Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
It was more than a little ironic that to commence a course of study at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, I was woken on the first night by such a violent thunderstorm accompanied by a spectacular lightning show and torrential rains. Then again, perhaps this was the norm in Bangkok and I had received an early prompt that there is a different kind of normal out there. The paradigm shift that could be generated from this experience may have already begun.
First impressions? Hot & humid like I’d never experienced before. It was busy and traffic was completely chaotic. The heat and humidity was oppressive … for me. This was going to take a while to get accustomed to. I couldn’t help but notice I was one of very few people affected by the weather. Again, this was a new kind of normal. And I can forget about vegemite on toast and whacking a few snags on the BBQ. There’s a 90 day course of tom yum goong, larb gai, curries, noodles, and rice headed my way. No complaint there, it’s a foodie’s heaven in Bangkok.
Another interesting insight was linked to safety. Walking around here alone at night I felt completely secure. It was unfamiliar but I had an undoubted sense that I was safe. I’ve had this same feeling in Hong Kong and Seoul, bustling cities with huge populations. From a western perspective I’m not so sure many people I serve as a police area commander feel so safe in their own backyard at times. When I think about that more I wonder just how much it’s influenced by perception rather than fact. And therein lays a critical issue for me in just how much perception, legacy thinking and bias – conscious or unconscious – play in determining safety and a sense of peace and how I can positively influence that.
Fellows have come from Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Australia. In this first week I’ve been privileged to hear their background stories and the work they’re currently doing. There are amazing stories of people working far from home and sometimes in very dangerous settings. Many are dealing with the phenomenon of migration and mobile populations – domestic, national and international. Whether it’s in Africa, Europe, North America, the Middle East, or the Asia-Pacific region where the Fellows hail from, migration issues are present in their work, particularly refugee matters.
Some are directly involved in substantial conflicts in parts of the world that are no-go zones for most westerners. Immediately that spoke volumes to me about the commitment and sacrifice some people make in the interests of resolving conflict and improving the lives of others.
I must admit to some early reservations about the role of an Australian police officer on such a course. I come from a very young and peaceful nation with a history of social and political stability. Outside the Eureka rebellion of 1854 or the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975, there’s very little to discuss about civil or political instability. But having discussed the program with other Australian fellows I’m confident we all have a role to play in peace and conflict as interveners, peace builders and peace sustainers.
In the Australian context I deliver policing services to a community where almost 50% of residents are migrants and many more the children of migrants. I think about the richness diversity brings to the local area I work in and how the experiences of migrants is helping our contemporary notion of ‘community’ to evolve. Many of those migrants arrived as refugees. Their contribution has been just as important as anyone who came before them.
In particular, I used the lead-up and commencement of this experience to reflect on the role of police in strengthening their communities. This role relies on understanding what a particular community may consist of or how it may be changing. A community can incorporate any faith, ethnic, gender, sporting, technological, cultural or motivation group – essentially any group at all. It can change overnight and have very fluid boundaries. With enhanced physical and social mobility, communities can be rapidly shaped and re-shaped.
Policing agencies have to be just as dynamic and flexible in understanding the backgrounds of their clients if they’re going to be able to meet their needs. As a service organisation, we must do this sensitively, paying due respect to diversity in order to maintain the confidence of those clients. Police don’t have the luxury to pick and choose who we’ll serve and how. Our obligation is to serve everyone impartially and effectively, irrespective of race, creed or colour. I foresee this program will provide me with practical tools to use in managing the needs of a diverse community and keeping my team meaningfully connected with them. This is vital in sustaining a cohesive and safe place in which to live.
Change shouldn’t be feared. But a lack of knowledge or acceptance of change can create uncertainty and fear and reinforce negative or narrow perceptions. Ignorance therefore is definitely not bliss. Police need to be directly involved in any activity that better connects them with their community and helps them to build confidence and reduce vulnerability. I hope the next 3 months at Chula will help this group better understand change and the ever-evolving meaning of ‘community’. Further, I’m hopeful we’ll all learn new ways we can influence that evolution in a peaceful way.
At the end of the first week an Afghani Muslim, some Christians from Africa, and a few Catholics from Sri Lanka and Australia attended a church service together. It was a potpourri of genders, nationalities, and faiths. This was followed by a quick lunch from a street vendor and a train trip back through the shops to the residence at CU I House. Here we all were in Bangkok, everyone a long way from home yet there was a strong sense of comfort, happiness, excitement and unity in the group. A very diverse group that didn’t even know each other a few days ago had quickly bonded. I think this will be emblematic of the next 3 months and beyond. I’m sure there’ll be robust debate along the way and that opinions will widely vary. That will enhance the learning experience. There is a determined group ready to make the most of any opportunity to work towards and implement peaceful solutions to a range of conflicts. I’m very grateful to the many Rotarians around the globe who have invested their faith in this cohort to do that work.
Chris Gilbert, Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2015 session