Peace has always been an elusive subject to man. Since the dawn of time, he has fought to have it or struggled to keep it. In a war-torn country, he survives by the dream of it; in a nation without conflict, he lives in fear that one day, he will lose it.
Uwe Morawetz believes that there is no single definition of peace, and that to achieve this sometimes ephemeral ideal will take enormous efforts from all fields including politics, economy, science, culture, religion and the media.
“In our interdependent world, the problems cannot be solved only by politicians or scientists, or only through religion or business, but by working together,” he says. “Only if many ways cross and people walking these ways meet can international understanding be achieved and problems commonly solved.”
Morawetz is founder and chairman of the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that is the first of its kind to have the patronage of some 21 Nobel Peace Prize laureates. He was in town recently for the media launch of the latest edition of “Bridges — Dialogues Towards A Culture of Peace”, the Southeast Asian spin-off of the IPF-initiated Peace Summits, which have been held in Europe since 1993.
First launched in Thailand in 2003, the Bridges programme comprises lectures, workshops, seminars and events, which are open to the public, free of charge. It officially kicked off in November 2003, and the success of the first two series, which featured 26 Nobel laureates as well as 13 other keynote speakers and artists such as Dr Hans Blix, Rev Jesse Jackson, Dame Anita Roddick, Vanessa-Mae and Jessye Norman, prompted IPF to expand the programme to other Asean countries, the first being the Philippines.
Designed to encourage interaction between the speakers — who range from Nobel laureates to leading personalities in politics, business and the arts — and the people of Southeast Asia, particularly the youths through collaborations with universities, the programme aims to facilitate and strengthen dialogue and communication between societies of multiple cultures and faiths as well as with people in other parts of the world to promote understanding and trust.
“Peace,” says Morawetz, “is a process that cannot be achieved instantly. It needs time. Bridges was not organised as a single conference, but as an ongoing series of events in which Nobel laureates and international decision-makers build bridges with the leaders in all sectors of society and with the general public.”
This will be the first year that the Bridges event will be held in Malaysia. The Malaysian programme is jointly chaired by Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, the Raja Muda of Perak (honorary chairman), and Tun Musa Hitam, former deputy prime minister (chairman). They are joined by Thailand’s former prime ministers Anand Panyarachun (honorary chairman) and General Surayud Chulanont (chairman) of the Thai advisory board.
The first of the Malaysian events will start on Nov 17 with speaker Nobel laureate Professor Gerardus ‘t Hooft and will continue with seven other speakers spread over six months until April 2009.
“The topics of the ongoing events will deal with the overall theme of ‘Building a culture of peace and development in a globalised world’ and with a wide range of issues in the fields of politics, economy, science, culture and the media. They will highlight the challenges of both globalisation and regionalism and their impact on development and international cooperation,” says Morawetz.
Bridges isn’t the sole effort of the IPF. It involves partnerships with various local organisations and institutions which act as organisers of the events. In Malaysia, the partners are Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute, Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, International Islamic University, Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, Ministry of Higher Education, Multimedia University, Open University Malaysia, Perdana Leadership Foundation, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Malaya, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Technology Petronas.
At the media launch, Musa had said in his speech that “Bridges may help us to facilitate a new culture of peace through dialogue, transcending its definition as merely the absence of war or armed conflict into a new understanding (of) what the basis for peace is: education”.
Reiterating this sentiment, Morawetz explains that the IPF doesn’t have a concept for peace but that the organisation as a whole strongly believes that the basis for peace is education. “This is why we mainly address the younger generation, why we want to work with them. We want to bring about change through dialogue, and it is the young who are most capable of change. The priority is education.”
• • •
Morawetz and I are chatting on the 33rd floor of Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur. We’re sitting over drinks, graced by a panoramic view of the Parliament House, the National Museum and the Royal Lake Gardens.
Prior to this, I’d met Morawetz twice and had a phone conversation or two with him leading up to the media launch, the day before this interview. So by this time, I’m already familiar with the stoic, straight-to-the-point manner in which he speaks.
However, come face-to-face with the man, and you’ll find warmth and a lot of passion for the work he’s doing.
It was Morawetz who personally approached The Edge to support the Bridges programme. As founding chairman, one would think that he would have others to do such fieldwork. But that is Morawetz’s nature — to be in the thick of things. So, even if he counts the Dalai Lama and Franz Beckenbauer as friends, he will still pound the pavements to expand his IPF network as well as recruit supporters for upcoming events.
It’s a wonder that Morawetz’s slim-built 5ft 8in figure is able to contain his “go-getter” spirit. He’s been on a roll since embarking on his crusade for peace in 1989.
“It all started with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” reveals Morawetz, now 44. “I saw that there was a need to establish a platform to bridge people from the East and West. It was a strange atmosphere then… after communism came down in East Germany. There was a lot of misunderstanding. People were almost delirious with euphoria with so much change happening around them.”
At that time, Morawetz was already an established poet, with four published books under his belt and some of his works turned into stage performances. Banking on nothing but a network of names across the European arts scene, Morawetz envisioned an arena where ideas could be exchanged openly and without judgement, where everybody and not just an elite few could participate.
“There was a hope for a middle ground somehow. When communism came to an end, capitalism took over to the point some people wished the wall would be put back up,” he smiles. “So it was important then to have a forum, an independent platform for dialogue where people from different language groups in our society could come together and exchange. Even though we all speak German, the scientist and the artist seldom communicate or interact with each other.”
“I had made a lot of friends through my work as an artist. An important friendship was one I had with Lord Yehudi Menuhin, the late, great violinist,” he reveals. It was Menuhin who helped Morawetz orchestrate the dialogue between Henry Kissinger, Egon Bahr (former foreign minister of West Germany) and Valentin Falin (former Russian foreign minister) on the secret diplomacy in the cold war and new developments in Europe.
“It was the first time these three figures came together in Berlin at a public event. It caused quite a stir,” Morawetz shares excitedly.
“The whole programme started with nothing. Unlike today, we didn’t have a big sponsor behind us. So there was a great sense of achievement. It was built on the hunger of young people seeking new solutions and new models for peace and development.”
The International Peace Foundation was established by Morawetz and Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein during the 1999 Vienna Peace Summit, under the patronage of 21 Nobel Peace laureates, including Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama and Jose Ramos-Horta. It prides itself as being “ideologically, politically and religiously independent” and has to date, organised 700 events across Europe and 300 in Asia.
It was in 2000 that the foundation toyed with the idea of expanding outside of Europe, namely Asia, Africa and South Africa. While travelling these parts in search of a potential new port for the foundation, Morawetz met Anand Panyarachun in Thailand.
“He is a very well-respected person not just as a politician but also as a businessman. He became somewhat of a mentor to me as well as a close personal friend. Through him, my network in Thailand expanded very fast because everybody knew him, and soon we organised the first event, with the royal family presiding over it in support,” recalls Morawetz.
“It was like starting a process. Bridges is not a one-time event — it has been designed to be a continuous process of synergies. When we started in Thailand, we did not have any plans to expand to other countries in Southeast Asia. However, because of the success of the first few events, the embassies of the other Asean countries in Thailand began to approach us.”
Datuk Shaarani Ibrahim, then Malaysian ambassador to Thailand, was the one who approached Morawetz to invite him to take Bridges to Malaysia. Now retired, Shaarani furnished Morawetz with the names of a few prominent Malaysians and institutions and the rest, as they say, is history… or not quite.
Morawetz points out that the upcoming Bridges event was two years in the making, with close to 300 meetings just to tie everything up.
“The first few meetings are about proposing, getting advice and guidance. We came to Malaysia, 10 to 15 times a year, with some visits (lasting) up to three weeks, and met with all sorts of people, from Datuk (Seri) Anwar Ibrahim to Tun Dr Mahathir (Mohamad), from community leaders to NGOs, all for the sake of understanding more about the culture here,” reveals Morawetz.
“Dialogue starts with listening, so this is why when we come to a country like Malaysia, we’re not just exporting something that we’ve done in another country; we’re also taking something back with us. We want the Nobel laureates to have a similar experience, to stay here a week or so, to understand more about Malaysia. We want them to come back and perhaps start research programmes with the institutions here. The Bridges programme in Thailand has seen a lot of the laureates fall in love with the country and returning on a regular basis. Some have started research programmes with the universities, staying up to three months at a time. Some have invited Thai students to work in their labs abroad.”
Apart from being a forum for open dialogue, the foundation’s activities extend to humanitarian efforts, including the reconstruction and reconciliation programmes between conflicting Serbian, Montenegrian and Albanian groups after the war in Kosovo, the construction of schools in the rural parts of Thailand and of hospitals for people with AIDS in the slums of Bangkok as well as providing relief for the victims of the Andaman tsunami tragedy.
• • •
While it may have started with one man’s vision, the foundation’s reach is slowly growing far and wide. Morawetz’s carpetbagger approach, infiltrating prominent circles to further his cause for peace, has proven successful.
The way Morawetz operates is a marvel to observe. In under eight years, he has built vast links in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, and right now, he is in the midst of establishing a network in Cambodia.
“That’s where the next phase of the Bridges programme will happen. I was just there last week, and the programme there, with 50 or so events, is more or less planned. It will take place between November next year and April 2010,” he says.
Morawetz admits that when he gets an idea, he will focus all his energy on it. When it was decided that the foundation would embark on an endeavour in Thailand, he felt that it was important to try and understand completely the country’s culture as someone who had “always lived in the Western world”.
“I took one year off to learn the language. I studied how to read, write and speak Thai, to understand the people and culture through the language. I am someone who is very interested in languages, and I fell in love with the Thai language, with its five different tones. It was very musical to me, almost like singing,” shares Morawetz.
In truth, he didn’t just spend the year learning the language; he also got involved with the Human Development Foundation, and worked in the slums with people with AIDS and street children, alongside Father Joseph H Maier.
“This was so that I didn’t just understand the hardships of the people living in the slums with my mind, but also with my hands and my heart,” he says.
Through his many encounters with the Dalai Lama, he also spent some time studying Buddhism under monks Phra Payuth Payutho and Phra Payom Kalayano, as well as Mae Chi Sansanee, a Buddhist nun.
“I’m not a Buddhist. I was just keen to understand Buddhism as well as other religions. My roots are in Christianity and I spent my early years as a singer in the church choir in Freiburg, Black Forest, where I was born and raised.”
Morawetz admits that as a child, he was always drawn to the arts.
“I always did what I love most at the time,” he shares. “And what I love tended to change over the course of my life.”
His passion began in music, dedicating his years between the ages of seven and 13 to singing, playing the piano and composing music. “I was a soprano until my voice broke and suddenly, I was a tenor,” he laughs. This led to a change of passion. He began to play football, training extensively until his arm broke. It was then that he started writing poetry.
“The subjects were mainly love, sex, death and God… all the major subjects,” he quips.
Jokes aside, the 17-year-old Morawetz was so determined to have his book of poetry published that he founded his own publishing company. “No one wanted to publish the books… nobody knew me. Back then, you had to have connections to big publishing houses.”
He published 1,000 copies of his first book and they were sold within three months. The money he made enabled him to publish a second edition of 3,000 copies and write another book. By 18, he’d sold over 10,000 books and moved to Berlin where his works would be celebrated at poetry readings and translated into stage performances.
Morawetz says his passion for language and writing is still there. He adds that while he doesn’t have time to write anymore, he doesn’t really miss it either.
“This programme (Bridges) is a piece of art to me. Just like art, it has evolved somehow. Just like art, you can plan but the outcome is rarely the same. In the time after the fall of the Berlin wall, it was exciting and you could not foresee a future that would take you as far as Asia. We’ve been in existence for close to 20 years now and the whole process still fascinates me. I have the chance to meet so many different people, to work together with Nobel laureates and artists and other interesting people,” he muses. “When I do something, all my energy goes into it so I don’t miss anything. If I do start to miss something, I will definitely go back to doing it.
“That’s why it’s me who is still going out to do the networking. I need to be there. I need to feel it. I put my heart into it. I want to understand more, learn more about a country. This is like university for me — where I grow and learn more about life.”
Morawetz reveals that he will start travelling to Africa more next year. “We want to start some activities in Africa and South America. We’ll be visiting Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, and in the next quarter, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Senegal and Ghana… It will take time to decide in which country we will proceed first,” he says. “I have already visited eight countries in South America. We are closely cooperating with the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica. One of our patrons is president Oscar Arias Sánchez and most likely we will have a set-up in Brazil in the future for our activities in South America.”
With all this travelling, where is home? “Bangkok is more or less home, more than Europe anyway,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “I’m also open to other homes… I think my work is home… and now work is taking root around the world.”
And who better to pitch peace than a citizen of the world?
Bridges — Dialogues Towards A Culture of Peace
The programme, topics and speakers
Nov 17 to 21
Professor Gerardus ‘t Hooft
“Education and collaboration in fundamental science as bridges between nations”
Professor Gerardus ’t Hooft, a 1999 Nobel laureate for Physics, is regarded as one of the most influential particle theorists in history and played a leading role in the renaissance of high-energy physics. He developed a model to predict the properties of the subatomic particles that constitute the universe and the fundamental forces through which they interact. This work facilitated the finding of a new subatomic particle, the top quark, and established “The Standard
Model” of high-energy physics.
Dec 8 to 12
Professor Robert Fry Engle III
“Why is global financial volatility so high?” Professor Robert Fry Engle III is the 2003 Nobel laureate for Economics and the Michael Armellino Professor of Finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He developed improved mathematical techniques for the evaluation and more-accurate forecasting of risk which have become essential tools of modern asset-pricing theory and practice. His work has particular relevance in financial market analysis in which the investment returns of an asset are assessed against its risks and in which stock prices and returns could exhibit extreme volatility.
Dec 17 to 19
Professor Roger David Kornberg
“Science as a basis for bridging between cultures and fostering peace and development”
Professor Roger David Kornberg, an American biochemist and professor of structural biology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, was solely awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription. His work explained the process by which genetic information is copied from DNA to RNA and paved the way for unlocking new therapeutic approaches towards illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation.
Jan 12 to 17
Professor Jose Ramos-Horta
“Is long-lasting peace an attainable dream?”
Professor Jose Ramos-Horta is a 1996 Nobel laureate for Peace who established a successful Microcredit Fund for the Poor with funds received from the Nobel Prize. He is a former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, a former minister of foreign affairs, a former prime minister and nowadays the president of Timor-Leste. He has been active in the pursuit of peace, freedom and democracy in his country and is a patron of the International Peace Foundation.