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Mekong Journey Peacemakers Explore Regional Peace in China

Prof. Fan Honggui (first row, fourth to the left), one of China’s acclaimed professors in ethnic studies, talked about historical connections between ethnic groups in the Mekong Region.  Photo: / AFSC
Mekong Peace Journey leaders hear Prof. Liu Cheng’s talk. Cheng teaches at Nanjing University, the first university in China that offers a peace study program.  Photo: / AFSC
During a simulation, May Aung Su shares possible strategies for how peace-building NGOs can respond to conflict created by corporate investments.  Photo: / AFSC
Participants met with Guangxi Wild Flower Protection, a grassroots organization on environmental education and protection. Photo: / AFSC

Mekong Peace Journey Travels to China

 Young peace builders from Lower Mekong countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand) met with Chinese young leaders in Nanning, Guangxi Province, China to learn about peace building theories and practices in depth and share their own experience in each context. They also built new relationships with practitioners from across China, including Guangxi Province, which is a key part of the Greater Mekong Region.

 Their goals were to:

  • Better understand peace building concepts and investigate root causes of conflict in the Mekong region;
  • Learn how to better facilitate and provide peace training for future Mekong Peace Journey participants and young people;
  • Gain knowledge, competencies and skills in public diplomacy and cross-border issues;
  • Learn from China’s developmental experience, and share with Chinese colleagues about the context in Lower Mekong countries;
  • Look for opportunities to collaborate on peace building with each other or civil society organizations in the region.

 The 10-day training and exchange was held at the Guangxi University of Nationalities, and implemented in partnership with the University’s ASEAN Center and the Charhar Institute (a Chinese think tank promoting people to people diplomacy with foreign countries).

 Building Common Knowledge about the Lower Mekong Region

 Participants built common knowledge about the context in China, and worked jointly through a range of workshops and simulations designed to enhance trust and strengthen their capacity as peace-builders. In particular, a module developed by AFSC on business and peace identified space for cooperation between Chinese and Lower Mekong based practitioners around engagement with investors on conflict sensitivity.

 AFSC has been promoting dialogue between investors and Mekong civil society, and supporting policy advisors, NGOs, and scholars to conduct research on conflicts related to overseas investment.

 “By participating in the Mekong Peace Journey, I got a chance to learn different contexts in Mekong countries, and now China,” said Sotheavy Srey, an MPJ leader from Cambodia. “The journey gave us a chance to become friends with people in other Mekong countries that we used to have misunderstanding and conflict with. The wrong perceptions divided us from one another and built a culture of hatred. When I learn about issues in other countries, I see how we share a commitment to building peace.”

 Li Li, a Chinese student from Guangxi University for Nationalities added:

 “It was a great pleasure to study and communicate with friends from Southeast Asia, and experience for the first time, their interactive way of teaching and learning. We gained a lot of knowledge about peace building and conflict through discussions, and shared feelings and concerns.”

 At the training, a case study about peace building and reconciliation processes in Myanmar gave participants a sense of the issues at stake for Myanmar people. Following over 60 years of civil war, Myanmar has recently made progress towards achieving peace, yet needs tremendous support from practitioners across the region.

 Southeast Asians gained perspectives on how civil society organizations are responding to development in China and learned the Chinese approach to overseas business investment, especially in Southeast Asia. They also considered re-framing Chinese and/or ASEAN behaviors and reactions to regional changes in a larger context of cultures and histories between them.

 Integrated throughout the program were workshops on practical tools for peace building, presented by Latumbo Lerio. Other presenters included scholars, Liu Cheng, Isaac Khen, Fan Honggui, and AFSC’s Jason Tower.

  Community Visits Lead to Understanding Chinese Contexts

 After the workshops, participants visited Tongxinyuan Social Work Center in Guangxi Province, where they learned how young Chinese volunteers are working to improve the education for children of migrant workers.

 Often when Chinese workers move from rural areas to the cities, they leave their children at home with maternal grandparents. Most children feel isolated, and lack parental support to attend or excel in school.

 However, when parents decide to take their children with them to cities, the urban residence registration system does not provide public schooling in their new location. In recent years, partnerships between government and civil society have developed to begin meeting some of these gaps.  

 “My impression is that civil society organizations work in a narrow space in China,” said Bo Pao, a Cambodia peace leader after visiting the community center. “The issue of migrant workers is similar to what we see in Cambodia, but differences in family culture and expectations gives the issues a context that calls for different solutions.”

 Young peace builders also visited the Green Salon, a group organized at Guangxi Medical University, founded by students who wanted to focus their attention on environmental protection. They were impressed to learn how Green Salon’s student campaigns raised public awareness on environmental protection projects, such as a campaign to recycle used batteries.

 Mekong Peace Journey Alumni Hone Skills To Support Future Leaders

 Besides being an exchange between Chinese and Southeast Asian peacemakers, the workshops brought together Mekong Peace Journey Alumni dedicated to training future youth leaders. 

 On past peace journeys, participants explored conflicts along borders, specifically between Cambodia-Thai, Thai-Myanmar and Cambodia-Vietnam. They examined the frameworks behind historical biases, political distrust, cultural prejudice, and an absence of mutual understanding, and attempted to design projects that reflect peace concepts, conflict prevention and resolution.

 Organized by Thai Volunteer Service Foundation (Thailand) and Working Group for Peace (Cambodia), the Mekong Peace Journey started in early 2011 as a pilot training program. From 2011 to 2013, the journey has led youth through three different countries and trained 78 young peace builders.

 As the program launches into its fourth year, alumni attending the China workshops were also trained to take a leading role in training and facilitating future peace journeys.

 “AFSC has brought not only financial support, but has also shared knowledge and experiences, and linked us to networks in Myanmar, Laos, and China,” said Supawadee Petrat, director of Thai Volunteer Services.  “With that, we have built a network bringing together young people in the region, and strengthened their sense of belonging, ownership and collective effort.”

 Inspired by Mekong Peace Journey experiences, alumni have organized local celebrations of International Day of Peace, Peace Walk, peace trainings, youth camps and dialogues on peace in ASEAN. Several have spoken and lead discussions at the ASEAN’s youth and people’s forums.

 Alumni have also written and published articles in local journals. One alumnus made a documentary series on cross-regional tensions between Cambodia and Thailand that aired on Thai Public Television. 

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