Taking the first steps towards peace

The Nation - Saturday, April 24, 2004

The recent series of dialogues provided food for thought and an opportunity to stimulate an appetite for intellectual discussion.

The recently concluded series of lectures and dialogues entitled "Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace" offered food for thought for many and a lingering aftertaste to ponder.

Although the event, in which at least 20 Nobel laureates came to the Kingdom with other prominent individuals, will not be over until famed opera-singer Jessye Norman takes to the stage at the Thai Cultural Centre next month,

the lectures themselves con­cluded with VS Naipaul, 2001 Nobel laureate for literature, earlier this month.

It was an unprecedented event for Thailand and managed to attract considerable interest. Last November former US presidential candidate the Reverend Jesse Jackson was the first speaker, open­ing with a bang by criticising American unilateralism and the war on Iraq and being widely reported in the local media.

Fair to say that despite being a Democrat, Jackson is the first emi­nent American to speak out in Thailand against the invasion of Iraq.

Another equally controversial speech came from Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, who spoke out against corpo­rate greed that disregarded the environment and social justice.

Writer VS Naipaul proved to be so controversial in his criticism of Muslims that the organiser, the International Peace Foundation, had to screen questions for Naipaul in advance. Naipaul also made a point of lamenting the death of lit­erature.

Some Nobel laureates also spoke for genetically modified organisms, something that didn't go down well with the sector of the public opposed to GM foods.

One laureate spoke about his absolute trust in the peaceful role of science and its applications, prompting a leading member of the host institute to wonder whether he was blind or naive.

Jose Ramos Horta, Nobel laure­ate for peace and foreign minister of East Timor, talked about the pragmatic accommodation of American unilateralism, despite the fact that it was such pragmatism that had led to the Indonesian inva­sion and annexation of East Timor to begin with.

Taking these and other speakers into account, the event was far from bland. One organiser, Uwe Morawetz, the Austrian chairman of the International Peace Foundation, who knew little about Thailand three years before the event took place, managed with his team to put all these together, with the help of many sponsors, making it the first of event its kind in the Kingdom.

Morawetz managed to become fluent in Thai and networked his way through various sponsors and patrons such as Thai Airways International, the Dusit Thani Hotel, Ogilvy and Kasikorn Bank, not to mention more controversial names like Unocal, and gained support from people such as former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.

So what did Thailand gain from the marathon event, aside from an added twist of irony that many of

the events took place while the situation in the deep South was, as it still is, anything but peace­ful?

One of the most often heard questions from students who attended the lectures was how to think like a Nobel Laureate or win a Nobel Prize, while perhaps the askers and others should be asking why no Thai has ever won a Nobel Prize for anything.

It’s unfortunate that the event didn’t also lead to an examination of Thai culture, how peaceful it may or may not be, and whether law and order, including peace, can exist in a climate of coercion, something that Thais cannot claim is alien to them, judging from our history of decades of dictatorial rule.

Some mentioned that the format was more of a one-way communica­tion than a real dialogue, while oth­ers said some of the speeches were so specialised that only experts in chemistry or physics could follow them in any meaningful way. Then it was observed that some of the audience members were practically rounded up by their superiors to fill seats, a practice not altogether unusual in Thailand.

Some said the hosts introducing each speaker should be people gen­uinely interested in the person and the issue being discussed, but that could be a tall order, especially if one insisted that the person intro­ducing must be Thai.

Others thought the event mere shop talk, with no "peace" on the horizon. Some sceptics even ques­tioned the motives of the International Peace Foundation and the whole affair.

It cannot be overstressed, however, that activities that promote peace and intellectual advancement are much needed in Thailand.

This country may be used to pay­ing millions for Western manage­ment gurus to come and speak for a few minutes, but bringing in more than 20 Nobel laureates and other eminent people in their respective fields was like rain pouring down in an area otherwise designated as a intellectual near desert. As the list of best-selling books in Thailand often testifies, people are mostly interested in making big bucks fast or a little light reading about their favourite television personalities.

There’s no reason why such activities should be left in foreign hands alone. It remains to be seen whether Thais can also create something constructive to stimulate the minds and imaginations of their compatriots as the Bridges series has done.

Open discussion and mind-broadening dialogues, after all, can be the first step towards peace.

Pravit Rojanaphruk