A recipe for Peace

Story and photos by SANITSUDA EKACHAI, Bangkok Post, June 2, 2005

Harmony is possible when people learn to respect diversity, says Prof Kasem Watanachai

Bangkok, Thailand -- It's one of this century's biggest questions: How to raise children to be a force for peace in a world divided by so many explosive ethnic conflicts? That challenge may discourage many educators, but not Prof Kasem Watanachai, a member of the Privy Council.

<< Smiles cross ethnic bounderies.

"We need to teach people to take pride in themselves, but also have a global perspective," says Prof Kasem, whose humanitarian concerns and commitment to education reform during his previous missions as physician, university president, permanent-secretary of the Ministry of University Affairs, and Education Minister have won him wide public respect.

To do so, we first must understand the new global situation brought about by rapid globalisation, he advises.

Globalisation is nothing new, he says. What is new today, however, is the unprecedented speed and coverage of advanced communications technologies.

Consequently no nation is an island. Like it or not, each country's politics, military security, trade and finance, communications, cultures, and ecological systems have become entertwined.

"The catchword is interdependence," he explains. But the unprecedented speed of globalisation has also brought about an unprecendented scale of conflicts because it has suddenly thrown peoples of different backgrounds together.

"If we continue to use ethnicity or our religious beliefs as the basis to judge others, there will be more misunderstandings and conflicts," he says.

Privy Councillor Kasem Watanachai: "Local pride can  >>
lead toward global understanding."

This does not mean that one must dispense with one's own cultural roots to merge with the world, though. On the contrary. Globalisation has always been hand-in-glove with Westernisation, bringing with it a myriad of Western values such as cultural tastes, technology, democracy, human rights and individualism. "But our Eastern societies stress communalism, group collectiveness and families. Given such differences, our challenge is how to live peacefully amidst diversities and differences. This is a big question for all politicians, religious leaders and educators."

Prof Kasem believes the answer lies in local pride with a global view marked by tolerance for the cultures of others.

Fortunately, he says, the world does not lack international mechanisms to mediate conflicts, although the task would be more effective if the voices of smaller countries were better represented.

More urgently needed, he says, is a set of shared universal moral principles for the global village. To be able to transcend people's primordial ties, the new global values must be based on truth, human value and compassion, he says.

There are three levels of truths, he elaborates.

First comes truth by faith in one's religious beliefs, which should never be debated. Second are scientific truths, which should be treated as universal assets to serve mankind _ they should be open to constant debate to nurture new innovations. And third comes the truth learned from one's own personal experiences, such as one's view on beauty. These should likewise be left out of debates.

Respect for human value or human dignity is also indispensable for peace, he adds.

Despite different social standings, people must be equal under the rule of law and public policies. More often than not, conflicts are rooted in double standards.

Since compassion is the pillar of all religions, it can be used as a common thread to transcend ethnic barriers, he suggests.

In Buddhism, for example, the concept of compassion is evident in the teaching of brahma-vihara, which urges people to develop goodwill for all, empathy for those in distress, joy for other's happiness and equanimity when one cannot help others.

This teaching, he said, aims at nurturing human relations while ensuring that personal relationships do not erode society and its principles of justice and equality.

The difficult part, he says, is ethnicity.

"The problem is that we've come to signify identity with ethnicity and nation-state," he says, touching on the current conflicts in the South.

To ease the conflicts, "we must leave ethnicity behind and focus instead on citizenship. We need to realise that, be they sea gypsies, ethnic Malays, or ethnic Thais, they are all equal citizens."

He believes civic education is the key to unlocking past ethnic misunderstandings by instilling in young minds their responsibility toward society and to nurture harmony with other citizens.

Civic education is also the key instrument to nurture local pride and an acceptance of others' cultures in order to operate in a globalised world.

As to how and who will undertake such civic education, Prof Kasem has full trust in local communities.

People in local communities must come together to think about their problems, many of which come from globalisation, he says. "People must think together what it takes to overcome impediments and design their civic education to form desirable values for their children accordingly."

The problem is that the public still sees it as a non-issue. If they allow the central government to design their civic education, the power of knowledge will continue to be monopolised and the people will go on being ordered around by dictators, he explains.

Should local needs conflict with central policies, Prof Kasem insists that local communities prevail since community rights are endorsed by Thailand's constitution.

If Bangkokians have their say, for example, the type of education they would support may be the one that produces human resources to service the city, which is bursting at its seams, more effectively.

Amid rising ethnic tensions, civic education that encourages inter-religious understanding can also help youngsters transcend different ethnic and religious beliefs.

Like most other countries, Thailand attaches national identity to its dominant ethnic group, leading to sweeping disregard for ethnic minorities.

Contrary to the myth of racial homogeneity, Thailand is actually a land rich with ethnicities, he says. "There are indigenous and ethnic peoples in every province. But we don't get to learn about them. Schools should start providing courses that encourage children to learn about ethnicity and other ethnic groups."

Civic education that transcends ethnic borders, he says, is necessary to tackle the conflicts in the South. If one's citizenship is respected regardless of one's race, ethnicity or religious beliefs, if there is mutual understanding among different ethnic groups, and if they are all subject to equal treatment, then there is certainly hope for peace.

A die-hard optimist, Prof Kasem believes that peace is within reach _ if the educational, economic and political systems work together to foster full citizenship and tolerance for diversity.

"The southern Muslims have no problem being Thai citizens. But they suffer from not receiving equal treatment. Our problem, therefore, is whether our concepts of our Thai state and Thainess are broad enough to embrace them or not."