left – 22nd. of February -, DKBA under commanders Saw Lah Pwe and Po Bi near Mying Gyi Ngu were attacked by the BGF – probably the group  commanded by Thong Hlaing. BGF took some of DKBA’s position and weapons. This group infringes upon the supporters of U Thuzana and does not respect the monk.[4] They drink, eat meat harass his followers and take taxes along U Thuzana’s new highway built with donations from large Thai food companies. U Thuzana had managed to establish some sort of a civil administration via his monks and lay followers. This structure could be dismantled by the BGF and the army if there is no general agreement between all groups.

In Hpa-an, the Phloung-Sgaw Democratic party left an impression of being a serious and concerned player. They have submitted questions from a Karen delegation (Kawkareik) to the local Hlutaw (parliament) about landmines and their removal. The party has a mentor (founder?), the monk Ashin Pyinya Thami, (Taungkalae) who is Mon-Chinese. He has been able to obtain large donations for a college, although it is not yet completed. He delivered a strong criticism of the generals, the NLD – “she wants to ‘burmanize’ the ethnic groups”. “She is like her father.” U Thuzana was dismissed: “he only collects money (and built zedis) for himself – proud of himself”- (It sounds as jealousy). “The 2007 monks demonstrations was a Bahma trick”, he said. Pyianya Thami is said to have direct line to Than Shwe’s wife who has supported him. In my analysis, he is a charismatic empire builder, but not a reliable political player.

Further, the Hpa-an Karen Student Association represents an important democratic segment. The town is however totally dominated by the 22nd. light infantry division and the BGF, although most of the mentioned groups including the NLD have a presence in Hpa-an.

Land confiscation is a huge problem in the Karen State (as elsewhere). The Karen complained that they also lost their commons for grazing animals, collecting firewood and leafs for thatching. This is probably the most urgent problem to deal with. A law is badly needed. Most of the confiscated land is now huge rubber plantations.

The ceasefire agreement between KNU delegation and Aung Min in Hpa-an was rejected by the KNU leadership. A new meeting took place in Chiang Mai, 2nd March. Both sides agreed to meet in April. Significantly, the government delegation included business people. This underlines the KNU fear that ceasefire is mostly about quick economic deals more than genuine peace and reconciliation.

The PM of the Karen State Hlutaw, Saw Min (a former officer), seems to be very conservative and a military man. He is seen as one who supports the BFG.

For a future peace to be established, an initial reduction of the army as well as a repositioning of all armed groups within a few scheduled and monitored areas is necessary!

Concluding remarks:

  • Lack of trust is a main problem, I believe, in all camps. It is without meaning if the government only negotiates with the KNU – all groups should come to the table and the agreement must be detailed – especially in relation to monitoring and conflict resolution if or rather when future disagreements erupt. In the situation, a neutral facilitator could be an idea if all agree on the selected persons/organization.
  • Trust and reconciliation work together. There should be a forum where the various Karen groups, their leaders/commanders could meet regularly with government representatives and local army officers and exchange information, share news and have informal discussions. This is a way of establishing mutual knowledge, recognition and trust. It takes time – long time!
  • Soldiers need a livelihood after a peace. But to offer money in order to persuade them to give up their weapons is to ignore the core political reasons to take up arms in the first place. Here is a huge task for NGOs to reintegrate thousands of fighters( this is closely related to de-mining programs).
  • The NLD need a detailed political assessment and project for the ethnic case. It could be an idea to have an All Burma Conference, round table, with all political parties, the government and all ethnic groups/organizations. It is a huge task to organize such a meeting. But the complexity needs to be addressed.

[1] KNU is the main Karen organization, largely Christian dominated; DKBA the Buddhist Karen in the Karen State, followers of the  monk U Thuzana; DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1994 but they work together now. BGF is the part of DKBA who joined the army in 2010. The other minor groups are small and are splinter groups follwing one leading person.

[2] ENC is a pan-ethnic organization working for a federate state in Burma. Harn Yawnghwe is the head of the Burma office in the EU. He supported the National Democratic Front party who broke out of the NLA and joined the elctions in 2010. Thus he is not popular with the NLD or the KNU.

[3] He is a hardliner and said to be the organizer of the violent attack on Daw Suu Kyi in 2004. He will have the final word in future peace agreements, as far as we understand.

[4] U Thuzana is a highly respected Karen monk who uses large donations (from Burma and Thailand) to built not only pagodas but schools clinics and roads in the Karen state

A little tale about lies by Anya Palm

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.”

This was the words of Cambodian Information Minister His Excellency Khieu Kanharith when I last visited him for an interview. About a week ago.

But let´s go back a little. Let´s go back to May 2003. Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech in which he declares his intention of upgrading 100 poor neighborhoods every year, until all of Cambodia´s urban poor has secure land tenure and full basic services. All the neighborhoods are granted a social land concession. A social land concession means that the state gives the land to the people living on it.

The promise is much needed. In 2003, the South East Asian Kingdom is only a few years away from political instability, frequent guerilla attacks and Khmer Rouge strongholds that just won´t give in.

As a consequence, there is an overwhelming amount of poor people and in addition – a high number of slum dwellers.

Many of them live in the country´s capital, Phnom Penh. The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm, the one the Minister is talking about, is a poor neighborhood just exactly in the midst of the city. This is, of course, quite fortunate for the 805 families living in the community – they can easily earn a living by driving a motorcycle taxi or sell goods on the market.

In his speech in May 2003 Prime Minister Hun Sen names four urban neighborhoods that are to be the first ones to be upgraded. Dey Krahorm is mentioned. Posters are put up in the neighborhood, informing the residents and a decree from the Council of Ministers certifies it. Ironically, most Dey Krahorm does not actually need it, because they already own the land, they live on. But nevertheless, a social land concession is a good thing to have.

And then…things take an unfortunate turn.

In 2005 suddenly a company makes its entrance in the lives of the people of Dey Krahorm. Construction company 7NG has now – without the knowledge or consent of the residents – made a deal with 35 village representatives to swap the land of Dey Krahorm for a strip of land 20 kilometers outside of the city.

Of course, one cannot sell what one does not own, so the agreement with the company is illegal and invalid. The residents are entitled, not only to remain on their land, but to have it upgraded. The Prime Minister promised them this.

There are absolutely no legal grounds to argue otherwise. None.

But then the intimidation begins.

Now the residents of Dey Krahorm experience theft, sudden fires, destruction of their property frequently. Over the next four years, this practice increases to the point where many of the villagers give up, take the meager compensation offered to them and leave. The ones that doesn´t? They get charged with trumped up charges and has to go to court so frequently, they cannot do their everyday job. They get threatened. They get beat up.

And then one day:

The excavators come.

Early in the morning January 24, 2009, the villagers are awakened by the sounds of their houses being torn down. An army of military police, police officers and company workers have sealed off the area and are aggressively beating down everyone, who steps in their way.

There is one man, who with his palms together raised in the air begs for the chance to go inside his own house and salvage a few of his belongings, while the excavator driver ignores him and carries on. A few moments later, a police officer comes with a fire extinguisher and sprays the praying man straight in his face to get him to move away.

One woman stands on top of the rubble trying to stop the excavator when she loses her balance and falls down under it. Shocked bystanders believe they just saw her die until they see her crying daughter carry her out and get her to a hospital.

In a few hours, the neighborhood is nothing but rubble. Half an hour later, then-Deputy Governor Mann Chouen holds a press conference on the site. Undistracted by the scenery behind him, and of what just happened, he congratulates the police and company workers on the operation.

Meanwhile the families from Dey Krahorm are on their way to the relocation site 20 kilometers from the city, a place they clearly and lawfully refused to move to. And no wonder. Everything out there is inadequate. In-adequate schools for the children, in-adequate hospitals too far from the residents, in-adequate sanitation, water, food…and for jobs? Well, there is a factory out there. It´s owned by the company that took their land.

So – I was in Phnom Penh to see what had happened Dey Krahorm since that day in 2009.

Nothing, really. A lot of the families had gotten a lot more complicated stories to tell now, but very few of them had gotten any better. Many were sick. Many were jobless. All were poor.

And the lucrative land of Dey Krahorm itself? There is a 7NG office there now, but I was not allowed to go in. Instead, I went up to say hello to the Minister and spokesperson for the Cambodian Government to ask him about the Dey Krahorm case. I asked him, why the Cambodian government has not kept their promise about upgrading the communities they had given social land concessions.

You already know what he answered.

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.” Wish-wash.

But Mann Chouen – the then-Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh, who held the press conference on the rubble…he received a medal for his work on Dey Krahorm.


Land grabbing is the biggest problem in Cambodia today. It affects about one million people every year. According to the Cambodian Land Law of 2001, people who have been living on a strip of land for five years have the right to ownership. It also states that if land is to be used for other purposes, the residents are entitled to a “fair” compensation. A common land grabbing scenario is selling a piece of land to a foreign company, who then removes the residents living there – like they did with the people of Dey Krahorm. In 2011, the Cambodian Government sold 800,000 hectare of land to foreign companies – in 2010, this number was 200,000 hectare.

Anya Palm
Freelance journalist based in Bangkok