‘ Bridges ’ over an intellectual desert

The Nation - Monday, April 25, 2005

Uwe Morawetz and his team at the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation deserve many rounds of applause for the marathon series of scholarly presentations and discussions that they wrapped up earlier this month.

Since November 2003, Morawetz and his team have organized some 250 events, bringing 50 speakers, including 26 Nobel laureaters,to the Kingdom to share their knowledge. The forum received support from 76 other institutions in Thailand, including major universities such as Chulalongkorn and Thammasat,several major corporations like BMW,Thai Airways International,Kasikorn Bank and the Dusit Thani Hotel, as well as NGOs and many other sources.

It was a major undertaking. Morawetz said recently that he’s looking forward to more sleeping time now that his ambitious project has come to a close. Now that Morawetz has time to catch up on some of that long-lost sleep ( his jokes that the only time he has for naps is when the visiting scholars are delivering their speeches), this is also a good time to assess the merits of his project, formally called : “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace”.

First, the nitty-gritty technical side of the whole series. Some people felt more could have been done to maximize the size and level of participation of the audience, and that some events could have benefited from some of simultaneous translation.

Morawetz has previously stressed that since the cost has been shouldered in kind by the various sponsors the whole series was made possible within a budget of US$500,000 (Bt20 million) instead of $50 million. The speakers didn’t charge any fees for coming here, and some, like violinist Vanaessa Mae and soprano Jessye Norman, not only come to perform, but also donated the proceeds to charitable causes.

Some might be tempted to attribute the low turnouts for some of the events to the low level of intellectual curiosity among Thais. Even representatives of the media appeared to be not that interested in covering the thoughts and ides of people like Reverend Jesse Jackson, VS Naipaul, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of the East Timor or Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

After a year and a half of activities, one local weekly news magazine admitted that it had only learnt of this series after the visit from Ebadi earlier this month – and she was the last of the series. Others simply thought the series was not newsworthy. Why Thailand remains such an “intellectual desert” is anyone’s guess. The quixotic venture of Morawetz and his crew had made this situation stand out in much greater relief. One of the big tasks confronting Thailand is how we can induce a greater level of intellectual curiosity among Thais. Some people involved with the Bridges event appeared to have joined the venture out of some wish to bathe themselves in the aura of Nobel laureates and other famous personalities.

Meanwhile, many of the young Thais attending the lecture asked the speakers how “they can think like a Nobel Prize Winner”. Even Morawetz himself observed that Thais tend to still cling to rote memorization, assuming that there is always a right answer instead of honing their ability to ask good and insightful questions. So in a way, the events also ended up being about the instant accumulation of prestige and the hope for ready-made guidelines for world peace. Thais can be too pragmatic. Consider the local response to the just-concluded United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice that was held in Bangkok.

Newscasters on Channel 11 blatantly asked Justice Minister Suwat Liptapanlop during the midday news interview on April 14 “what Thailand will get out of hosting it”. The newscasters also later assured television viewers that Thailand would indeed earn some “prestige” from having played host. This pragmatic and parochial situation must not cause other concerned Thais to lose hope. Sure, the government could be doing more that organizing events like Bangkok Fashion Week, the Miss Universe pageant or even film festivals.

It would certainly be wrong to expect the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) or even the Thai Research Fund (TRF) to stimulate intellectual curiosity. Is there a need for a new commission, say, a National Intellectual Stimulation Commission? We should probably not expect one, the government might find it subversive to the ethos of our Thai Rak Thai-run society. Perhaps it’s better to say that anyone who cares to pitch in and contribute to the bettering of the intellectual climate in this county by any means of their choosing is welcome to do so.

Relying on TV programmes like the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel or the venerable BBC alone won’t do – these outlets are too passive and to targeted at the middle class – and ,above all, watching TV doesn’t burn enough calories. But even without Morawetz, who’s now eyeing Latin America as a new greener pasture for his future activities, people in Thailand can still take it upon themselves to stage more drama, more talks or more poetry reading that are genuinely interesting and accessible to lay people.

This could take place at book shops, cafes, bars and other public and commercial places. Such events don’t need to be geared towards the quantity of the participants, but their quality. Something more cerebral will offer an alternative (and complement?) such perennial events as the extravagant fashion events and the overly frequent hi-so parties.

Another legacy of the Bridges series is the idea that “bridges” can be built towards ensuring a peaceful society. In a way, the event served as an ironic contrast to the state of Thai society, with its wars on drugs and the violence in the deep South. Many questions asked of the speakers touched on how peace can be restored in the troubled South. Thais appear more at ease with giving or taking orders, rather than engaging in dialogue, however.

No real culture or intellectual bridges appear to exist between Thailand and its neighbors – Cambodia, Burma, Laos and others. As for the growing violence and separatist sentiment in the predominantly Thai-Malay southern provinces, it can only be hoped that some of the partners and patrons of the Bridges event – such as former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, Assoc Professor Surichai Wungaew of Chulalongkorn University and peace advocate Mark Tamtai, who occupy key positions in the government appointed National Reconciliation Commission – will have learnt a thing or two from their encounters with the various speakers.

Let us hope that these gentleman will succeed in building real bridges so a true dialogue towards peace can turn the tide against the deepening violence in the deep South.