Much to my chagrin a friend pointed out that I misspelled the topic of my last post (since corrected). Ceasing, the word I first used, is to hold back from doing, disappear slowly and end activity while seizing is grab, take, catching and forceful holding. Now, I could claim travel fatigue as I wrote that posting during my 48 hour transit through Asia. I could further claim jet lag from shifting my bio-rhythms 12 time zones. Or I could just be forthright that spelling is not one of my strong suits.
But upon deeper reflection, perhaps this Freudian slip actually illuminates an important dynamic of power. In some ways we are all powerful by virtue of the life force and breath each of us exercises. And to cease manifesting this power is to cease living. In this context seizing power is to claim the divine right to live and move and have our being on this planet. Seizing power is to exercise our creativity and imagination to overcome problems confronting us as individuals.
In the political and social sphere seizing power is almost synonymous to ceasing power. To overpower, force through coercion and violence, is an indicator of imaginative defeat. The exercise of violence is an admission that we are not powerful enough to devise respectful life affirming solutions. Seizing power is to cease to draw upon the serendipitous creativity that the universe has in unlimited supply.
My routing home from MPI was through Thailand. The country has been paralyzed by a political polarization that sees the red shirts pitted against the yellow shirts. Right before I came to the Philippines, the Thai Supreme Court ousted the prime minister, sister of the former ousted prime minister and supported by the red shirts who are largely rural. The yellow shirts…those tired of corrupt politics are largely urban and have powerful allies in the Thai Supreme Court. It is complicated. It always is. Simple conflicts do not usually reach this level of polarization and intractability if they are actively transformed.
The Thai generals took power to break the impasse that was paralyzing the country but it is not yet clear if they have a plan to put the country back on the road to democracy. The last time they seized power was in 2006 when I and a Mindanao colleague were passing through to Laos to conduct a workshop.
Not much on TV in Bangkok…mostly this screen reminding us of who is in control.
My question is the implications of a long term reliance of ‘power over’ to break deadlocks in the political arena. What kind of precedent does this set? Does it truncate the slow, plodding methodical task of building the institutes of democracy? These types of answers are beyond my pay grade. I suppose my colleagues at Etown College in the Political Science Department have better historical and sociological research at hand to address this.
One thing I know from my 30 years of observing the use of violence to effect positive, sustainable change is that the use of coercive militaristic power to solve problems never delivers what it promises.
Retired Archbishop Capalla came to our class today and spoke of his role in bringing leaders from Islam and Christianity together in support of peace in Mindanao. Speaking of years of personal relationship building across conflict lines he related a story of one dialogue that became stuck and bogged down. In the middle of this heaviness, they all decided to go for a picnic at the beach. This time for ‘play’ gave the talks some new energy and broke down some barriers.
The Archbishop, when asked what he feared for the peace agreement, said “war is business.” Peacemakers are an obstacle to the arms trade. The Archbishop has had 4 attempts on his life. The miraculous nature of his survival attests to a higher power on the side of peace.
“Look around the world and see the bad things being done” he summarized, “do the bad things being done outnumber the good being done? I don’t think so otherwise we would have all been overwhelmed a long ago. I believe in the capacity of the human being to change.”
MPI Religion Class with retired Archbishop Capalla in the center in white shirt
The Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) has now into its 15th year. Over that time there has been an amazing continuity in the facilitation team which has seen the same international and Filipino facilitators each year while mentoring a younger group of facilitators.
As I ate breakfast this morning I, as an American, was sharing a table with a Filipino, Kenyan, Japanese, Fijian, Canadian and Solomon Islander. We were talking about all our years of coming to MPI and the learning we bring from the past year of practice. I was struck by the beauty of diversity around the table plus the global perspective represented by colleagues who practice of peacebuilding in such a plethora of conflict situations. That common perspective gives us a common, international language that resonates deep in human hearts regardless of our nationality. We come each year to MPI having new experiences from the past year and applying that to our own classroom settings.What a rich trove of wisdom from these ‘elders’ of peacebuilding.
Paulo, Mike, Babu and Chris
What I would like to see is funding that brings these sages together for a retreat as a kind of sabbatical reflection where the collective wisdom of the group could contribute toward the larger global move toward peace.
ICCN 10th anniversary gathering
(Chito, in yellow shirt, is on the right)
My friend Chito, a committed nonviolent activist since the days that ‘People Power’ overthrew the Marcos Dictatorship in the mid 1980’s, started his own NGO called the Interfaith Center for Conciliation and Nonviolence (ICCN) 10 years ago. Being relatively new to the Philippines in 2004, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend and ended up giving the key note address at the launching of this organization.
Now 10 years later, Chito is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the ICCN and I happened to be traveling through Manila on the very day of the commemoration. As he reminisced about the activities of the past 10 years I realized anew what a unique and cutting edge work the ICCN is doing. From mediating disputes between indigenous peoples to training paramilitary forces in alternative dispute resolution skills, the ICCN has a vision for a world where nonviolence is the way to transform conflicts.
Training paramilitary in mediation
This last activity, training paramilitary, was a project I was privileged to be a part of in 2012. We trained 40+ paramilitary soldiers in mediation. These men, recruited from their own home areas as “force multipliers for the Philippine military, are often the ones called on to help solve disputes. Many of them are stationed in contested areas where there is an absence of any other face of government. Soft power skills such as mediation and negotiation skills are filling the gap between the use of hard power and non-action.
I hope to be at the ICCN 20 year anniversary to review an even more impressive list of accomplishments.
I am ready for my annual trip to the southern Philippines. This trip routing is rather long, 72 or so hours from waking to arrival in Davao, the venue for the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute Training (MPI). This is my 13th time to be a part of this wonderful event but it was almost not to be. A medical condition threatened to ground this multi-country trip. In the end, I am salvaging enough to fulfill a minimum of my obligations and anticipations.
I am intending a different kind of travel Zen. It occurs to me that I always try to be a “self contained island” as I travel these busy, transient pathways of airports, seats with only a 31 inch pitch and cellophane wrapped airline food. Enough battery life in my laptop to be productive on trans-oceanic flight segments, throat lozenges for stopped up ears on descent and a clean pair of socks, have been some of my feeble attempts to carry-on the contingencies of long duration flight.
What I desire on this trip, having come face to face with my own physical fragility is to look to others, opening a space for human compassion. Even if no words are spoken to my seatmates of 12 hours, my intention is to be the kind of person who radiates and receives the life force of human empathy and blessing.
In a loosely associated reference to the book 3 Cups of Tea book by Gregg Mortenson, chronicling the importance of relationship in building in Pakistan, I have been drinking lots of water with religious leaders in Laos. At each meeting a 350ml bottle of Tigerhead water, bottled by Lao Brewing Company, is placed before us in an act of hospitality. Sipping the water is not a bad idea in this hot tropical climate. It keeps one hydrated.
Three cups of tea or bottles of water is a metaphor for the time it takes to form trusting, durable relationships. With the first bottle, one demonstrates a presence…just being there. With the second bottle, one has the entree to engage in small talk which deepens the relationship. The third bottle gives license to broach topics in conversation more sensitive in nature. It is not the actual number of bottles or cups but the symbolic drinking together in solidarity.
Conflict… the kind I am interested in…is about the quality and strains of relationship. It stands to reason, then, that investment of time in relationship is the basis for transforming conflict.
“Even the name of the group reflects a cultural relevance, deeply resonant with the surrounding Buddhist culture” commented Steve, the architect of the project I am working on in Laos. Mittapab, meaning friendship in Lao language, is a group of youth who train school students in communications techniques, dealing with diversity and respect…among other topics that work at conflict transformation.
Mittapab is building the kinds of capacity in the next generation of leaders in a country where indirectness and respect of traditions are important virtues. With the speed of change happening in here, youth are being torn between traditional ways and the trappings of materialism. Confidence and self esteem are named as the chief benefits to those who have experienced the Mittapab training. This confidence helps them better navigate a balance between the impatient energies of youth and the staid wisdom of the elders.
I am challenged here in Laos. The models and frameworks I use in North America all have a problem oriented starting point. While in Laos, “everyone knows there are problems but an appreciative approach is much more useful in promoting change” Steve added. Mittapab is quietly adding positive energies of personal transformation not agitating the resistance of the negative.
How does one introduce a country of 6.5 million people, made up of 49 different ethnic groups, located in South East Asia? With a reputation of being most heavily bombed place on earth from the Vietnam/American war, this beautiful country has a challenge facing many places I have worked in the past 20 years.
Bordering Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and China the official name is Laos People’s Democratic Republic. This former French Colony achieved independence in 1953 and very quickly got embroiled in the cold war polarity of the times.
A threatened alignment with the North Vietnamese ensured that the Americans, operating out of air bases in Thailand, put Lao revolutionaries in their cross hairs during bombing runs into Vietnam either as primary targets or secondary if the prime targets in Vietnam were clouded over. This secret bombing campaign conducted from 1964 through 1973 by the United States, flew more than half a million sorties over Laos — one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More than 2 million tons of ordnance was unloaded on the countryside, double the amount dropped on Nazi Germany in World War II.
Unexploded ordinances (UXO) in the form of large bombs and small anti-personnel cluster munitions are still killing civilians due to the dud rate of nearly 30%. While UXO continue to complicate rural development 40-50 years later, there are new challenges beyond that national trauma Laos has endured.
That challenge is transforming a mostly rural, traditional cultural based identity into a cohesive cosmopolitan state that has capacity to absorb the winds (typhoons!) of change brought about by a globalized world. It is that context that I will be focused on in a series of four visits in 2014.
Greetings from Lao PDR. I am making a quick trip here at the invitation of the Mennonite Central Committee to do an assessment of an emerging project that has elements of religious diversity, training youth in communications skills and respect as well as curriculum writing. This is the first trip of four that is planned for the coming year.
Dodging a snowstorm by a few hours, I landed 36 hours later in a place I had not been to since 2006. The changes in Vientiane are dramatic with building happening everywhere, infrastructure enhancements and tourists thick on the street.
I hit the ground running the day of my arrival in Laos by meeting with Buddhist and Muslim leaders who are interested in the effort to enhance interreligious understanding. This is going to be a fascinating project that has great potential to contribute positively to a country that has overcome many challenges in the past 50 years. More on that in the next post.