Crossing the divide

An extraordinary meetings of minds will take place in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines next month as the Bridges programme makes its third visit to the region

Paul Brisby
October 10, 2009

An extraordinary meetings of minds will take place in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines next month as the Bridges programme makes its third visit to the region

Five-year-olds are prone to talk about it, as are winners of beauty contests. Pop stars sing about it and politicians often turn to it, especially as a justification for war. The idea of world peace has been a constant mantra to our times, but making it more than only words has so far eluded us. Whether between individuals, families, societies, countries or religions, peace has been hard to find. 

From this November and over the following months, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines will host a series of talks by individuals who hope to bridge that divide and create a world where peace can jump from the placards and the negotiating table and become a reality. Their message, unlike that of immature idealists and elated beauty contestants, is unlikely to be dismissed with an indulgent smile. 

As one of the visiting speakers, Hong Kong actor and filmmaker Jackie Chan says: “To me peace means everyone living in harmony, helping each other and caring for each other. It shouldn’t matter if people are black, white, yellow or red; we are all human beings and we need to have tolerance and acceptance of our differences.” 

Uwe Morawetz, Chairman with her royal highness pricess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and IPF staff members at the Thai royal palace
Uwe Morawetz, Chairman with her royal highness pricess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and IPF staff members at the Thai royal palace

First launched in Thailand in 2003, Bridges – Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace is a series of public lectures by Nobel laureates and leading personalities in international politics, business and the arts, such as Jackie Chan, Oliver Stone, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Dr Jose Ramos-Horta. 

The aim of Bridges is to foster communication and collaboration between representatives of science, politics, economics, culture, religion and all sections of southeast Asian society, especially its youth. It also aims to establish long-term relationships with local universities, leading to shared research programmes and other collaborations. 

The initiative is the brainchild of Uwe Morawetz, chairman and co-founder of the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF), a non-profit, non-political and non-religious organisation that with the help of 21 Nobel prize-winning patrons has organised more than 1,000 international education-based peace programmes in the past 20 years. 

As well as providing a forum for dialogue, the IPF has started programmes of reconstruction in Kosovo, assistance for Aids victims and school-building in rural Thailand and relief for survivors of the Andaman tsunami.

Morawetz is in no doubt of what the fundamental starting point is for a culture of peace: “To have peace you have to have dialogue. And before you can have dialogue, you need respect. Peace is a process that cannot be achieved instantly. It needs time. Bridges was designed as an ongoing series of events in which Nobel laureates and international decision-makers build bridges with leaders in all sections of society and the general public.” 

Bridges is the natural progression to the IPF-initiated Peace Summits that have been held in Europe since 1993, and have involved the likes of the Dalai Lama, Henry Kissinger, Woody Allen, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd. 

The first two series of the Bridges programme in the Asean region brought together 26 Nobel laureates as well as 13 other keynote speakers and artists such as Dr Hans Blix, Rev Jesse Jackson, the late Dame Anita Roddick and Vanessa-Mae. This year’s event marks the expansion of the programme.  

“When we started in Thailand we did not have any plans to expand to other countries in southeast Asia. However, because of the success of the first few events, the embassies of the other Asean countries began to approach us,” says Morawetz.  

“After Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, Cambodia is the fourth Asean country to host Bridges and will be followed in the years ahead by all the Asean countries, with the exception of Myanmar.”

Uwe Morawetz, Chairman with HM King Sihamoni in the royal palace, Phnom Penh
Uwe Morawetz, Chairman with HM King Sihamoni in the royal palace, Phnom Penh

He was invited by King Sihamoni of Cambodia and Hun Sen, its prime minister, to bring Bridges to a country where a consensus for peace has made significant steps. It was an opportunity that delighted him. His enthusiasm is echoed by the first of those laureates to arrive, professor Aaron Ciechanover, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2004. “It is similar to my country, Israel, 60 years ago, and is now making its first step as an independent democracy towards becoming a modern country and I am eager to see this transformation as it occurs and help as much as I can in bringing in my own experience as well as that of my country.”

The concept that the laureates come to learn as well as share knowledge is central to the philosophy of the Bridges programme. “Dialogue starts with listening … we’re not just exporting something that we’ve done in another country. We’re also taking something back with us,” says Morawetz, who enjoyed Thailand so much that he has lived there for the past eight years.

Prof Ciechanover, who has already made a giant stride for the betterment of mankind through his discovery of the mechanics of protein degradation at a molecular level, will explain how science and technology can contribute to peace: “I think science and technology, if used for the benefit of human beings, are the best bridge on which one can walk to achieve peace and understanding among nations via development of modern agriculture, industry, health services, education, communication, transportation and welfare services. So, I think Bridges and science and technology were born to become twin brothers to bring peace to the world.”

He will be followed by five other Nobel laureates: Prof David Gross for physics, Prof Eric Maskin for economics, Prof Torsten Wiesel and Prof Francoise Barre-Sinoussi for medicine and Dr Jose Ramos-Horta for peace. The mix reflects Morawetz’s conviction that as a multi-faceted concept, peace can only be achieved by a multi-disciplinary approach.

“In our interdependent world, problems cannot be solved only by politicians and scientists or only religion and business, but by working together,” he says. “Only if many ways cross and people walking these ways meet, can international understanding be achieved and problems commonly solved.” 

When the Cambodian Bridges programme concludes in April 2010, Morawetz will head to the African continent to prepare the ground for further Bridges events. In 2012, Bridges programmes will start in South America, most probably in Brazil and Cuba, with the enthusiastic co-operation of the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica. 

In his indefatigable pursuit of peace Morawetz seems to have recognised what Martin Luther King spoke of when he said: “One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

“If I wasn’t at peace, I couldn’t work for peace,” says Morawetz. “I am happy I have seen many seeds reach fruition over the past decades, but I always yearn to see more. It’s this restlessness in peace that brings me joy and makes the work a success.”

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