A Bamboo-Roots Peacenik, Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1998-11-01 12:00:00

This American began his activism by opposing the Vietnam War and never stopped. He chatted with Metta Spencer in Toronto in August, after attending a conference on small arms and light weapons.

METTA SPENCER: You have been active in the nonviolence movement globally for a long time. How are the campaigns going now?

YESHUA MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The most exciting thing to happen in a long time is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Efforts to eliminate a class of weapons would usually come from governments or the peace movement. In this case it didn't originate there, but from a coalition of human rights, humanitarian, and veterans' organizations. The Western peace movement and religious organizations actually got on the bandwagon quite late. And the landmines treaty was the fastest treaty ever put together in the history of the planet. The whole process from drafting in Oslo to the consultation in Ottawa took just three to four months. It comes into force shortly after 40 countries have deposited their signatures with the U.N. and this looks like it will happen by year's end! [This has now happened. Ed.]

SPENCER: Hadn't there been a meeting in Vienna the year before?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: That was the U.N. process. The United States, China, and other obstructing countries have tried to keep discussion about landmines within the U.N. process where it would go slowly. That meeting in Vienna was the review of the Conventional Weapons Treaty, which deals with weapons that are deemed to cause too much damage to the civilian population, over and above their "military utility." It went nowhere, so the Ban pursued the process outside the U.N. system. This has set a model that future campaigns are going to follow. We're going to see broader coalitions of organizations, and states will be following. A global campaign on light weapons and small arms is already begin- ning, but it's going to have to be a more sophisticated campaign. The right to possess those weapons is the foundation of the legitimacy of states. For that reason, states are focusing on only illicit small arms and light weapons.

SPENCER: Tell me about Nonviolence International. You run the office in Bangkok.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: It's a small new nongovernmental organization. We seek to work with individual persons, organized groups, or governments to develop alternatives to violence they may face. We run training programs, do action-oriented research, have publications and seminars to help reach this goal. Nonviolence International has no projects or campaigns solely of our own; everything is done in network with other organizations. The head office is in Washington, D.C. and we have one- or two-person offices in Moscow, Paris, Jerusalem, Ghana, Durban, South Africa, and Thailand. In Bangkok we focus our activities on groups in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. For example, we've been supporting the groups organizing the peace walks in Cambodia. One just finished before the recent election. It started off with 170 people but had swelled to 3000 walkers by two days preceding the election, sending a message to the politicians that the Cambodian people were tired of violence. Nonviolence International is part of a coalition of several nongovernmental organizations that has just finished a survey in Cambodia on the spread of war weapons, which are preventing postwar reconstruction and development. In villages people have nothing in their houses - no running water, they are kilometers from the nearest source of electricity - but they have an AK 47 and perhaps other sophisticated weaponry.

SPENCER: Where do they get them?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The weapons were distributed over the past 25 years. The military forces would frequently distribute them if they were forced to leave an area they couldn't control, asking the population to fight "the enemy." Then the other side would come, and when they couldn't control the area any longer either, as they were leaving they too would dispense weapons, asking the local people to "cooperate in the struggle." So people were getting guns from everywhere. Now they are available for a chicken or a bag of rice. Weapons are used frequently, simply because they are there. In domestic violence, things that are done here with a kitchen knife or a hammer are done in Cambodia with an automatic weapon. In a moment of anger, when people have access to war weapons, the devastation that can happen in a community can be enormous. They are used in business disputes, particularly to protect logging concerns that are destroying the forests of Cambodia. Due to the availability of weapons, even children have been known to use them on one another, both by accident and on purpose. During our survey, we found a consensus in Cambodian society: people are scared because there are so many weapons. Some of the weapons are there because people have security concerns caused by the presence of other weapons. People understand that the more weapons there are, the greater the danger is for everybody. They say, "I'll give up my weapons when everybody else gives up theirs." We will clearly need a massive public education program to change the way people think about weapons before a program to collect them can succeed.

SPENCER: I heard of one reconciliation program where part of the healing ritual was to exchange weapons for constructive tools.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: It's called Hoes for Guns, and is taking place in Mozambique. It's still going on. The program offers items - plows, sewing machines, and bicycles - in exchange for weapons, and larger items for information on arms caches. They haven't managed to conduct the program very far outside the capital yet. The collection points, which are churches throughout the country, are ill-prepared to receive weapons when they come in. They can't guard them until they can be destroyed, or guarantee that they will get to the right people. Actually, more weapons are simply being left by the roadside for the de-miners to demolish than are being left in churches.

SPENCER: Pity. Intuitively the idea seems appealing.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: It does. It has been tried in other places, such as Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Dominican Republic, but without a strong development and public education component, it has failed. In El Salvador they had collected about $50,000 from businesses to run a voluntary weapons collection program, but on the first two weekends they gave away something like $150,000 in vouchers. They were bailed out at the last minute by a grant from the government of Mexico. All this, however, only netted 1500 weapons. Yet during the same time people were purchasing legally registered weapons at the rate of about 5000 per month. Clearly they were missing something in that campaign. The security situation was still not adequate for people to feel they didn't need these things. The voluntary exchange buy-back programs look like a quick fix, but the problem is more complex. Indeed, nowhere has it been effective in reducing the number of weapons to the point where they were no longer a social problem, but nowhere has a totally integrated program been tried. There are no experts in this new field of micro- disarmament. We're building the road as we walk on it.

SPENCER: What else are you doing at your centre?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The Buddhist peace walks in Cambodia have had a beneficial influence on Thai people, who have also started exploring walks as a tool for raising social awareness and mobilizing people. We have been bringing over some Cambodians to cross-fertilize the Thai movement.

We focus on what we call "development aggression." That's what happens when local communities are undermined by modern development policies. The Thai activists wanted to focus on a situation of development aggression to a unique bio-system in the south of Thailand. It was a large lake which opened to the ocean as a salt -water estuary. At the other end it's fresh water and in the middle it's brackish - neither fresh nor salt. Different types of creatures live in and around the different ends of the lake and the local communities traditionally produced goods that depended on the resources of the particular zone in which they lived.

Then modern development started extracting more resources than nature could sustain. The vegetation was cut and the lake started silting up. The communities around it blamed each other. Then the federal government decided to build a dam straight across the middle of the lake, which would cause even greater devastation. So this group of Thai environmental activists chose to walk around the lake and ask people their perceptions of what was happening to the environment, which led to finding local people who were concerned, and sought to link them together in action groups. The first year, they walked around the lake - it took about a month - but it didn't really gel. The second year, they tried again and it still didn't work. The third time, this year, they just followed one stream that fed into the lake. On that stream there were 70 communities. They walked shorter distances each day and had more energy for talking. And this time indeed a lot of people were excited. What they had failed to accomplish the first two years has been accomplished this year. Nonviolence International helped as an adviser to these activists before they took on this action, and now will offer support for a local organizer who will work to solidify the network that developed during the last year.

SPENCER: You said you were in Sri Lanka a few months ago.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: Yes, and while there, I had the opportunity to meet with the National Peace Council. This is one of the most exciting and innovative movements I have come across in years. It came out of a nation-wide congress a few years ago where they recognized that everything done for peace in Sri Lanka at that point was all ad hoc. Networks would come together as a response to something that had happened, but there was no ongoing organization thinking strategically about how to achieve peace. So they decided to create such a body - the National Peace Council. They have a staff and office.

As an example of one of their sectoral activities, they set up a national training program to train the media so that in reporting conflict, they do not propel the conflict. They televised the training program nationally, enabling the public to watch so they would understand what the media should be doing.

One of their activities in focusing on the government sector is to work with legislators, who often make statements in parliament that propel the war along. They have taken balanced groups of parliamentarians from each side to look at the negotiations going on in North -ern Ireland, in the Philippines between the government and the Islamic groups in Mindanao, and in ex-Yugoslavia. This lets these elected officials learn from what governments in other parts of the world are doing by non-military means in conflict situations with similarities to Sri Lanka. To focus on the public, they have mobilized a national advertising campaign, with hard-hitting ads about their own culture.

They have a plan, looking at each of the sectors of society to see how it is supporting the war. I don't know of any other war-torn society that has taken this on so seriously. Truly an inspiring group of people. Recently Nonviolence International brought some people from the Sri Lankan National Peace Council to Cambodia to meet NGOs who were also feeling hopeless about the war. As a result of hearing what the National Peace Council was doing in Sri Lanka they started a forum for Peace through Nonviolence in Cambodia.

SPENCER: Tell me about the situation in Burma. As we speak, I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi is in a car someplace, blockaded for the second time.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: For the fourth time. The first two times she eventually drove back to the capital. The third time they commandeered her vehicle after six days and drove it back to her house with her in the back. She has gone out now for the fourth time. She's raising the stakes and the level of nonviolent struggle. The military regime currently in power says she's free. She says she's not, and she's proving it. This is the heart of nonviolent action - revealing the truth, as Gandhi would say. No freedom of political expression is possible for the legitimate government of the country, which won the 1990 election. She's revealing the truth, and the regime is being forced to respond, quickening the freedom struggle. It's too early to say what's going to come of this. The country is essentially broke. The military has been inept at any realistic economic policy and only because Burma is so resource rich has it not collapsed already.

SPENCER: The U.S. tightened the screws, didn't they?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The U.S. trade sanctions didn't really hurt them much because most of their trade is with neighboring countries - Malaysia, Singapore, China - and that hasn't been affected by the U.S. sanctions. However, the U.S. is also blocking support from the IMF and the World Bank, and that has really, really hurt them. The National League for Democracy - Aung San Suu Kyi's party - is favorable to that.

SPENCER: The junta changed its name from SLORC to something else.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: Yes, the State Peace and Development Council is the heir to SLORC. Its top leaders were the leaders of SLORC. A few of the expendable ministers were accused of corruption and are being tried in a kangaroo court in Rangoon.

SPENCER: Was the change of name only cosmetic or what did they intend?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: Perhaps they hoped the world would be taken in, but that hasn't happened. I don't know what their plans were internally.

SPENCER: Have all the indigenous groups been chased out of the country?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The armed struggles that many of the indigenous groups were waging have been subdued, for the most part. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, and Burmese ethnic people as well, have fled the country, either because of military action upon them by government troops or because of crushing poverty due to the economic situation. The leaders of most of the indigenous communities who were involved during the last decade in armed struggles with the central Burmese regime for some level of autonomous control of their region have, for the most part, fallen for a clever game by the military regime of getting cease-fires with each of them independently. The regime in Rangoon has treated each of these cease-fires as though it were a surrender. None of the underlying problems which led to some people taking up arms has been addressed. Although several of these issues were on the table, and verbally agreed to by Rangoon, not a one has been followed up on, to my knowledge.

SPENCER: But these groups have not been defeated?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: No, but they are not a united front any longer. Individually, all except the Karens have cease-fires in their own area. The Karens have been pushed out of their areas in Burma and mostly are refugees. The problem has not gone away, so there will continue to be non-acceptance of the situation.

SPENCER: What about Tibet?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: I visited Dharmasala last March. I am grateful to the Tibetan government in exile and the Tibetan Youth Congress, who arranged our visit, including a brief meeting with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. We met with several sections of the exile government, including the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, which monitors human rights violations in Tibet.

Every month people are being arrested, given long sentences, and tortured for nonviolent actions - underground publishing of inflammatory information in Tibet. What is inflammatory? Well, things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or keeping pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the T betan flag, or writing graffiti suggesting that Tibet is an independent state, or organizing demonstrations. It is still going on. Everybody in Tibet knows how hard it's going to be, and they keep doing it! Even inside the prisons they're not cooperating with the authorities and they're holding demonstrations! In one situation they were told to eat lunch in the dining hall because the European Union was sending some delegation to Tibet to visit. As soon as the cameras were rolling, someone would jump up and say "Free Tibet" and they'd haul that person off and tell the others to sit there. They'd start the cameras rolling again and another person would jump up and shout "Free Tibet" and finally they had to shut off the cameras. They couldn't do it. They can't control the people in the prisons and they can't control them outside the prisons either. There are no cameras, no CNN, no AP wire photos, but in Tibet today there is one of the most incredible nonviolent struggles going on in the world.

SPENCER: Tibet-in-Exile is appealing to states around China?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The Tibet government in exile knows they need the good will of the world, so their foreign ministry has unofficial embassies that do what embassies normally do. They represent the interests of their people to the states where they are located. They try to add new embassies, especially in states significant to China.

After the Tiananmen Square movement they contacted the Chinese democracy movement, expecting them to become allies. But the Chinese democracy movement didn't want anything to do with them. They said, "You're just barbarians. You don't have anything to offer us," because that's how Tibetans are portrayed in the Chinese press. The Tibetan government in exile said, "That's fine if you feel that way, but why don't you come up and have a look?" They paid the way for them to visit. The Chinese dissidents were impressed upon seeing that the Tibetan Government in Exile is doing what all governments should be doing for their people.

They see to their people's welfare. They have a ministry of education, which oversees education for refugee Tibetans, all the way up to university. They have their own university, which is accredited by the Indian government. They have medical institutes, which keep Tibetan medicine alive. They have a college of the performing arts and the static arts. These are what a culture is, and the Tibet government in exile has kept these alive. There are some 160,000 Tibetans in India. The Chinese may have occupied Tibet but they cannot kill Tibetan culture. It is alive and evolving. In exile the Tibetans have developed a democratic government. Refugees vote for representatives of the province they came from, so it is democracy in exile. They have a plan for their return to Tibet. They will constitute an interim government, concerned with elections, but they will cease to exist after the first government is elected. This impressed the Chinese democracy movement no end, so they came to a deal. They work on each other's cause. The main Chinese democracy web site has links to the Tibetan struggle.

Their recent great victory was visiting Taiwan. All the public addresses that the Dalai Lama made in Taiwan were broadcast in Chinese on Taiwanese television. Now they are getting messages from southern China saying, "Hey, we were told that this guy is a barbarian. I just heard him on television and he sounded pretty good!" This is going right to the heart of nonviolent struggle - changing the will of the adversary to wage violence. They are trying to foster better relationships with Japan, with Mongolia. The Tibetan government in exile is "encircling China" with countries that have favorable feelings towards the Tibetans. Maybe not as official policy, but it has an effect.

SPENCER: What are the prospects in the West of getting official government support for Tibet-in-Exile?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: I'm not sure. Canada and the United States are not about to recognize Tibet-in-Exile. They've got their fingers too deep in the money pot in China, but they roll out the red carpet for His Holiness when he comes, even if it irritates China. They can do an exchange program with Tibetan government in exile. That's pretty harmless. But they can't do a whole lot. The government of Canada is involved in development aid with the Tibetan government in exile. This is good, and people here should push their government for many positive statements supporting self determination for the Tibetan people.

SPENCER: The Dalai Lama continues to make conciliatory overtures to the Chinese government. I saw recently that there might actually be a meeting.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN:That came from Clinton's recent trip where he offered to establish connections with the Dalai Lama. Jiang said they already have contacts. There's always been communication between them. A few years ago some representatives of the Tibetan government in exile went into Tibet at the invitation of the Chinese government. The Chinese government supposed they had enough control in Tibet that the representatives would only see happy Tibetans in the workers paradise. Instead, people just mobbed the delegation and shared tales of their devastation. Finally, by mutual agreement between the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Chinese Government, they stopped what was supposed to be an advance party for a visit of the Dalai Lama. It's all on hold now. The Chinese say as a precondition that there can be no claim to an independent state.

SPENCER: But I thought the Dalai Lama had accepted that.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: The Dalai Lama has even said that he would be willing to enter discussion of a less than independent status for Tibet, as long as they had genuine self-rule, which would allow military and other affairs to still be done by the Chinese. I don't remember the exact wording on this, and the words here are important.

SPENCER: Self-rule is a problem because probably the majority of the population is now Chinese.

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: This is worrisome. Settlers have been drawn to those areas by all kinds of entitlements and privileges. If it came under Tibetan rule again and the perks and privileges were cut because the Communist Party was no longer in power there, many of them might go back. But if the settlements continue at this rate, the Tibetan government in exile told me that they believe they have ten years left. If they haven't achieved independence by then, it will be too late.

SPENCER: What can Canadians do to help Asia?

MOSER-PUANGSUWAN: Look at how you exploit the economy in Asia - in fact, in the whole world. The wealth of the world continues to flow from Africa, South America, and Asia to North America and Europe. Those chains must be broken. So the first place to focus is the easiest place: close to home. This can have long-lasting and far-reaching results.

Nonviolence International SE Asia web page can be found at: <http://www.igc.org/ nonviolence/niseasia/> and the tel/fax in Thailand +66 (0)2 3741671.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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