Almost 50 years ago on a small island, a peaceful civil rights campaign demanding equal rights with regard to housing, employment and voting rights was met with violent opposition by the state — a reaction that ensured the movement’s moderate leaders were quickly sidelined as demonstrations gave way to petrol bombs, shootings and explosions. The descent into chaos was swift, and it took some 30 years, almost 4,000 deaths, countless injuries and massive destruction before any semblance of peace re-emerged.

I am talking about Northern Ireland and its Troubles, but it seems to me there are parallels with what is currently happening in Okinawa in the south of Japan. Just as in Northern Ireland almost five decades ago, how the government responds to the current protest could determine whether the future will be calm or marred by conflict.

The ongoing nonviolent campaign against the construction of a new U.S. military airstrip in pristine waters off Henoko, in Nago city on Okinawa’s northeastern coast, is increasingly being met with force by the Japanese authorities. Media reports tell of elderly protesters being knocked off their feet at the entrance to Camp Schwab, while younger waterborne activists have found themselves and their kayaks being towed 5 km out to sea by Coast Guard motor launches.

Is it melodramatic to suggest that a continuation of such tactics could lead, however unintentionally, to protesters being seriously injured or even killed? If that were to happen, it should surprise no one if control of the Henoko protests slipped from the grasp of middle-aged and elderly pacifists to younger, more volatile elements.

In hindsight, in Northern Ireland it was probably the sight of a Westminster politician, Gerry Fitt, being repeatedly struck by a police baton as he led a peaceful demonstration in Derry in 1968 (captured by a television crew and broadcast around the world) that more than any other single event lit the touch paper for the Troubles. It was a particularly blunt metaphor for the state’s implacable refusal to engage with its critics. From that point on, many believed they had no option but to meet force with force.

It is not difficult to imagine a similar situation unfolding in Okinawa — public representatives such as Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine and the island’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, have both addressed the sit-in at Henoko. If they were to be manhandled as other campaigners have been, the images would surely go viral on social media, shaping the opinions of a new generation of Okinawans.

Video has already surfaced on YouTube purporting to show U.S. Marines in Okinawa training to remove protesters. Whether genuine or not, the footage hints at what could happen if activists succeeded in their efforts to break through the perimeter fence onto Camp Schwab itself, where the Japanese authorities have no jurisdiction. There, campaigners would find themselves face to face with armed marines who don’t speak their language and who have little practical experience of crowd control.

As Northern Ireland’s history shows, when the army find themselves policing civil demonstrations, the consequences can be disastrous. (The deployment of British troops onto the streets of Belfast and Derry in 1969 quickly led to ugly confrontations, polarization and ultimately Bloody Sunday, when paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians.)

Of course, Northern Ireland doesn’t provide the only reference point for what is happening today in Okinawa. Precedents abound across the globe of more or less authoritarian regimes choosing coercion rather than engagement when challenged to act more democratically. I chose the example of Northern Ireland because it’s the place where I grew up and where I am most familiar with.

Besides, I do find the parallels with Okinawa, my new home, quite striking. Both have similar-sized populations, between 1 and 2 million. Both sit on the edge of their respective continents, where they have long been dominated by larger, more powerful island neighbors. And in recent years, both places have been extremely militarized. At high school, I remember our lessons being frequently interrupted by helicopters taking off and landing from the barracks next door. Now I am the teacher who has to pause when Osprey and other military aircraft roar over our university in Nishihara.

Despite the similarities, there are also significant differences between Okinawa and Northern Ireland. Probably the most salient is that in 1960s Northern Ireland, most of the population simply did not agree with the civil rights movement. (Across the island however — Ireland is partitioned into the Republic and Northern Ireland — they did enjoy strong support.) In Okinawa, there is no such ambiguity: The protesters clearly reflect the mood of the majority, as was demonstrated in last year’s election for the island’s governor. In effect an island-wide referendum on Henoko, the election boiled down to a two-horse race between pro- and anti-base candidates. It was the latter, Takeshi Onaga, who triumphed with an impressive margin of almost 100,000 votes.

Okinawans feel that the Shinzo Abe government has simply ignored the election result as it continues to support construction of the new runway (and the attendant destruction of coral reefs in Oura Bay). As in 1960s Northern Ireland, there is a growing sense of powerlessness here that, if left unaddressed, could easily spill over into bitterness and rage.

Northern Ireland’s Troubles could arguably have been averted if the authorities half a century ago had recognized the validity of the civil rights protests and reformed a patently unjust system. Instead, they chose to defend what was morally indefensible. The consequences were disastrous as the rule of law all but collapsed.

Japan’s lawmakers may now be at a similar crossroads. They would do well to bear in mind the lessons of Northern Ireland and try to resolve the Henoko dispute while the opposition is still entirely peaceful.

Michael Bradley, a former broadcast journalist with BBC Northern Ireland, teaches at Okinawa Christian Junior College. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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