THE SCOPE AND PROMISE OF NON-GOVERNMENTAL CULTURAL INTERCHANGE WITHIN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Man is born free; everywhere in Southeast Asia, he is in chains.
The Philippines are de jure and de facto under emergency rule. In Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, only one political party is permitted. And in many, perhaps all of these countries, the press is directly or indirectly subject to censorship, and the number of political prisoners is staggering. Malaysia has enjoyed parliamentary democratic government; but she is obsessed by communist insurgency and internal racial problems, in such a way that a citizen or an intellectual finds it safer to conform. In Thailand, since 1973, the formal political system is democratic and freedom is seemingly enjoyed; but since the middle of 1974 there emerged organized groups which do not hesitate to use arms and other means of violence to terrorise liberal opponents. Some political parties, members of the coalition governments are overtly against labour unionism. Political assassinations have been frequent.
In my view, freedom is essential to cultural development and political and economic freedom are closely linked with culture.
In the situation, intellectuals, at any rate for the moment, of ASEAN countries find themselves in a dilemma. The scope of their cultural interchange is severely limited by the rules of many countries to withhold passports for any suspect international meeting. In some cases, threat of imprisonment or house arrest, and other accompanying punishments, are sufficient deterrances. Even when conferences have been held, with obvious and important absentees, the proceedings or contributory articles of such conferences cannot be freely printed or published.
Nevertheless, intellectuals in this part of world have doubled their efforts in the face of these difficulties in order to communicate among themselves within the nations, and with each other across the borders. Of these groups, undoubtedly numerous, I know of only a few. I shall attempt to describe some of the activities of these few that I know.
If we include among these groups student bodies, I find that everywhere I go in ASEAN countries, students like to come and talk to me secretly about the role of Thai students in bringing about a change of regime in Thailand in 1973. Everywhere else in ASEAN countries, students are under strict rules, especially after the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka to Southeast Asia a few years back. Whenever groups of students visit Thailand, whether on sportive activities, or cultural activities, some of them have talk with the leaders of the Thai student movement. Solidarity among the student bodies in ASEAN countries manifests itself from time to time, on important issues only, for fear of repression at home. Nevertheless I believe the contact is continuous.
Within Thailand, a group of University teachers, weary of the polarised conflict, resort to the ancient Buddhist practice of meeting open air in public parks to eat together one meal a day, sharing it with monks and discuss love and symphathy to all. This was successful for a short time: participants go home with more peace in their mind. But this does not prevent assassinations or violence of various kinds.
Another group in Thailand started meeting with the subject “Peaceful Means”. They discuss more earthly topics such as economic and social development, social justice and democracy. They soon were branded communists by the rightist groups and the movement is at best moribund.
With this kind of Buddhist philosophy at the back of our minds, a group of us has worked closely with non-Buddhists in Asia, in organizations such as the Asian Religious and Cultural Forum in Development (ARCFOD), which was funded initially by the World Council of Churches and the Papal Commission on Peace and Justice.
ARCFOD is a provisional organization of individuals and groups belonging to the principal religious groups in Asia: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Protestants and Catholics unified in a common moral concern for development.
Recognizing the limitations and inadequate relevance of social service, educational and “spiritual” roles that the religions of the Asian Region have hitherto played, ARCFOD strives for a common regional initiative that will be sustained by innovative Action Projects and well-documented research projects.
ARCFOD views Development as a process in which modernization and tradition interact in ways by which traditional values are adapted or transformed to meet the needs of modernized societies. It views Development as a normative concept, whose norms and values are no more than interests of people, and objectivity no other than agreement in community through free and informed participation in the determination of their own advancement.
ARCFOD recognizes that the most fundamental problems of development are moral in nature, viz. unjust international and international economic structures that systematically worsen the poverty of Asian peoples. Development has increasingly become the development of the rich countries and the anti-development, or under-development of the poor countries, particularly the broad agrarian populations of the latter.
Consequently, ARCFOD accepts as its foremost task and responsibility the promotion and strengthening of efforts to stimulate among the vast Asian populace an awareness of their condition, and the strength to strive towards meaningful participation in, and direction of, their own processes of change.
In this respect, ARCFOD hopes that the member-governments of the United Nations in Asia will adhere in more practical ways to their common agreement and official resolution to develop and outreach to the growing sector of international non-governmental organizations, national non-governmental organizations, voluntary agencies and voluntary programmes.
The link between Southeast Asian intellectuals and the International Association for Cultural Freedom is of long standing. The IACF still tries to encourage Southeast Asian intellectuals individually or collectively to study and discuss culture. At the moment, research is being done under IACF auspices by a teacher of the University Sains Malaysia on ‘Technology and Culture’. He is assisted by two Thai researchers and has a team of international advisers. The IACF also is joined at times in their activities by other organizations such as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and the Japan Cultural Forum.
The Quaker International Seminars in Southeast Asia, with office in Singapore, have helped cultural exchanges among Southeast Asians on many occasions. At the present time, their ambition is to bring about an international seminar in which all ASEAN intellectuals as well as those from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma will participate. If possible, it will be held early in 1977. Upon its success will depend the future of dialogues between intellectuals of different political ideologies in this part of the World.
Groups of Southeast Asian Scholars also meet on their own. One such group is called “The Southeast Asia Study Group” perhaps for want of a more explicit name which may be dangerous to some. This group has held several meetings in recent years. The last one has as its subject “Perceptions of social justice in transitional societies in Southeast Asia” at which the keynote paper was written by one of the conveners of our Williamsburg meeting. Other papers presented were: The Chinese Community in Singapore; Cultural Justice; Traditional and Modern Social Justice in Malaysia; The Concept of Justice in the Thai Tradition; Confrontation with Reality: Rural Development Problems and prospects; Changing Conceptions of Social Justice among the Chinese in Malaysia; Social Justice and Singapore’s Youth; The Socio -economic status of women in Singapore. The next meeting of this group is due in January 1977 and the subject of discussion will be “Village of Southeast Asia 1990”
The “Pacific Asrama” is another group, related somewhat loosely to the Southeast Asian Study group. The word Asrama comes from Sanskit and means “abode” or “retiring place”. Its concept is described in the following terms:
“In the turbulence of rapid changes and the strong challenges to tradition which are shaping the Pacific of tomorrow, critically concerned men and women of the area must from their own experiences and analyses be able to create and formulate new concepts and values in relation to problems of growing urgency, magnitude and complexity. These future leaders of the Pacific must also be able to communicate with one another in the formation and exchange of these new concepts and values. The opportunities, however, for quiet reflection and stimulating interaction are rare in the era of intensive professionalism and institutional pressures and formal, specialized and politically oriented international conferences and exchange. In the Pacific world to date, there has been little deliberate effort to promote the leisurely and reflective approach to international dialogue and association.
The Pacific Asrama is a modest effort to meet this need by the establishment of a place to which promising young Asian leaders with a few occidentals living and working in Asia will be invited for periods of contemplation, creative self-expression and dialogue. Thus, it is planned that in a series of such sessions small, congenial but not identical groups of promising individuals concerned with human values and social developments in Asia will meet under circumstances designed to promote both mutually invigorating, enterprise and rewarding long term relationships. As direct or indirect consequences of Asrama sessions may come such specific products as articles and books, poems and painting, curricula and policy papers, or merely the enrichment of the Asrama participant’s contribution to society.
In the initial two years of the Pacific Asrama program, individual sessions will be held in various locations in Asia. These sites will be chosen for their cultural and scenic richness and their quiet environment with the minimum outside pressures distracting from intellectual pursuits. Each session will last approximately three weeks during which period of time approximately 15 participants will be free to contemplate, create and converse as they wish. Ultimately, it is hoped that a permanent Asrama venue may be established which would provide continuing facilities for retreat and interaction. But until more is known through pilot sessions about methods and suitable locations and until more human and financial resources are developed, such long term commitments and investments will not be made.”
The method pursued by this group is as follows: “In keeping with the fundamental principle of stressing maximum freedom for individual contemplation and creativity and for stimulating person-to-person exchange and interaction, there will be no prearranged topics or themes for discussion nor will there be agendas confining broad intellectual exploration. Instead, interests and concerns will be brought to the sessions by the participants and based on their values and experiences. These interests and concerns will form the base of reflection and the framework for individual participants’ creative activities and for dialogue within the assembled group. In a typical Asrama day, participants may devote their morning to writing, thinking or painting, part of their afternoon to informal but nonetheless profound discussions of mutual intellectual concerns with other participants and their evenings in spontaneous small groups of two, three or more persons in deep and far reaching exploration of personal insights and values.
In all Asrama sessions, participants will be encouraged to undertake creative activity in the medium and language of their choice. In the first one or two Asramas, English will have to serve as the basic common language for dialogue. Serious consideration will be given, however, to the development of skills and techniques of introducing Asian languages along with English.”
The Pacific Asrama has so far held four Asrama sessions, in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and again in Thailand. The ambition of the group is to have a permanent site suitable for the purpose, perhaps in Thailand.
A WILLIAMSBURG PAPER PREPARED FOR WILLIAMSBURG VI November 15-18, 1976 Penang, Malaysia
Dr. Puey placed this essay in the mails on the day before events in Bangkok caused him to depart from Thailand for Great Britain