Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Before you think this blog is about Apple Inc., let me say it is about peace activists.
Peace activists are a crazy bunch. I use the word crazy with great respect. They have been known to sit in front of rolling tanks, go on months of hunger strike, place themselves at the receiving end of torture, give up careers and family… you get the picture. Not all of them go to such lengths of course.
One of the things that have resonated with me since our fellowship programme on peace and conflict resolution began (apart from liking Thai food so much that I am considering changing my name to Tom Yum Goong) is the fact that the search for peace often means great sacrifice on the part of the activists.
Peace activism is mostly personal, with activists pursuing goals that affect them as much as the people they are fighting for. Consider peace icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, fighting for themselves and future generations of their people. Then there are the crazier activists campaigning and sacrificing their lives and loves for causes that do not directly affect them e.g. William Thomas, the man who waged a 27 year ‘peace vigil’ in front of the White House.
(The Chulalongkorn University student, who gave me, a complete stranger, a ride on his bicycle the day after I arrived in Bangkok in January, to the 7-Eleven on the other side of campus, waited for me, and a ride back to Vidhaya Nives, has the makings of a peace activist.)
Another is the importance of symbolism. One of the most iconic images of peace activism of the 20th century is the unarmed man at Tiananmen Square who blocked a column of tanks and armoured vehicles, repeatedly stepping into the path of the oncoming tanks with determined purpose, holding nothing but his shopping bags. The identity of the man remains unknown, but the symbolism of his act remains as potent today as on that fateful day in June 1989. Does it matter that no one seems to know his name? Not really, except in the fervent hope that he did not suffer adverse consequences from his act. The symbolism is greater than the symbol.
More recently the question of power, authority and obedience came into play as we suggested ways to create killers out of people (during a session on nonviolence no less). Numerous studies have shown the propensity of people to defer to and obey those they consider to have authority. The ease with which people can be made to do things has been demonstrated time and again by researchers and informally by TV prank shows. What makes us so? We are raised and conditioned to be respectful of authority, and not to rock the boat.
My secondary school testimonial contains the statement “she has ability well above average, but she finds it hard to submit to school discipline”. When I received it at the age of fourteen and three quarters, my friends commiserated with me: “the witch (the principal) has spoiled your testimonial; you can’t show that to anyone”. An on the whole positive and favourable assessment seemed tarnished by that one sentence. Indeed I kept it hidden, and it was only some years later when I came across it among my papers that I thought, hey, it is not so bad.
After the session on non-violence and civic disobedience with Ajarn Chaiwat last week, I think I shall have it framed.
Seriously though, rules are important to make systems run efficiently, but must not be followed blindly I feel. Authority too has its place; and individuals should be able to question authority, to a shared understanding/agreement. When I think about corruption in my country for instance, it seems to me that it happens because people at different levels in each affected system choose to do nothing (the there-is-nothing-I-can-do-about-it attitude), justify their roles as not being primary or only following orders from a superior, or fear the consequences of dissent. Soon they begin to see it as the norm, no need to feel guilty (the everybody-does-it attitude), to the point where a parallel system has evolved which has permeated all levels of our socio-political sphere. Those who benefit believe their positions entitle them to the largesse, those whom are yet to partake long for the opportunity, resulting in a society where millions of poor get poorer, the honest are ridiculed, a society that glorifies wealth no matter how inglorious the source. But I digress…
Back to peace activism, some of the images of peace causes/movements in action strike us because of the seeming fearlessness and extraordinary courage on display (among other factors), driven towards an end by the juggernaut of principles and formidable conviction, even on pain of death; having found a cause for which one is prepared to die. Is there anyone who does not fear death? None (save the legendary Gurkhas of Nepal perhaps). It is ironic the offhand manner we speak of that which we fear: I will kill you if you don’t show up; I’m dead if I don’t make it home before midnight; I am dying for a drink. Over time I have found myself thinking about this in relation to my life, about the thing for which I can pay the ultimate price.
What would you die for?
Rabi Isma, Nigeria
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2013 Session