Politics of peace
The founder of the Calcutta Research Group gives his advice on resolving the conflict in the South Story and photo by SANITSUDA EKACHAI

Bangkok Post, Saturday 05 February 2005

Ranabir Samaddar: Stop seeing peace as a soft, intangible moral issue. For peace _ like war _ is tough politics.

If you want the southern conflict to ease and peace to last, Professor Ranabir Samaddar has some useful advice.

His name may not ring a bell here and he might not have any up-to-date details about the deep South, but his life-time experiences as a peace activist in conflict-ridden South Asia have made him an expert on the anatomy of war and peace, which he hopes can help shorten the painful peace-building processes elsewhere.

Samaddar, 54, was in town recently to give a "Peace Audit" talk at Thammasat University. His first piece of advice: Stop seeing peace as a soft, intangible moral issue. For peace _ like war _ is tough politics.

Though on a different end of the continuum, peace _ like war _ can be quantified, measured and monitored so one can detect warning signs if peace is slipping towards violence.

His second piece of advice: Don't let the government and rebel leaders hijack the peace process.

"You must take your agency back," said the 54-year-old founder and director of the Calcutta Research Group, a team of scholar-activists engaged in peace policies and dialogues.

Samaddar is known for his critical studies of contemporary issues of justice: human rights, popular democracy, trans-border migration, community history and technological restructuring in South Asia.

He has served on various commissions and study groups on issues such as partitions, forced displacement, minority rights and forms of autonomy.

When conflicts explode, he said, the silent majority tends to let the government and rebel elites monopolise the political dealings which are mostly conducted secretly, far from public view and void of informed public consent.

Governments tend to ignore injustice _ rebel movements, meanwhile, are often plagued by infighting between moderates and extremists, leading to distrust and violence that leads to, at best, a precarious peace.

Trust and truth are prerequisites for peace. But for it to be sustained, it must be plural, just and faithful to human rights, he said.

"To make peace last, it must begin with a vision of peace from below," stressed Samaddar.

While truces and treaties have proven to repeatedly fail, his experiences in several "hot" places in South Asia have shown that there is still hope if ordinary people at different levels define what peace means to them, then together design peace indicators and help one another monitor and audit them.

But what are the indicators for peace? A lack of bloodshed? The standard of justice and human rights? Equitable income? Fair management of natural resources?

It is all up to the people involved, he said. The important thing is to ensure that the dialogue involves activists from different levels of society, for they each have different ideas of what peace means.

Don't expect conflicts to disappear, he cautioned, but the multi-level dialogue and peace auditing will enable things to be workable.

"Peace is not conflict-free," he pointed out. "The dialogue is in effect a contested conversation. But conflicts will play out in different ways in the peace process."

Peace managers, he said, must pay attention to history, the multiple levels of auditing and the multiple issues of auditing.

Conventional wisdom that the past should be forgotten so one can start anew should be debunked, he advised.

Peace is not possible if we do not have knowledge of what has created the conflicts and what landmark events have led to the explosion of violence, he explained.

History is an important political tool used by both dominant and minority groups, who each interpret historical events differently and from their own points of view.

Dominant groups, however, often impose their views through state mechanisms to create public consensus that dismiss the grievances of the minority.

Peace is not sustainable if these grievances are not recognised, he said. It is then mandatory for society to collectively confront state-constructed history to understand how conflicts evolve so they can re-define their agendas together.

This process of reclaiming the truth will give moral credibility to the dialogue which will help make peace last, he added.

It is also important to recognise that peace is a plural question. "The activists involved are plural, so are the issues," he said.

And among the very important issues are conflicts on the ground. "We must look at these issues so we can identify the activists [to join the peace dialogues and auditing].

"The key is peace from below," he stressed. This public peace process, he explained, will enable people from various sectors to listen to one another and understand that the issues involved are many and complex.

More importantly, it fosters communication and new alliances that can help prevent things from slipping into dangerous zones.

He calls it the politics of friendship.

When their voices are loud and strong enough to become a critical group, the government can no longer dismiss them, he said.

But how to help small people overcome their fears of voicing their grievances and of defining their own peace? And who will be the effective peace managers?

One's proven record of integrity and moral courage is essential to foster trust and patience among diverse groups, he said.

Since ordinary people are also often mired in fear, peace managers must prove their sincerity and commitment overtime through all sorts of actions and activities to convince them to join the public peace process.

"It's an ongoing process, not a one-time thing," he cautioned. "And it's important not to impose your own politics on the locals."

Local activism aside, urban intellectuals can play an important role in fostering a more open atmosphere for peace by deconstructing the historical myths or deceptions that underline ethnic conflicts.

His last words of advice: Don't see the other side as your enemy. Keep the communication channels open. And be very, very patient.