Peace and Conflict in Asia: New Frame and Challenges

Peace and Conflict in Asia: New Frame and Challenges

By Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI

More than twenty years ago, I attended an Asian convention of social and political scientists jointly organized by ISEAS and the Malaysian Association Social Scientists. The whole convention was about the elusive peace in Asia and an attempt to map the politics of separatism espoused by the many liberation fronts from the MNLF in Southern Philippines to the Malay Provinces in Southern Thailand, the Timor Leste, Irian Jaya or Papua and Aceh in Indonesia to the Karen people in Burma .

The experts from various countries of Asia tried to analyze the root causes of politics of separatism beyond the usual culprits that a more traditional social scientists and policy makers point. The triple culprits are poverty, politics of exclusion and injustice – perceived or real as the causes of internal conflicts.  This analysis has led not a few scholars to think and believe that the economic causes explain the recurrence and even the sustainability of internal conflict. (Cf. Paul Collier’s Studies: Policy for Post-conflict Societies: Reducing the Risks of renewed Conflict: March 2000; Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy: June 2000; Greed and Grievance in Civil War: October 2001; and Doing Well out of War: April 1999 – WB Web Site). But tragically, a peace making solely based on these analyses has still to produce a success story of peace making and peace building.

The very understanding of nation state as a very young construct was never put on the table. Yet particularly in this part of the globe, such construct is, indeed, very young. The Bangsa Filipino or Bangsa Indonesia or Bangsa Malayo or Bangsa Moro, Bangsa Aceh, Bangsa Pattani etc. are all relatively young constructs.  In fact the very controversial issues of territory, sovereignty and other elements of the so-called nation states were products of colonial heritage that continues to exercise tyranny over our spirits even after the years of de-colonization.

Then and now but more specifically in our present discourse, we need to point out that nation state and all its claims of people, sovereignty, territory and government are young constructs that continue to evolve.  They were not “natural” in the sense that they were there from the very beginning… a sort of a mythical “illo tempore” or one of the origin myths of society.

Then globalization has come… People begin to talk and think of bigger things, wider arena, all kinds of unions, associations and federations came to being… European Community, which began with three countries in the 70’s, became six countries then ten, and then 25 in 2000 and now we have the mega European Union that continues to expand and grow that would soon include Turkey.

In the Pacific Basin, we hear of APEC Summitry, in North America, it is NAFTA.  In our own backyard, we have our own ASEAN that has emerged from the original Maphilindo in the early 60s.  All these refer to something bigger and larger identities and  new belonging across diverse nationalities, cultures and physical boundaries established by the 18th century construct aka nation states.

The decade of the 90s that preceded the new millennium had seen what was then described as dramatic advances not only in science and technology but also of the fast movements of peoples and capitals across borders and frontiers. The whole concept of virtual world and plural communities brought about by fast movement of peoples and populations are new elements in the equation that shake the traditional understanding of territory, sovereignty, peoples and governments. The roles for the states and governments are evolving  vis-à-vis  these developments. And if they do not change, they will be like dinosaurs condemned to be extinct in the years to come.

When we speak of re-framing our paradigm for peace and conflict, we are actually raising the fundamental issue whether the 19th century construct of nation state is still valid today.  It is a more specific and pointed challenge to the traditional view and it asks the question whether we are “rightly” reading and interpreting the ethnic and sectarian conflicts out there – in the neighborhood, in the local community, in short “on the ground” by continuously offering the 19th century construct that is expiring or gasping for  its last breath.

A newer and more interesting challenge to the 19th century nation state construct comes from the trajectory or school more associated with the late Prof.  Samuel Huntington.  He made attempts to locate the path to social cohesion or the mode of coming together that will give people confidence and trust in one another. He cited these in pairs, the one is blood and the other is belief or, correspondingly, family and faith. In terms of these two elements we live, develop our horizon, elaborate our values and have confidence in one another and in our life as a community or nation.  Consequently, the possibilities of coming together gravitate around these two elements of family relationships or blood and of faith or religion (Cf. S. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order).

In this light Prof. Huntington sees seven major civilizations that are characterized by certain consanguinity and a basic belief system.  His theory indicates that through these civilizations, peoples will share understanding, concerns, a belief system and worldview. And these are the natural ways for people to come together.  This is not something that is often misunderstood as a return to the “pre-rational” and the superstitious stage.  Instead it points to a post rationalist period in which a new set of human sensibilities and an urgent and promising new agenda is emerging.

In a similar vein, Prof. Francis Fukuyama (cf. his two works: The End of History and Trust, Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity) notes that for prosperity in business there is need for trust between people.  He acknowledges sets of values cited by Weber as keys to capitalism: diligence, saving, rationality, innovation, risk-taking, etc… But Fukuyama opines that these will not work in the economic order unless they are under girded by a sense of honesty, reliability, cooperation and responsibility. If those are lacking and there is no trust, then initiative cannot go forward nor will it achieve its reward.  This foundational set of virtues comes from the cultures, which in turn are grounded in faith.

It is very interesting that the two most popular and thought-provoking thinkers today view the future by pointing that rationality has not been enough and will not be enough, and that there is need for an under girding confidence and trust in culture built upon family and faith.

Our departure from Huntington is the fact that we hold that values, cultures, the self-identity of cultures and religions that generate civilizations need not be conflictual.  But this will require a new hermeneutic of ethnicity, religion and civilization.  It is a hermeneutic that reads and interprets various ethnicity and civilizations albeit their diversities as able to contribute one to another. It also provides the capacity to the “secularists”, both in the academe and the halls of power, who have neither the capability to deal with religious differences or people who for their own purposes manipulate religions.  The present “incapacity is a result of enlightenment prejudice and the seeming blind commitment to a 19th century nation state construct in international relations that exclude ethnicity, religions and civilizations from the equation. Thus a new hermeneutic makes possible new attitudes and paradigm in the construction of new relations between “nations” and civilization, which are most important in addressing social fault lines and reconstruction work. The magic word in negotiating new paradigm is dialogue…

There are three basic steps that will help us walk this new path of dialogue.

Ÿ  First is the recognition that our life, future and destiny are bound up with each other.  No, we cannot espouse a politics of separatism, culture of exclusivism, nor act as sole proprietors of the land.

Ÿ  Second is to be open, that is, Eph’pheta/Iftah, to each other – learning not only from each other but more so to live and work as partners in shaping our common lives and destiny in peace, justice and care of the earth. Yes, we must not be afraid or hesitate to accept, to trust and to work with each other as partners.

Ÿ  Third is our commitment and involvement in the promotion and guarantee of the rights and dignity of every person regardless of faith, gender, culture and color within our society/community.

The basis of this commitment is our belief that all peoples even though they belong to different religions, nations, etc. all form ONE human family, created by the ONE and same God, living in the same world/community, and destined for a common end.

Certain premises need to be articulated at the very outset of this journey…

First, it is our belief that the 19th century nation state construct is inadequate to address and understand the dynamics of war and peace making.  The nation state theory, which attributes to poverty, politics of exclusion, injustices and greed as the bases, does not fully explain the relations that are involved in the conflicts neither they alone contribute to the solutions to the conflicts.

Second, we reiterate that in social cohesion, the needed social capital is the capital we create not with our money or legislation, but essentially by working together and participating in a civic way in negotiating peace and working for reconstruction. Peace and reconstruction is not simply a matter of politics and economics, but more importantly, it is a matter of belief and trust which is the foundation of meaningful relationships in the community and society, including the civic life of the citizens.

Third, religion has proved to be the enduring and “stubborn” inheritance of humankind both to believers and secularized modern peoples albeit acknowledged grudgingly. Notwithstanding the legacy of the enlightenment, religion continues to assert its role in the public domain.  Despite the disputes (as in the EU Constitution) regarding its public role, religion shall continue to persist and often puts in disarray the “secularized construct” of what is or should be in the peace equation. It is not simply neither thick nor thin but the very basis and glue of a faith-based peace making and peace building without which all attempts to peace are rendered incomplete or futile or doomed to fail.

Why?  The answer is simple… Peace making and people’s basic rights as well are not simple liberal constructs in “Res Publica”. These values, too, constitute the religious and moral grammar of human interaction.   And in a plural society enriched by religious understanding, we need a kind of religious “literacy” not a “bracketing” of religions to be able to navigate the many metaphors, stories, myths and modes of telling them that dominate the relationships between our differing religious “families”.

Fourth, there is a need to “re-appreciate” and perhaps even “re-construct” the stories of conflict and war as well as peace making and peace building, in the present age now labeled as both “post modernism” and “post ideologies”.  I turn to Gil Bailie (cf. Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads: 1996) for the apt description of this age. He takes the person of Bernard (a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves) to depict the modern person.  In the novel, Bernard says: “I have made up thousand stories. I have filled up innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all the phases refer, but I have never yet found that story.”  Today, post modern descendants of Bernard continue to look for that story, in the absence of which, they try to breathe life into the texts, analysis and theories with which our study of peace and peace building, to say the last, is in the state of amorphous incoherence.  There are no ready-made story to proffer to peace makers and peace activists… But the lesson of the story for our age is perhaps the needs for a real dialogue; precisely to connect the many texts and phrases once again… and believe you me… we need to put aside our rhetoric and together  provide that story…

Now that we have come at a critical juncture in defining and shaping our relationship in the context of a new enterprise beyond the narrow limits of the nation state construct, there is a sense of urgency to dare break new ground both in our discourses and actions.   Our national and communal traditions need to rise above the heritage of mutual suspicion and fears and address squarely the conflictual relationships that continue to soil the earth and divide our faith and ethnic communities.

I wonder if this is what the martyred President of Egypt Anwar Sadat expressed at the Knesset during his historic visit of the Holy City of Jerusalem on November 7, 1977.

“… Yet, there remains another wall.  This wall continues and constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection, a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deeds or decision.  A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement. It is this official statement as constituting 70% of the whole process. Today, through my visit to you, I ask why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?”

Our new solidarity has to give birth to a new relationship that heals, expands and empowers. Politics and economics are inadequate to shape that meaningful relationship. Here, I will conclude with a quotation from Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. He  said years ago:

The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudice and build the earth.”

Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI

Institute of Autonomy and Governance

Notre Dame University Alumni Center

Cotabato City 9600

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