Wasith Dejkunjorn’s novel transports readers to a geography that is painted with competing imageries between the crescent and the lotus.

BY verbal consensus, nobody would oppose peace. And the frequent use of the word “peace” may in itself be peace-productive. “Peace” was everywhere at the recent Asia-Pacific Peace Research Association Conference held on the grounds of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang.

Organised by USM’s Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, the deliberations brought together some 80 scholars and advocates from various countries to continue the conversation for peace research for a better world.

Papers presented portrayed a diverse range of themes and issues from promoting peace education to addressing and redressing traumas of wars and massacres in the modern period. There were also concerns about high levels of state dysfunction and paralysis, escalating political extremism and the growing face of right wing populism. One suggested challenging the democratic project and enlightenment values through particular attention to dominatory and authoritarian processes.

The speaker, Kevin Clements, chair and director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand, proposed a new paradigm captured in the politics of compassion at the regional and global levels. As such, he asked what peace research and peace researchers must do in operating within the paradigm in the region and the world of diversity and complexity.

In relation to the paradigm was the proposal for “nonkilling” in Asia as a peace research agenda. The book, Nonkilling Global Political Science, by Glenn Paige of the University of Hawaii, has received global attention since its publication in 2002. The term now appears in The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace (2010), Unesco’s Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (2004) and the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict (2008).

Paige’s book has since been translated into 28 languages including Tamil, Bahasa Indonesia, Filipino, Thai, Nepali and Korean. The speaker proposing the agenda, Dr Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political science professor at Thammasat University in Thailand, who describes himself as a non-violence/peace researcher, sees what he has done conforming to both Paige’s nonkilling idea, and Johan Galtung’s construct of peace, as an absence of structural and cultural violence. Chaiwat was also referring to his study on protecting sacred spaces and the lives of imams, monks, priests and rabbis in particular.

Chaiwat’s earlier study in 2012 appeared in an article titled Sacred Spaces and Accursed Conflicts: A Global Trend? published in Peace & Policy: Dialogue of Civilizations for Global Citizenship, an annual journal by the Tokyo-based Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research. It begins with the description of violence against mosques and monks in Southern Thailand, and contains data collected on violence against sacred spaces around the world between 2009 and 2010. He makes out a case where violence engenders further violence.

He argued that the notion of sacred spaces, as a special geography, is vulnerable especially to ethnoreligious and other sectarian conflicts. In understanding violence against sacred spaces, it is instructive to recall the influences of the geographic environment — how geography influences human behaviour. I belabour for a moment on the foresight of my University of Minnesota professor, Robert Lindsay, when 31 years ago, he suggested an enquiry into the effects of geography on human behaviour and the human condition.

Intellectual inquiry across the disciplines has understated the power of geography over human societies. We should remind ourselves that there are particular geographies that lead to particular kinds of logic, ways of seeing, and ways of being in the world. Along the same lines, Edward Said in 1993, argued that “(N)one of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle of geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons, but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.”

Chaiwat gives an example of how a particular geography affects a way of being in the world through a novel about violence in Southern Thailand by Thai author Wasith Dejkunjorn, a retired police general with close ties to the palace. The novel renders a Thai government official’s feelings through the protagonist, Taron — “a feeling so ‘truthful’ under the shadow of violence and present-state structure”.

And I cite from the Thai language novel: “Reaching Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun, Taron feels as though he sets his feet in a foreign country. Apart from Thai language with an annoying accent spoken around him, the Malay language used is definitely alien to him. Not only does the sound of the South bother his ears, its sight also disturbs his eyes. What is seen everywhere is the Islamic mosques that impede and compete with Buddhist temples, at time the former dominates the latter (translation by Chaiwat Satha-Anand).”

From the lines above, Taron was transported to a geography that is painted with competing imageries between the crescent and the lotus. Socialisation, social reproduction, historical impositions, cultural domination, or similar concepts could be invoked to account for how one’s perception is shaped. Chaiwat argued that part of the imagination lies in the notion of “the sacred” itself and the ways in which “the sacred” connects with and transforms space.

Peace research is not only conflict resolution, the peace processes, mediating trauma, and reconciling the past. It is also advocating the moral compass. It penetrates into the layers of internal peace (sejahtera), the need to make peace with ourselves as the speakers — former USM vice chancellor Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak and Penang-based peace advocate Datuk Anwar Fazal, winner of the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) — have put it. As long as the internal self is at peace, the external reflection will remain so, and vice versa.

Malaysia is fertile ground for the expansion and perpetuation of peace research and advocacy in the universities and other research institutions. It is a growing field to be participated by our young scholars.

And we must not forget the many sacred spaces in the nation, where unfamiliarity will only breed a frightening and irrational experience in the feeling of terror before the sacred. This emanates an overwhelming superiority of power and religious fear.

Researching Malaysia is not only in the absence of war or violent aggression, but in factoring in and coming to terms with the notion of the religious experience of otherness, and what Mircae Eliade, philosopher and historian of religion, once coined as hierophany to characterise “the act of the manifestation of the sacred” especially in some ordinary objects or artifacts because the objects become no longer what they are, but something else, precisely because they are hierophanies. This requires scholars researching and advocating peace be allowed themselves to be re-enchanted with the various manifestations of the sacred, and of geographical localities, mindful of the value-free orthodoxy in the research ethos.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at ahmadmurad@usm.my

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