A Discussion with Emma Leslie, Director, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies
May 1, 2010
Background: This discussion with Emma Leslie took place in two parts, with two distinct areas of focus. A September 2009 discussion with Michael Scharff and Augustina Delanney was part of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) review of faith-inspired organizations' work in Cambodia and thus focused on how faith influences development action and thinking in Cambodia. The second, May 2010, discussion with Katherine Marshall and Susan Hayward, focused on women, religion, and peace. The discussion explores Leslie's background and sources of inspiration, and her reflections on the contemporary role of faith in Cambodia. She describes the various peace building networks she has worked on over the years and what she and colleagues have learned from the experience. She also reflects on interfaith work in Cambodia, and how religion is and is not linked to development. Then she addresses the special challenges of women working in conflict areas. She discusses how she sees CPCS's role in developing networks of peace actors, sharing knowledge, and advancing awareness at all levels of society on key issues surrounding peace.
Your background is the topic of various accounts (notably http://word.world-citizenship.org/wp-archive/1249) but could you give some highlights of how you came to be in Cambodia, and how you have become so deeply involved in issues for peace? Could you share a bit of your “faith biography,” since religion is so central to our inquiry?
I grew up, in Australia, very much in the Anglican Church. My grandfather was an Anglican Bishop, and the Christian life and culture were part of our world. I led youth groups, taught Sunday school, and was an active participant in our Anglican Church congregation. After university, I worked with Anglican organizations, including travelling with groups organized by the church to visit development projects in Asia. I was involved with the youth movement of the National Council of Churches in Australia, the Christian Conference of Asia and the World Council of Churches. Thus, I first came to Cambodia through these ecumenical organizations. So my formation and theological foundation for peace and justice was shaped through my being involved in these movements.
My passion for Cambodia, however, was shaped more through my school years. I remember as a child watching emaciated children on the television, who, I was told, were the ‘staving Kampucheans’ as they emerged from the Khmer Rouge years and were then further isolated by the Western world. In high school, it was Australian government policy that Australian children should study the history and politics of the Asia Pacific region. Through 1988 to '89 we had a school project to collect daily, news articles on Cambodia and make an ongoing analysis. These were the years leading up to Cambodia’s peace plan, and when Vietnam was withdrawing from Cambodia. By 18 years of age I knew the names of so many Cambodian politicians. So Cambodia by then had become my passion.
When I finally came to live in Cambodia in 1997 under an ecumenical internship (Frontier Interns in Mission), I found I was seeking something wider than the ecumenical movement could offer. Further, I was disillusioned by the politics and bickering of church structures and the vying for power amongst Church leaders involved in the ecumenical movement. At the same time, I had attended a course in the UK, called Working with Conflict, where 25 people from around the world of all faiths and backgrounds had spent three months trying to work on how to address conflicts nationally and internationally. I became convinced that we all needed each other to achieve true peace and justice. I think I started to become a humanist then, believing in the dignity of humanity and the whole inhabited earth, more than the doctrines I had been raised with.
You are now director of CPCS. How did you get started with the organization?
In 1996, a small number of us who had graduated from the UK course, including my now husband Soth Plai Ngarm and Baht Latumbo, felt strongly we need to develop a mechanism for Asian Peace practitioners. We were frustrated by a lot of the Western thinking and teaching which existed in the field, and as it was fairly new as a field in the region (compared to say human rights or community organizing) we wanted to have a space for practitioners to meet each other and support each other.
Many of us had been involved in other networks which were based on organizational membership and after some time had ceased to exist, as people lost interest or momentum. We felt strongly that our network should be based on a model of the Asian extended family, thus the emphasis being on the relationship first before the task. This also reflected our value as peace builders. The key was to develop core values which we all hold to be true and are common to our work as peace builders. Membership was made on an individual basis, regardless of which organization you might be working with at any given time. In this way, the network moves in and out of different organizations and structures, but stays with the individuals who hold the vision, passion, and long term commitment for building peace in their country, the region, and, of course, the world. People could become members at the suggestion of others in the network. So the membership grew slowly as members recognized other like minded, kindred spirits along the way.
As the network became stronger, there was a need to develop more structures, but we were cautious not to ‘kill’ the spirit of being an extended family. So we gathered those who had been highly motivated and active in building the network and called them the leadership. They meet every second year and set directions and priorities for the network to do its work. There is little bureaucracy or processes for laborious decision making. For now, people find it satisfying and inspiring. Perhaps in the future it will have to change.
We did, however, need a ‘formal’ structure through which grants could be received and which could serve as the legal entity for the network’s activities. In the first few years of the network, the Cambodian organization, the Alliance for Conflict Transformation, provided that structure. But as a small Cambodia focused organization, it was clear the network had grown too big and cumbersome for them to carry. So with ACT’s support we registered the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia as a legal organization, which is a home to the Action Asia network.
The Center for Peace and Conflict Studies has now been operating for almost three years. CPCS focuses on Asia From Afghanistan to Timor Leste. In addition to hosting Action Asia, the Center runs a Master’s program called Applied Conflict Transformation Studies (ACTS) here, where practitioners from the region come for residential seminars over a two year period and, in between, complete an action-research thesis based on their own work in their organization. The Center, through Action Asia, works alongside its members in many places, prominent among them East Timor, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India (Orissa and Manipur). While we have no direct involvement in Afghanistan, we have a special commitment to peace workers there to provide Cambodia as a venue for courses, retreats and exposure visits as required by our Afghan colleagues and network members.
What work do you do now on Cambodia per se?
In my current position as CPCS Director, I do not work directly on Cambodia, but I have lived here for a long time. I know many people, from longevity as much as anything. I see Cambodia as a center of learning for the rest of the region because, as you are well aware, there are so many experiences and issues here. Cambodia has faced genocide, a civil war, foreign occupation, UN peace keepers and administration, a peace process, and over the decade rapid development towards stability. Everything you might want to reflect on in terms of conflict and peace can be found in Cambodia, except perhaps people’s movements.
What do you see in terms of faith and faith-inspired work in Cambodia? How have you seen the role of Buddhism and of Buddhists change over the years you have lived in Cambodia?
The Dhammayietra Peace Walk is well known and has both an interfaith and a regional perspective. This Buddhist march has been somewhat less prominent in recent years, but during its first ten years it was very significant, a big deal. It helped to contribute to the enormous feeling in post-war Cambodia that indeed things had changed. There was calm, monks walked through their villages again, and villagers felt they could receive the blessings of the monks. This process was all about healing and reconciliation. It helped people who had been cut off from the rest for the country for so long to feel they were legitimate too.
In Cambodia (but with wider implications in the region), the Buddhist monk, Samdech Prean Maha Ghosananda (who died in 2007) has inspired and led a revival of Buddhist thinking and social action. He was and is recognized widely as the engaged monk, the peace monk. His work lives on in the form of the Dhammayietra Center in Battambang. Maha started the peace walks. The Dhammayietra Center today continues to sponsor walks, but in different ways. They have a project that involves walking with people who are HIV positive or have AIDS, which comes out of the teachings of Maha about compassion. There is a prison project in Battambang where they have gone and worked with prisoners and taught them his teachings and accompanied prisoners. Staff of the Center now teach at the Buddhist University in Battambang. The Dhammayietra Center is your grass-roots, community, living-out-the-teachings-of-a-Cambodian-Buddhist interpretation.
The traditions of engaged Buddhism in the region continue with the new Buddhist leadership. The current Buddhist Patriarch, Tep Vong, interestingly, has recently been trying to mediate in the Sri Lankan conflict.
How do you see the role of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and of Maha within that?
In the region, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) is the most active structured Buddhist formation and it has a very pragmatic character. Maha, the Dalai Lama, and some of the top Thai monks, are all connected to each other, support one another, and work for peace. The INEB is a very important structure, which is mostly, I believe, now facilitated out of Thailand. But people like Maha were really key in making that happen. It reflects deeply who Maha was and what he was able to achieve, and what good came out of that. But you can also see some of the limitations he faced. And now, people continue to try to carry on the work that he did and his teaching but that can only go so far without his personal leadership.
What do you see as trends for contemporary Buddhism in Cambodia? And what about interfaith work, given the diversity of the religious landscape in Cambodia today?
It is useful to distinguish three different approaches in what is happening in Cambodia in terms of religious organizations. There is a high level, let’s-get-all-the-representatives-of-religion-together, approach. There are various interfaith meetings along those lines, but that does not really work very well, because most of the faith traditions do not really have “heads.” Evangelical churches don’t have somebody at the top, and the Catholics don’t really have archbishops—they have, but the Church is very decentralized, and the way Catholicism has developed here is not very structured, though it has people like Father Ponchaud, who are widely respected. So an interfaith approach with nominal leaders has never really taken off, because it has been based on the flawed idea that you can put the pivotal people at the top together and get action.
A second level is less high level and more driven by practical action at a working level. That approach characterizes the work of the Cambodian NGO the Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT), whose approach was, “We’re not working with the top level people, it’s not an inter-faith dialogue, it’s action for inter-faith peace." The aim is to work in practical ways with people involved in their faith group, and bring them together to show what is possible. That involves a whole different layer.
And third, you have people who are just interested in working within their own groups, like Christians who will work with Christians, Buddhists with Buddhists, Muslims with Muslims.
In terms of non Buddhist faith-based work in Cambodia, the Christian organization Peace Bridges is a good Christian example of people coming out of a theological perspective and applying it in a certain situation. My understanding is that they wish they could work more on inter-faith, but there are some limits given their particular perspective.
A backdrop to the three different approaches is a culture here that is very hierarchical, with many levels of bias and complexity. It is useful to recognize that this sense of hierarchy as deeply embedded in Hindu-Brahman history. While they say Cambodia is a Buddhist country, most of the Buddhist practices people follow have strong Hindu traditions interwoven with them. In a wedding ceremony for example, the ceremony you go through is something you would normally see in India. Animism is still very strong; people still believe in spirits and ghosts and make offerings to trees and so on. And on top of these layers, built up over hundreds of years, of animist and Hindu structures, with people still thinking of the King as the God King, you add on a layer of Buddhism.
The Khmer Rouge retaliation against that hierarchical structure created such a high level of violence because people had been trapped inside this Hindu-Brahman framework. The Buddhist layer and other elements were shattered by genocide. You lost all the scholars of Buddhism. So what you are left with is what people remember they used to do when they were kids. In short, Cambodian religion today is a complex and fractured hodge-podge of Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, mixed up together.
We hear that one reason Thais look down on Cambodian Buddhists is that they see Cambodian Buddhism as lacking in purity.
That is true. For example, in Thailand, you would never take a photograph of a monk. Here, people couldn’t care less whether you take their photograph or not. In Thai society, ordinary people go into the monastery for reflection and become monks for a few weeks at a time. Here, it would never occur to people to do something like that. So the way that Buddhism practiced in Thailand is very much connected to daily life and culture. Here, it’s still people trying to work things out. You can see that everyone is partaking in the Pchum Ben holiday. People are trying to go to seven temples in this period and making offerings seven times. People think it is lucky and that it may give them better luck in the future. So in Cambodia, the practices tend to be much more about trying to sure-up what they think is their tradition.
Another influence you see here is Chinese Buddhism, which is different still. Cambodians love the notion that Chinese are very focused around the idea of prosperity. So the Buddhist statues that reflect that influence look quite different; the Buddha in China is about looking prosperous and getting money. In the thirteen years I have been here in Cambodia, people have begun practicing many more of the Chinese ceremonies than they used to, because they think the Chinese are wealthy and the Chinese are much better business people. It is a bit like hedging your bets; people try to do everything in order to make sure they are okay. And that’s why some people become Christians as well. I know one family in Siem Reap Province whose house burned down and the local church helped them. The father decided he’d better convert to Christianity because the Christians had helped him, but he kept the rest of the family Buddhist, just in case.
And that to me represents what’s very fundamental in this society: people living with this level of ambiguity. Nothing is black and white. And you see that through the history, you see that through the reconciliation processes, through development. Even the notion that the river flows in two directions—the Tonle Sap flows in one direction part of the year and then switches directions—shapes the ethos of who people are. The rest of us might say: “The river cannot flow in two directions, that’s impossible!” Cambodians can live with that.
How might Cambodia’s Buddhist heritage enable or perhaps hinder their ability to engage in peace building or reconciliation?
This complexity and deep ambiguity do come into play in many ways, including how religion is involved. But to date people have not used faith-based approaches for peacebuilding very strongly. Because the conflict has been so political, it has always been through political parties that people engage in any kind of critique. Religion is something on the side. That made ACT’s project on inter-faith peace building quite unique, and new.
In the last three to four years, the recognition that Muslims exist here, and have been here for a very long time, has increased, and so have efforts to engage them in the process. More importantly, there are new reports now about how disproportionately the Muslims were affected by the Khmer Rouge years. Their terrible suffering under the Khmer Rouge had never been acknowledged before. Most Muslims are ethnic Cham. Champa was an empire between Cambodia and Vietnam before it disappeared.
In the Khmer mentality, the relationship between the Cham today and their former empire helps to stimulate two thoughts. One is that it’s possible to disappear. That spurs the great fear and anxiety about Thailand taking our land, taking our temples, Vietnam encroaching on our borders; this springs from the fact that Khmers have a very concrete example in their psyche, that it’s possible to be wiped off the map and you can disappear just as the Champa Empire did. And secondly, people think that because the Cham are ethnically different, they are kind of leftovers from that time, and thus not relevant.
Any workshop we’ve ever done on nationalism or understanding our history has never accounted for a Christian perspective or a Muslim perspective. It is always a Khmer Buddhist perspective. The expression “Khmer Yerg” which means “our Khmer,” is often used in those discussions. If you ask, “What is our Khmer?” “Our Khmer” is always Buddhist, no matter what. You can never be anything else if you’re really Khmer. So Khmers that become Christians are considered to be traitors—not traitors, perhaps that’s too strong—but not really pure Khmer. People also say that if you are a Khmer who has lived overseas, then you are not a pure Khmer anymore. So the notion of “our Khmer,” pure Khmer, is tied up in the notion of what is Buddhist.
Do you see any visible signs of tension between Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians?
If you did a newspaper search of the last five years, you would find isolated incidents of violence breaking out around religion. And that’s again why ACT started their project. In Svay Rieng province, when the drought was really bad, people decided it was because the church had been built there. They burnt the church or destroyed the inside of the church. There was another incident in which the Buddhist statues in a temple went missing and nobody knew who to blame, so they blamed the Christian youth.
World Vision cited an incident where Muslim youths threw rocks at their vehicles.
That happened, yes.
The Cambodians working in World Vision primarily worked with Khmer Buddhist communities. They never saw the Vietnamese community or the Cham community as potential targets for their work. There is a study, which World Vision might or might not share with you, that highlights that for years and years, World Vision did so much development work, but because they have Khmer workers, those Khmer workers did not recognize that the aid was intended for all the different communities. Their fundamental assumption was that this aid is for Khmer, Khmer meaning Khmer Buddhists. So you can’t get away from this ethnic-religious thing all the way through your discussions. They discovered that even if the poorest people in the community were Vietnamese, they were never targeted. And there were a myriad of reasons why: “Those people get up too early so by the time we got to the village they were never there,” or, “We didn’t think we had permission from the director to speak to people who spoke other languages.
It was because of this tunnel vision, that ACT started to focus on ethnic nationalism, and its potential to become violent in the future. We came to appreciate how far the understanding of who is a member of society is rooted in the notion of Khmer Buddhism.
There was an incident in 2003 in which Cambodians burnt down the Thai Embassy. Somebody put into the newspaper a false, fabricated report which said that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. It made people completely crazy. In a period of 24 hours, Cambodians destroyed Thai businesses all over town and attacked the Thai Embassy. Cambodians with limited education and critical thinking skills did not realize that entering the Thai Embassy grounds and chasing the Thai Ambassador down the river was actually a declaration of war, in total violation of international law. On the Thai side, people start doing the same thing to the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok and the situation escalated. Luckily, the leaders of these countries, who have known each other for years, were able to calm things down.
But those of us working in peace building woke with a start because we had not seen this coming, despite all our analysis tools and discussions. We had all been talking about the Khmer Rouge, but we forgot to do our analysis on what is happening right now. Of course, everyone was talking about land conflict and the environment, but no one had been talking about these social relations between people. That is when ACT did their first ethnic-nationalism research, and we realized the huge differences that existed in perception amongst people of different ethnicities.
Out of this recognition of worrying trends in relationships among different faith as well as ethnic groups, we began to appreciate that we needed to focus more on faith perspectives and faith approaches. So simultaneously ACT, World Vision, YRDP (who constitute a sort of “peace gang”), who have good networks and relationships with each other, took on the notion of doing inter-faith peace building. Thus you see the development of inter-faith curriculums in peace education. ACT is now trying to put those curriculums into the Ministry of Education.
The burning of the Thai Embassy was a very critical moment ,when the peace organizations, at least, came to understand that we were not doing our job, that we were focusing on the past so much that we were not focusing on what is happening with people now. Even so, that whole story is so much grounded in the reasons from the past that you can’t separate them.
A working group for inter-faith peace was formed. They had a series of consultations and discussions and a couple of case studies came out of their work. One case study looked at Kampong Cham province, where the statues went missing from the temple and Christian youth were blamed. The working group on inter-faith peace went up to the province and investigated and talked to people and tried to get to the bottom of why this community had fallen apart down this religious line. They learned that the divisions stemmed from the fact that the church had been so aggressive in its push to try and convert people, that the temple felt threatened, and so when something went wrong in the temple, they blamed the Christian young people.
Have you found that Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims have different levels of understanding of their own religion?
Following the Thai Embassy situation, I sense that the recognition of issues has reached a point where there are many inter-faith activities. But, looking deeper, we also have realized that people do not know very much about their own faith. In the Muslim community, there is great tension between Muslims who have gone to study in Malaysia, and others who have studied in Saudi Arabia. They are learning two very different understandings of Islam. They are coming back to Cambodia and they are encountering the third type of Islam which is based heavily in an ethnic Cham version of Islam. So there are three interpretations of what is appropriate to be a Muslim right now. For the first time you see women fully covered in black, which you never saw before. Those are the guys who have been to study in Saudi Arabia and have come back and told the women they must dress like that. Those who have been to Malaysia are much more liberal about women, but they still come back with a different perspective. In one Cambodian mosque, they put a curtain down the middle and practiced the same Friday prayers on each side of the curtain with two Imams preaching over loudspeakers, competing with one another. That’s how treacherous it got in the Islamic community.
What we came to realize through the inter-faith work is that we need to go back to each faith group. That’s why Peace Bridges is important. It works within the Christian community to have a perspective on what is the Christian contribution to society. The Network of Engaged Buddhists does the same sort of thing, as does the Cambodia Islamic Youth Association. One person who was formerly involved with the Cambodian Islamic Youth Association recently became an under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Education. The Muslim community is excited because they think that now some of their faith-based ideas will get into the government curriculum. Everyone is pursuing faith-based work. But at the same time they realize that people need to go back to their faith group and work to understand more what their own faiths means. Muslims, because they are a minority group, keep on teaching and teaching. Muslims are more likely to learn about their faith versus Buddhists, because Buddhism is considered so much a part of the Cambodian culture that there is a feeling that it doesn’t need to be taught.
This is particularly important when it comes to development work.
Can we turn the subject to your work on conflict. What is your main focus?
There are two main pieces. The first is maintaining the Asia regional network, which has 400 or so members. It aims to communicate, share advice, help with training, and develop materials. Second, there is the masters program, for peace practitioners; it serves women especially. This program is different from the classic model, where people go away for two full years and then come back as experts. For many reasons this model is problematic, and many become disconnected from their communities in the process. Women find it especially difficult to break away for an extended period to pursue a traditional graduate program. So our program breaks the program into a series of two weeks in residence in Cambodia, every three months, interspersed with work and reflection in the home community in between. Many find this both more manageable and more effective.
How is religion part of the network and the program?
Neither the network nor the masters program is at present in any way described as religious. But your effort to look at the role of religion and of women and religion is important and it suggests that we should ask the question of how it fits more explicitly.
In the past, there has been a tendency not to talk about religion, in the network and in workshops. But more and more we are hearing, especially from women who are active in conflict work, that it is from their religion that they have derived much of their inspiration and the way they frame what they do. Many in the network had their formation in a religious framework. One woman from Burma, for example, was raised as a strong Baptist, led services, preached, and taught in a theological college. That empowered her to be a leader and gave her the skills that allowed her to take on peace work. The same is true for some Buddhist women, from Sri Lanka for example, who have found that their work with monks has inspired them. And Dekha Ibrahim would describe her framework as drawing much from her faith. Her Islamic background has equipped her for her work. We hear this more and more, not so much in formal presentations, but in the off the record informal chats over coffee, where women share how they see their work. Religion keeps coming up.
I have seen that women in our network who are inspired by their faith to do peace work are more inclined to see and reach out to the religious sector as a resource or partner for their on-the-ground peace work. One thing that has been interesting, I think, for our women from Sri Lanka—one Buddhist, one Hindu, one Christian—is the manner in which they have shared a feeling of being isolated from their respective religions because of their radical positions---radical in sense of their politics, to some degree, but also because of their strong voice and bold peace work.
Religion is also relevant as we look at some of the gaps we see in approaches and in our understanding of both conflict and peace. It is relevant to the way we are finding that we need approach the younger women coming along behind. Many of them also come out of a strong religious perspective. How do we foster and nurture that if we are not talking about what is important and relevant to them? And when we do focus on religion, how do we do so in a way that does not alienate or exclude secular young women?
Have you explored this in any systematic way?
Not really. We have not really thought of it. But, reflecting now, the women who are most active do most often hold on to their faith identity. And more and more they seem to be reluctant to do what we have done in the past, which is to leave your faith perspective at the door when entering peace workshops. That still is the general approach in the peace world: don’t bring in the religious perspective because that is not politically correct. We can talk about ethnic diversity, and engage across those lines and discuss ethnic identity, but religion? No. We don’t know how to engage religion. Yet our colleagues go off to pray, alone in a separate room. We know that they are praying, that they are Muslim, but we have not engaged, together, with that dimension. It is an elephant in the room, and because we fear engaging it, we tend not to go deeper. It may be because of the sensitivities around the “War on Terror” or other factors. But in a sense we are still afraid of religion.
What about the interfaith programs you have been involved with in Cambodia?
These have really been pretty basic so far but even that has made a difference. The programs started because the trainers became aware that people were genuinely reluctant or afraid to engage in interfaith activities because they lacked practical understanding of their counterparts’ religions. They were afraid of embarrassing themselves by doing the wrong thing when entering into another’s sacred space What ritual acts should you mimic? How should a non-Buddhist address a monk? Must you bow? What do you do in a church? A mosque? How can you be both polite and respectful and authentic? When you cross over these mysterious boundaries towards the “other”, what should you do and how should you behave? A major step forward, therefore, was to demystify. And this has proved very important in laying a foundation for vibrant peace building in Cambodia. People are not anxious anymore about these unknowns. But it is really about very basic, concrete, practical, hard core knowledge and guidance.
Going a little deeper, members of the network have gained from digging deeper into those elements of their religious traditions that have made them feel disempowered, and disparaged. In Sri Lanka, Dishani Jayaweera recognized that in the early phases of her work she had no self confidence when working with Buddhist monks. She worried that they would treat her as a lesser being because of her gender and because she is a lay person. She thought she’d be disempowered by working with monks. But she found that the monks respected her because she brought them new information. And, because she was teaching them something useful, they came to look up to her. This gave her a great deal of confidence and a sense of empowerment. At the beginning of her work with monks, however, she needed to talk about how to dress and how to speak to monks.
The process is really about building trust. And it takes time. It takes time to overcome inherited stereotypes in order to know how to be heard, and to understand better how we stereotype each other.
This kind of formation is very different in different places. For example, it can be very different in India, almost the reverse. Christian and Hindu women, both, can be very forthright and unafraid, and some of their East Asian colleagues find that surprising. But the experience of mixing groups, by culture and religion, often works well. In India, having a Sri Lankan and a Nepali trainer proved to be positive, and some commented that having a Hindu preaching peace in a Muslim community was in itself a powerful message, the more so because she was a woman.
Delving into tricky territory, are there any generalizations you could make about differences between men and women in this peace-building field?
One thing is very clear, that for women relationships have great importance. And that means that the networks are a critical means. We’ve actually found that the men seem to be the most excited by the communication aspect of the network and the relationship-building, because it is new for them. For women, this aspect is natural and already highly important to them.
What lessons do you see emerging from your experience with networks?
We have invested a lot in learning about how to build meaningful and useful networks, and we are learning all the time. One lesson is that we establish strict rules from the beginning, on who joins and how we manage communication. This has particular importance for people in sensitive, tense situations, where communications can be not only a nuisance but simply dangerous. Another lesson we found is that having someone in a network representing an organization does not work well. People move on, the new person is not integrated well, and the momentum and energy and above all the trust and relationships are dissipated. So membership in our networks is personal and individual. It does not matter who you are working for or where you work.
When we set out to build networks in Asia, our model was the extended family. And we have consulted with our core members about what they value and their concerns.
Also important is the basic vision and values which we have set out from the start. The emphasis in the network is on relationship building, and thus on trust and connection. The idea is to build a network where people can help and support each other in the conflict situations where they work.
And in a network focused on peace building, our members have been very clear that they prefer a model where we moderate closely, where messages are sent out from the center. There is no “reply to all” function. This is because we heard from those in our network, when we surveyed them about their communication desires, about experiences in the past with networks in which the discussions became overly politicized and controversial. Folks hit “reply-all” and sent messages to all sorts of people, some of whom they weren’t aware were receiving the messages, and controversies arose. In person, that kind of free discussion is fine. But when it is not face to face it can simply create problems.
What is the gender balance in the Action Asia network? The Masters program?
I don’t really know, but it may be around 50/50. It is not a question we have asked. And in the masters program there are somewhat more women.
We are finding that in both the men are finding it rather liberating to build relationships. But it clearly not the norm in peace building circles. Some of my colleagues recently went to an AUSAID organized workshop, and were rather shocked by the hard tone and focus on “harder” subjects. The effort was to focus on the task at hand, with little attention to what lay behind.
My colleagues were horrified, because conflict is about attitudes and relationships. Justice and structure are important, of course, but what lies behind is almost always prejudices, attitudes, and the other software stuff. They were horrified that there was not even an effort to create a space to discuss these dimensions.
Do you see any tensions between women coming from secular and from religious traditions?
No, very rarely. However, people’s approaches and behavior do vary somewhat by region and country—the splits are more pronounced in India, for example. And there was a case of an Afghan man who was genuinely uncomfortable about what women were wearing in training sessions. But between women it almost never happens. And the women who are part of the network tend to bring to it their skills and strengths in relationships.
But that is where our effort to focus on vision and values has been so important. Having a common vision means that people sign on (to Action Asia, for example) because they are committed to a sense of working for the way they want the world to be, and for that does it really matter what your religion is, or is not? The common values for peacebuilding are the shared ground between secular and religious women. And in this, peacemaking, I think, actually provides more of a rich soil for shared ground with respect to values of coexistence, respect, nonviolence than some other related fields, such as development.