Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Cambodia looms on our minds, and as the departure date nears we may feel anxiety and apprehensions to witness the aftermath of a country ravaged by a genocide that eliminated approximately a third of the Khmer. This same feeling arose during the imminence of the field study to Northern Thailand as we considered both the emotional difficulty of meeting victims of human trafficking and the scale of the problem. Though the encounters in Northern Thailand were difficult and spiritually deflating, the community leaders we met taught us that from the depths of darkness there must and—usually does—emanate light. The staggering statistics on human trafficking display only darkness and no obvious light, but once up close and personal with those combating and responding to human trafficking, suddenly the image shifted from one of darkness to one of multiple flashlights of varying potencies beaming towards a potential exit. While it is true that exit may be years down the road, the diversity in ethnicities, gender, and age of the Northern Thailand community leaders and organizations proved that if and when one’s flashlight batteries fail, replacement batteries are available. These rays of light would have not become apparent to us, but for our travels there. Similarly, the grim objective statistics on “post-conflict” Cambodia reveal a negative peace environment replete with structural and social violence. No doubt though, the community organizations with which we will meet will paint a different and much more hopeful picture of Cambodia than the numbers and news dictate hence the importance of first-hand accounts. In fact, if we believed only the statistics and media information fed to us, it is likely that few places in the world would ever be deemed sufficiently safe or worth visiting, but that is a different topic.
The main message here is that the conflicts or “darkness” around the world represent an opportunity for us all to build something better and create light. It’s a story that has been successfully told in South Africa, for example, and despite the dark spots that still persist, and is a story I hope will be told in my native Colombia this year via a peace agreement with the FARC and beyond through positive peace efforts. It’s a story that I wish for my adopted United States in the aftermath of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin, which surfaced so much of the racial tension that has permeated our society since its founding, while highlighting laws that reinforce the racial tensions.
But we can’t create light for everyone through only one or a few flashlights. For example, in Colombia, a tangible peace agreement stems from a genuine desire by most Colombians to move on and all conflict actors realizing that protracted conflict profits few actors, if any, while peace has the potential to profit everyone at least a little. That same desire and realization was not displayed by enough people or leaders in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting—or any of the other numerous shootings the United States has seen in recent years—so we continue with the status quo and hope, without action, that no more parents will bury their babies.
Yet the universe instructs. Stars form through dense molecular cloud regions collapsing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) describes the process as “turbulence deep within these clouds give rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust can begin to collapse under its own gravitational attraction.” As the cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up and this hot core at the heart of the collapsing cloud eventually become a star full of light. In much the same way, enough “knots” of people working together in a turbulent conflict can pressure the pillars of the conflict to the point that these topple. The pressure from people is too much for the pressures of the conflict to withstand. Once toppled, the people pushing for a change can transform what was once a dark period into momentum that, with effort, inclusivity, and patience, among other things, will lead to a bright period of peace. This process, both for stars and for peace, can only come from darkness.
Bonus Track: A list of proposed practical and philosophical principles by which to live during the Rotary Peace and Conflict Resolution Program at Chulalongkorn University provided from a Colombian-American’s perspective:
1. Do leave expectations behind and approach each day with an open-mind
2. Don’t believe everything you hear or forget to ask tough questions
3. Do revert back to the curiosity you displayed as a child
4. Don’t forget to embody all of the “birds” and adapt your strengths to each social situation
5. Do take advantage of the library resources
6. Don’t limit your learning to just the library resources; get out and explore the country and its people
7. Do remember to be charitable to the four-legged residents of Chula; even if you are not a dog-lover, everyone wants good karma and empathy extends beyond humans
8. Don’t forget to be charitable to yourself too; massages, yoga, the free University gym and pool, and Lumphini Park are great starting points
9. Do take the time to know each of your program colleagues
10. Don’t assume that you have finished learning about your colleagues; just like peace, this too is a process and not a conclusion
11. Do consider a career change
12. Don’t underestimate your ability and strength to make that career change
13. Do consider taking this time to learn forgiveness; forgiveness is key to conflict resolution and as peacebuilders we should understand this concept before expecting it of others, and if Nelson Mandela, for example, can forgive 27 years of imprisonment, so can you
Michelle Mendez, Colombia/USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session