On Aug. 6, 2005, John Kares Smith (C64, GC65, 74) was in Hiroshima, Japan, at a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. He was there as a guest of his former high school classmate and longtime friend, Tadatoshi Akiba, the mayor of Hiroshima.
In a lecture that he delivered on his return, Smith asked, “What can we learn from Hiroshima? First, regardless of the rightness or morality of what happened that August morning, the result is a human tragedy of overpowering importance. Second, we learn that peace is not the absence of war, nor is it the spoils that go to the victors.
“As citizens of the world and of Hiroshima, we need to learn how to wage peace more than how to wage war. For, as the Hibakusha [those who survived the blast] had learned more than 60 years ago, we now live with a level of violence unheard of in previous generations. We need a better way of settling our differences. Civilization as we know it depends on it.”
Smith teaches a course in conflict management at the State University of New York at Oswego and is a professional mediator. He has written and lectured widely on the topics of conflict, war and peace and human rights.
“I prefer to say I teach conflict management, not conflict resolution, for the simple reason that many conflicts will not get resolved, but they can at least be managed,” he says. “The Chinese symbol for ‘conflict’ is made up of two separate symbols. One means danger, and the other one means opportunity. Conflicts always present us with obvious dangers but also with sometimes not-so-apparent opportunities for growth and development as well.”
Susan Hubbard (WCAS93) took those concepts to her work with the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York City. From 2001 to 2004 she co-directed a program that taught conflict resolution and promoted unity among 12 of the non-Burman ethnic groups in Myanmar. The sessions took place in Thailand, near the border with Myanmar.
Myanmar is ruled by one of the most repressive military regimes in the world. Hubbard’s work had an eye toward the day when that regime is no longer in power.
One facet of the program involved working with about 30 young men and women identified as emerging leaders in their communities. Another brought together established leaders who wanted to identify and understand their shared interests in order to present a more unified voice internationally and ensure that their ideas could be included when the country eventually moves toward democracy.
The task was made easier because the groups had expressed a desire to work together and had invited Hubbard’s team to help them work through the process. Their goal, Hubbard says, “was to resolve their own differences so that they could unite behind the cause of a peaceful transition to democracy in their country.”
But their differences were significant. “Some had their own state prior to colonization, and some were more marginalized groups living within different ethnic states,” says Hubbard. “Some were large groups known to the international community, and some were much smaller and generally unheard of.” They professed different religions, spoke different native languages and did not agree on what form the new government should take.
“Still, there was a recognition that their experiences and their dreams were more similar than they were different, and I never got the impression that any of them thought that working together would be impossible.”
Hubbard and her team provided the participants with examples of approaches that have worked in similar situations, created a safe and neutral space for them to work and helped elicit from them what they wanted in their society and discuss where their ideas differed and where they came together. Progress was slow but steady.
“Every time I went back to Thailand, I found that they were working more in mixed-ethnic groups toward various goals,” says Hubbard, who now works at the Japan Center for International Exchange in New York City. “And at the political level the leaders’ dialogue has shown some in the international community that the ethnic groups are working together and should not be shut out of any future democratization and peace-building process. There are many factors contributing to these changes, but we hope our program made some small contribution.” — T.S.