50 years of fostering relations
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer
When Charles Morrison was growing up, Asia was that place with starving kids his mom talked about while scolding him for not finishing the food on his plate.
"For most Americans, it was just a region with many, many people, lots of poverty and many wars," said Morrison, an expert in Southeast Asian international relations and president of the East-West Center in Mānoa.
"I think for younger people growing up today, Asia is still a place with many people and a lot of poverty, but it's also a very wealthy place that leads development in many ways."
Cultivating leaders to manage that development and educating Americans about the Asia-Pacific region — and Asians and Pacific islanders about the United States — has been the primary mission of the East-West Center since it was established by Congress in 1960 with strong backing from then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader (and later President) Lyndon B. Johnson.
Other key figures in the nonprofit center's history include U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and former state Govs. John A. Burns, William Quinn and George Ariyoshi.
The organization, on a 21-acre campus next to the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa, will hold a gala event Saturday to celebrate 50 years of serving as a hub "for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia-Pacific region and the United States."
Morrison, who has served as president since 1998, said the East-West Center is similar in some ways to the U.S. Department of State in that it encourages public diplomacy and strengthens relations and understanding among the people of its constituent countries.
Over the years, the institution has built a worldwide network of more than 55,000 alumni who received scholarships to engage in center activities while studying at UH or participated in graduate-level leadership training or education and research projects.
Other East-West Center programs include exchange and field study opportunities for scholars, professionals, educators, policymakers and journalists; assistance for local teachers in developing K-12 curriculum about the Asia-Pacific region; and art exhibits and cultural events.
Activities at the center's Washington, D.C., office, which opened in 2001, include congressional study groups; the "Asia Matters for America" Web site; and the U.S. Asia Pacific Council, comprising corporations and individuals interested in advancing U.S. and Asia-Pacific relations.
Current annual funding for East-West Center programs comes from $21 million in congressional support and $12 million from contracts and grants.
Although the institution benefits from federal funding, Ariyoshi said, supporters have worked hard to establish its credibility in the international community and dispel any perceptions the center is a propaganda arm of the U.S. government.
Soon after he was first elected governor in 1974, Ariyoshi pushed for more independence from the State Department by incorporating the center under state law and reorganizing its board of governors to include international members.
As it stands, five members are appointed by the governor of Hawai'i and five by the State Department, and together they elect five international members. The governor, a State Department official and the UH president are ex-officio members.
Ariyoshi was president of the center's board of governors from 1998 to 2003 and is credited with bringing stability to the organization, championing new programs that boosted enrollment despite budget cuts, and using his extensive contacts to promote the East-West Center both locally and in Asia.
Morrison said the organization's programs have become more diversified over the past decade as the region has grown in prominence.
"In the beginning, a lot of effort was just in introducing Americans to people in Asia and the Pacific and training leaders to manage their development problems," he said.
"Now that's really changed. So much of the dialogue is about global issues with the United States and major countries of Asia having to cooperate if we're going to manage these issues internationally. In some ways, it's still about development, but about development in a broader international sense, and it's definitely not one-sided."
Hawai'i is an ideal place to encourage dialogue on mutual concerns "in an objective way," he said.
"It's partly our location away from the national capital. It's a really good place to see the region as a region," Morrison said.
PLAYING A KEY ROLE
Conferences organized by the East-West Center have brought together high-level officials to discuss economic, security, environmental and social welfare issues. Visitors and guest speakers have included foreign heads of state, the United Nations secretary-general and three U.S. presidents.
In 1984, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang delivered his first U.S. public address at the East-West Center, and in 1990, the center welcomed President George H.W. Bush in the first joint meeting between a U.S. president and Pacific heads of government.
The East-West Center also will play a major role in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting scheduled for November 2011 in Honolulu. President Obama and 18 other heads of state are expected for that event.
The list of East-West Center alumni is equally impressive, comprising influential business, government and civic leaders and five former students who went on to lead their countries.
Puongpun Sananikone, who came to the center in 1964 as an undergraduate economics student from Laos, described the experience as "life-transforming."
He said living in a dorm "with 10 other nationalities" was perhaps even more valuable than the lessons learned during his academic studies.
"It was a cross-cultural living and learning experience with fellow Asians, Pacific islanders and Americans," said Sananikone, who lives in Hawai'i Kai. "The multiethnic setting of Hawai'i really made our experience unique."
He also met his future wife, Thanh-lo, at the East-West Center when she was a microbiology student from Vietnam.
Sananikone said center programs were instrumental in his professional success as an international economist who has worked for the Asian Development Bank in Manila and held other positions around the world.
He now is a consultant working with private investment groups developing green energy projects in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and is chairman of the center's board of governors, the first alumnus chosen for the post.
"The ability to understand people across cultures, across ethnic divides, and communicate effectively through those divides has served me well through all the work I've done," he said.
"I'm much more able to put myself in their shoes and, therefore, more able to work out win-win solutions to many otherwise complicated issues."
TIES THAT BIND
Like other East-West Center alumni through the years, Sananikone developed lifelong friendships with fellow students, including retired Foreign Service officer and businessman Gary Larsen of Lakewood, Calif.
After hitchhiking through Asia in the early 1960s, Larsen got an East-West Center scholarship in 1965 as a graduate student in Asian studies.
"Studying and living with so many students from so many different places was probably the most important part of the experience, much more so than the academic portion of it," Larsen said.
"It gave me a very real sense that what you see depends on where you're standing, and it gave me an ability to appreciate the convictions of other people, even if I didn't happen to agree with them."
Like Sananikone, Larsen met his future wife, Bach-mai, at the East-West Center when she was an undergraduate student from Saigon.
Larsen is involved in the Asia Society in Los Angeles, which sponsors cultural events and other programs to promote understanding of Asia among Americans, and helped start the Operation USA relief program in 1978. The group's first major effort was assisting Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.
"All of my East-West Center experiences have been directly relevant to the things I've been involved in," Larsen said.
Sananikone called alumni from the 1960s the center's "first matured crops" who have come full circle in their personal and professional lives and provide proof of the institution's far-reaching impacts.
"The East-West Center is really creating human agents for positive change around the world ... We have a broader perspective and are much better equipped to deal with complex issues," he said.
"It impacts the way we think, the way we live our lives and the way we look at world issues."
Morrison said education and global leadership development will continue as cornerstones of East-West Center programs going forward, with some new emphasis. For example, the International Forum for Education 2020 was established in 2001 to develop new models for education.
"The East-West Center, despite many years as an education institution, didn't look at education policy as an issue. You can't think of any issue that's more complex and controversial," Morrison said.
"We're all trying to adjust to incredibly changing needs for education in a globalized world where everything happens so fast."
Human rights law is another area that has moved to the forefront. The center's Asian International Justice Initiative launched in 2007 conducted international law training for Khmer Rouge tribunal officers in Cambodia and is working in other countries to set up human rights mechanisms, according to Morrison.
"Our mission is to develop 'a peaceful, prosperous and just' Asia-Pacific community and this is the 'just' element," he said.
Morrison said he also sees "tremendous growth in the need for all kinds of exchanges."