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A New Job but Old Issues

March 5, 2010

The words travel and workshop seem to best summarize how I've spent much of my time thus far since I began working last July for Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), a joint regional program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY), which is where I'm based in Hong Kong, and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I should note that ICF is not an organization but is rather a network of young Asians in their 20s from different faith backgrounds who are actively engaged at the grassroots level in their country and who are, in general, seeking to resolve conflicts or alleviate poverty in their communities. Although I have begun a new job, it is similar to my previous work in Hong Kong for Documentation for Actions Groups in Asia (DAGA) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in that it focuses on local social, economic and political problems, i.e., generally poverty and violence, from a regional, or Asia-wide, perspective.

Before I joined the program, it had been decided that 2009 would be a year in which we would try to strengthen the background and skills of the 49 young people who now comprise the network. Between 2006 and 2008, they had all completed the School of Peace (SOP) in Bangalore, India—the 14-week course that is the core activity of ICF—and it was felt that 2009 would be devoted to developing the network through a series of workshops for SOP alumni and others in the country where the workshops were held.

Consequently, I became a regular visitor to Hong Kong's airport, traveling to workshops in Mindanao in the Philippines in August for a program on human rights, to Sri Lanka for an organic farming workshop in September, to a community organizing workshop in Nepal's western border town of Nepalgunj in October and to Thailand for a workshop about journalism for advocacy at a rural training center in the northern part of the country in November. Because of my human rights experience at AHRC for nine years and my undergraduate training as a photojournalist, I was a resource person for the workshops in the Philippines and Thailand. In addition to these workshops, I also traveled to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh in November to attend ICF's annual working committee meeting at which plans for 2010 were discussed.

Although I had previously been to all of these countries, except Cambodia, attending these workshops was an opportunity to see parts of these countries I hadn't seen before, to learn about their local issues and, most importantly, to meet many members of the ICF network. During my encounters with the young people of the network, I was constantly impressed with their commitment to bringing about social change in their communities and their energy, intellect and creativity in doing so. Some of them live in areas that frequently face violent conflict, like Mindanao in the Philippines and the three provinces of southern Thailand, and their work seeks to bring about peace and reconciliation as well as respond to their immediate human rights problems.  When one regularly reads about the exploitation, discrimination and human rights issues facing Asia today, it has been refreshing to meet a group of young people who are actively working to change these current realities.

Over the years, I've come to see corruption as a problem at the root of human rights violations, poverty, environmental degradation and dysfunctional democratic and legal systems in Asia. My travels underscored the various manifestations of this pervasive scourge in the region and the unlikely places it can be discovered.

For instance, I learned in the Philippines that the treasurer of an association formed to manage the water system of a poor village had apparently embezzled money from the maintenance fund to start his own business and buy a new motorcycle. Consequently, when the water system broke down, the villagers were told that there wasn't enough money to fix it, and the people had been without water for two weeks when I visited in August even though each family had been making monthly payments into the fund for a number of years.

From this encounter with corruption at the lowest levels of society, it is naturally not surprising to find it higher up the political pyramid. In Nepal, our workshop's field visit took us to a village of landless farmers. They explained to us that the Land Act of 1964 was enacted to more justly distribute land in the country. However, after its passage, people with influence registered land for sugar mills and cotton plantations that more than four decades later still do not have a sugar mill or cotton plantation on them. Some of those with power even registered land in the name of their dog or cat. In this way, landless farmers who actually till the land cannot acquire a land certificate to own it.

The hope for me in these villages in the Philippines and Nepal and countless others across Asia is that the people continue to struggle for their rights and for justice. It is in such a context that I am impressed with the efforts of the young members of the ICF network to work with the people in similar situations throughout the region—sometimes at great personal risk—to attain those disregarded rights and that elusive justice.

With Peace,

Bruce Van Voorhis

(Bruce Van Voorhis works in Hong Kong for Interfaith Cooperation Forum [ICF], a regional network of young Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous activists working for justpeace at the grassroots level in South and Southeast Asia. ICF is a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs [APAY] in Hong Kong where Bruce is based and the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA] located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.) 

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