14 Jan, 2016
Bangkok – A central question that dominated the symposium on “Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence in Multicultural Societies” was how and why an increasingly globalised, inter-connected world is failing to live up to one of its primary projected objectives: More peaceful, harmonious, sustainable, inclusive societies and communities.
All world religions, global institutions, governments, societies and communities were supposedly designed to achieve those lofty aims. In spite of that, the speakers repeatedly asked, why is the world is experiencing so much conflict and instability?
Some thought-provoking solutions came from three distinguished speakers: Venerable Phra Anil Sakya, Ph.D., Faculty of Social Sciences, Mahamakut Buddhist University, Thailand; Tan Sri Dato Dr Syed Hamid Albar, former minister of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia; and Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN Secretary General and Foreign Minister of Thailand.
Phra Anil said the main problem today is that religions have become both a cause and victim of conflicts. “The aim of every religion is to make all peaceful. But what have we done to this world? This is the responsibility we have to take. We have to think hard about it. We are very good at pointing at someone else. But whenever we point one finger at someone else, three fingers are pointed at ourselves.”
He added, “I regard myself as a man of peace. My role is a symbol of peace but it is getting more difficult to convey the message of peace in the world. We are good at talking about peace. It has become new, fashionable thing to do. Every public talk, political speech, all are citing the word peace.
“But sometime I wonder, what do we really mean by peace. Are we just against war, conflict or something different? We all love peace, but practically we will not give up anything for peace. When we meet each other, we use sweet and flowery language but in reality we are seeing conflict in silly things. It is hard to give up our own ideology for peace. So is peace our ultimate goal? I don’t think so…”
Phra Anil offered a stark reminder that sooner or later, some kind of sacrifice becomes inevitable, often after the damage is done.
“If we get cancer, we will have to undergo painful surgery to remove the cancerous part. But in the name of peace are we ready to give up anything? I wonder whether peace is another word which does not mean anything to us. It is a nice term to generate good feeling – ‘Have A Good Day, Happy New Year.’ We don’t know what peace means. We have our own agenda, self interest. We want peace for ourselves, not for others.
“In Buddhism, the word ‘nirvana’ means finding peace. Islam also means the same. Both mean peace. So, we have to define, educate the world. How can we make sure that it is not just a generic term?”
His simple but very practical and effective solution: “Be faithful to your own religion but focus on the shared gains of common humanity.”
Tan Sri Dato Dr Syed Hamid Albar cited the same need to rise above individuality and territoriality. He noted that in spite of globalisation and economic inter-connectivity, countries and governments were still largely driven by national self-interests and agendas.
“We are not embracing diversity or celebrating our commonality. We are not looking ourselves as a members of a human community but as groups of identities. When Malaysia became independent, everyone said it would be a failed state as the people live in their own silos — Malays in rural areas, Chinese in urban areas and Indians in the estates.” He said Malaysia had used its slogan, “Unity in Diversity” to bring the various ethnic groups together for a common cause, without which it would not have been possible to get this far.
Today, he said, the same formula needs to be applied within the framework of the ASEAN integrated community. “You cannot be a community if you are still state-centered. Seeking a people-centric and people-centered ASEAN community is a declaration. I would like that to be translated to create common grounds of cooperation among the people. We still don’t understand each other’s culture, language and religion. Without understanding you cannot overcome misunderstanding.”
In turn, Dr Surin Pitsuwan cited the prevalence of “impunity” in global governance and the inequitable application of the rule of law as a root cause of conflict.
He said, “Without equity and justice and rule of law, no society, religious community, no civilisation can live in peace within itself or outside. We have so many problems with the rule of law everywhere. Laws cannot be enforced and practiced. In many societies, there are privileges, patronage, inequalities and existing structures that do not allow equal participation. Many societies are suffering. You commit mistakes and crimes, but you are protected because of the impunity instituted within the system. No-one is held responsible. So, one community, one people can go on exploiting their own without (being held accountable). That has to be changed.
“We have to look within ourselves. There should be equity, justice and space for all of us, not as members of any one community but as human beings. If we can be open about it, there is hope to find peace and accommodation. Diversity is here to stay, the challenge is how to harness it as a human family,” Dr Surin said.
Dr Surin referred to the symposium as an historic event for both Thailand and ASEAN. Another speaker referred to it as an ice-breaking event.
Organisers are already mulling the possibility of expanding the next symposium to an ASEAN level. It was noted that ASEAN provides the perfect platform for inter-faith dialogue, the 10-member grouping comprising of the largest Islamic-majority country (Indonesia), one of the largest populations of Buddhists (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), and one of the largest Catholic-majority countries (the Philippines).