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Former Soviet leader weighs in on Okinawa base-relocation issue

Former Soviet Union politician Mikhail Gorbachev is backing Okinawa’s fervent anti-base movement, according to the southern island prefecture’s oldest daily newspaper.

A recent report in the Ryukyu Shimpo — widely seen as having an anti-U.S. military slant — said the Nobel laureate sent a written message to the publication late last month that was addressed to the people of Okinawa.

The message from Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, was not printed in its entirety and could not be independently verified. However, a summary published by the newspaper promoted nuclear disarmament and showed support for protesters fighting the relocation of air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab.

“I have argued against the use of military force in resolving international disputes,” Gorbachev said, according to the report. “From this perspective, I have invariably supported the struggle against military expansion in Okinawa by the people of Okinawa, and I will support it from here on out.”

The message did not elaborate on how Gorbachev planned to back the anti-base demonstrators, who have for decades been dedicated to expelling American forces from the island. Crime, pollution and aircraft safety are among their chief concerns.

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Since the 1990s, plans have moved forward to consolidate the island’s U.S. military bases and hand back large swaths of land. The relocation of Marine air operations from Futenma, which is in a densely populated area in central Okinawa, to the remote northern coastal base of Schwab was largely seen as a measure to alleviate air-safety concerns.

Protesters want Marine air operations moved off Okinawa altogether. Their efforts have not been successful, despite the 2014 election of anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga. Politicians in both Washington and Tokyo have said that keeping air operations on the island is necessary for deterring security threats from China and North Korea.

It was unclear whether Gorbachev’s message to the Ryukyu Shimpo was solicited from the statesman, whose reforms were largely seen as leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. He was lauded for issuing a joint statement with President Ronald Reagan following a 1985 summit in Geneva in which the leaders declared that a nuclear war “cannot be won” and “must never be fought.”

Gorbachev’s message to the newspaper also mentioned “Okinawa and Nuclear Weapons,” a report from Japanese public broadcaster NHK about nuclear weapons being stored on the island during the Cold War. He expressed concern that such weapons could still be stored on the island.

In 2016, the Defense Department admitted that “nuclear weapons were deployed on Okinawa prior to Okinawa’s reversion to Japan on May 15, 1972,” according to the Pentagon’s Open Government website.

“Okinawa is blessed with an environment that allows it to be a terminal for international human and cultural exchange as well as trade,” Gorbachev told the newspaper. “It is my sincere hope that Okinawan people take advantage of this rich environment and aim for peaceful development of the islands, for the sake of future generations.”

The report said Gorbachev had visited Okinawa three times and was impressed by its natural beauty and culture.

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“Okinawa’s rich nature and distinctive culture make it unique in this world,” he told the newspaper. “Therefore the islands of Okinawa must be for the people, not for the military.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.