On the banks of the Mekong River in a place where Thailand meets Laos, a group of 25 young people gathered to take part in the Mekong Peace Journey.
It’s a fitting place for these youths to meet, as they come from all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma)—through which the river passes on its path to the South China Sea.
The Mekong is a richly diverse region that has suffered from painful conflicts in the past, leading sometimes to political distrust, cultural prejudice, and an absence of mutual understanding among peoples from different countries.
Rebuilding that understanding is at the center of the three-week peace journey, held annually in Southeast Asia.
Leang Linda was among this year’s participants. She is from Cambodia, where border conflicts with Thailand and Vietnam have in the past been used as a political tool to shift attention away from political problems within each country.
These conflicts are exacerbated by the Mekong region’s underdevelopment, political instability, and problems with labor migration and human trafficking. They have led to a sense of inferiority and superiority among states that cause additional tensions. On occasion, politicians have encouraged nationalism and hatred of neighboring countries, according to longtime observers.
But during the peace journey, while learning about peace and conflict transformation and exploring issues of diversity and conflict, Linda and her peers connected over their common roots and values. Rejecting violence and discrimination, they developed a more profound understanding of identity—one based on love, friendship, and respect for diversity.
Linda says the experience changed her in ways she never expected.
“I changed my way of thinking, prejudice, and discrimination toward Thai and Vietnamese,” she says. “I started to think, and built close relationships with them.”
A participant from Myanmar acknowledged how the peace journey affected her understanding of Thai people. “Before, I always discriminated against Thai people, as I was taught that the Thai treated Myanmar people badly,” she said. “But after I participated in this program, I no longer feel what I thought before.”
AFSC has been joining hands with this effort—technically, spiritually, and financially—since the program was first dreamed of in 2010. It was initiated by Thai Volunteer Service in collaboration with the Cambodian Working Group for Peace.
Supawadee Petrat, one of the organizers from Thailand, says the program “gives safe space for youth to express themselves, to find ways to build a common understanding, and to join forces for peace activities in the region.”
Chhit Muny, AFSC’s peace partnerships program officer, says that in addition to changing participants’ perceptions and helping them build positive relationships, the program helps them develop critical thinking skills that lead to positive peace-building activities in their communities and countries.
“Youth cannot change what happened in the past, but this program can help youth to create something better for the future,” he says.
After the program, participants plan or join peace-building efforts in their own countries, such as organizing peace networks, peace walks, and peace biking events.
As she prepared to return to Cambodia, Linda said, “I feel I am ready to be a peace builder.”