There are no shortages of violent conflict disturbing peace in many parts of our world today. Tens of thousands have lost their lives throughout the Middle East and Africa over the last year as a result of the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Boko Haram Insurgency, and the Syrian Civil War.
Conflicts such as these continue to appear in the news consistently, with regrettably less attention being given to the ongoing loss of life in Southeast Asia. This region of the world is where the lives of many innocent teachers and students are the collateral damage of differences in languages, culture, and religion.
The conflict in the south of Thailand has cost more than 8,000 lives since 2004. Over this bloody history, some 190 teachers have been assassinated. In Myanmar, there have been many civil conflicts under the fifty years of military domination. Even now as the country moves towards democracy, there are many unresolved conflicts. In certain ethnic regions of Southeast Asia, denial of demands for a measure of autonomy in response to the differences of language, culture, and religion, has produced violence.
And that’s not all. Schools, students, and education generally have always been affected, either indirectly or directly, through bombings, land mining schools, etc. Rebel-controlled areas create their own education systems. As Myanmar is now moving into a civilian led system of governance (but still with a strong entrenched military presence), people continue to struggle about the status of these rebel education systems.
With or without consistent international spotlighting, peace seems to be hardly anything more than a goal, and one aspect of this goal is giving the language and education dimensions of conflict serious attention.
Meet Joe Lo Bianco, a promoter of peace in Southeast Asia. An Australian of Italian origins, Professor Lo Bianco has been collaborating with UNICEF, local ethnic groups (primarily in Myanmar and southern Thailand), Ministries of Education, international aid donors, religious bodies, and many international non-governmental agencies to improve upon peace and development in areas of conflict in Southeast Asia.
Lo Bianco’s work is funded by the Dutch government in an agreement with UNICEF to explore the root causes of conflict, and their links to education. His specific projects deal with the role of language and ethnicity as they relate to language policy in conflict situations. Through research and intervention, he is helping to write policies collectively with public officials and members of affected groups to foster peace-building collaboration.
As a result of Lo Bianco’s work, there have been more than thirty-five peace-building ‘facilitated dialogues,’ in which often highly opposed groups are brought together for mediation and problem solving encounters. From these activities, conflicted groups have moved towards many local solutions to problems, as is the case with the peace promoting national language policy. Trust and communication continue to grow. Practical work is being done to promote a just situation for education and language.
An example of such outcomes is the Mandalay conference – a groundbreaking achievement, which has helped to open channels of communication on new ways to think about citizenship and diversity. A list of positive outcomes for each of the counties involved was published here.
But Lo Bianco’s work does not stop there. There remain unmet goals to be accomplished this year. First, he is seeking to complete the Myanmar language policy, including in some regions where there is still active conflict, affected by rebel-controlled areas. He is also seeking to complete a series of dialogues at the national and subnational level through continuing his research and intervention efforts.
The path toward achieving peace in areas which have been in conflict for more than ten years is one less traveled and often neglected. Lo Bianco noted, “It is clear that language is underestimated by conflict theorists as a source of tension. Language policy must be taken more seriously.”
He adds, “This project has pioneered ways to develop language policy that promotes peaceful coexistence in conflict zones.” In fact, the University of Amsterdam has recently reviewed and evaluated one aspect of his work, the Myanmar component, and has been very enthusiastic about the findings. The world can only hope the situation in Southeast Asia continues to improve, as peace is sought through language planning and policy efforts.
Dr. Joe Lo Bianco is a Professor at the University of Melbourne and a Trustee of TIRF – The International Research Foundation for English Language Education. He is in the US attending two conferences (TESOL International Convention in Baltimore and the American Association for Applied Linguistics Convention in Orlando) in April. He will be presenting his ideas about peace building through language planning and policy. For more information, please contact [email protected].