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My Asian Journey: Four Powerful Insights

18 September 2012 No Comment

Talking with students in Cambodia

Kimberly Weichel
Peace X Peace CEO

“I was reminded of the startling fact that 50% of all peace treaties fail within the first 5 years – often resulting in increased violence – due largely to the fact that not all stakeholders are involved.”

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This summer, I had a total Asian immersion experience. I was selected as a Rotary Peace Fellow for a 3-month course in peace and conflict studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, known as the “Harvard of Asia.” It was a rigorous but remarkable certificate course over 11 weeks that included a week-long trip to northern Thailand and an intense 9-day trip to Cambodia. I was lucky to study with 21 talented professionals from 9 countries who shared my passion for peacebuilding. My personal joy was for my husband and college-aged son to join me to live as a family in central Bangkok and explore the sights, sounds and smells of this exotic city on nights and weekends. We also had a unique journey to Burma/Myanmar to explore this ancient, rich culture that has kept intact despite the hardships of a long standing strict military rule.

In some ways it was a reawakening journey to be a full time student again at my age, and to spend the summer in a shared learning mode with others. While I’ve worked in the field of peacebuilding for much of my career, the program deepened my understanding of a myriad of issues relating to peace and conflict. I’d like to share four powerful insights from my journey.

One of the most important principles for me in the field of peacebuilding is how we live it in everyday life, how we embody it. I was fascinated with the lived precepts of Buddhism we encountered throughout our Asian journey. Our tour guides in Burma had experienced repression and hardship, yet they were remarkably centered and calm. They talked about acceptance and being fully present to life, seemingly at peace with their lives despite the external trauma they had endured.

I experienced this quite deeply in Cambodia. Cambodia is a land of both tragedy and beauty, a land where half the population – over seven million people – were killed, tortured, or victimized over a 30-year period of war and genocide. The extent and duration of their hardship is unfathomable. Yet I saw so much hope for the future,joy on the children’s faces, organizations working tirelessly to build a better future. People told us they did not want to be considered as victims anymore.

Buddhist Monk standing outside Wat Pho in Bangkok, called Temple of the Reclining Buddha

There was an interesting interconnection between victim and perpetrator, where victims during the time of the Khmer Rouge (the ruling Communist Party, led by Pol Pot from 1975-1979, that carried out a genocide in Cambodia) were ordered to name collaborators, thus endangering others to possibly save their own lives. Who is a victim and who is a perpetrator? It is a complex question in Cambodia, and we realized our tendency to make simplistic judgments when in reality there are often many shades of gray.

Gray areas also featured in our discussion about truth commissions, such as those in South Africa, Rwanda, Colombia and other countries. Truth commissions are meant to explore the historical record and bring healing to a conflict, yet they are often politically driven or influenced. Is there one official “truth” to any story? Whose truth? How do we decipher among the various truths? All I can ever offer is “my truth.” The question relates equally to conflicts everywhere and highlights the importance of open mindedness, deep listening, and avoiding judgment.

A third highlight was our conversations about the conflict resolution principle of ‘Do No Harm.’ While it sounds obvious (who wants to do harm?), sometimes naive assistance might actually do more harm than good. We heard stories about foreign aid programs or humanitarian assistance offered with the intent to help a community, but by assisting only one group or community it exacerbated a conflict, or in some cases created one by indirectly taking sides. There were many such examples. What’s important is to be fully aware before entering into any new project – to do an analysis and work with local leaders first. The power of unintended consequences is something for all of us to consider.

Finally, I was pleased that gender featured prominently in the course, and we discussed what we all know – that women have a natural advantage as peacebuilders and are essential to the field of peacebuilding. Women are adept at bridging various divides; they have their fingers on the pulse of the community; they often use their role as mothers to link across borders; and they are invested in preventing, stopping, and recovering from conflict and protecting their children and their families.

I was reminded of the startling fact that 50% of all peace treaties fail within the first 5 years – often resulting in increased violence – due largely to the fact that not all stakeholders are involved. Yes, this is a bold reminder that women are key stakeholders to any conflict and are critical for building sustainable peace.

I am grateful for this Asian journey of discovery on many levels. And Bangkok is calling me back!

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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