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Alternative Education in the Context of a Pluralistic Society in Asia-Pacific

The Role of Student Christian Movement

by Max Ediger

Max is a long-time activist in Asia working with several communities who are struggling for justice and peace. He helped developed the Centre for Justpeace in Asia based in the Documentation for Action Groups in Asia (DAGA) in Hong Kong. This paper was presented in the Student Empowerment for Transformation (SET) held on 1-7 December 2004 in Jakarta, Indonesia. For more information on the Center for Justpeace, please contact

What is Education? 

As the theme of this session suggests, we will be focusing on alternative education as a means of addressing conflicts that plague our societies. To effectively discuss this theme we need to take a brief look at how we understand and define what education is. First, perhaps, we can agree on what education is not. Education is not simply about going to classrooms, listening to lectures, taking notes, reading some books and being tested. These are activities that may assist in the process of receiving education, but they do not truly constitute education.

Education is a process that involves, among other things, the following:

  1. Absorbing information and experiences from multiple sources.
  2. Thinking critically (asking important questions) about the information and experiences.
  3. Analysing the causes and meanings of the information and experiences.
  4. Learning the essential lessons from the information and experiences.
  5. Applying, effectively, the lessons from the information and experiences to daily life.

How effectively we utilises these processes is influenced by several things.

  1. Our willingness to look at a variety of differing information sources.
  2. Our courage to have new and challenging experiences.
  3. Our clarity on our perspective (standing point) when we analyse the information and experiences we have—i.e. will we analyse them from the perspective of the wealthy, the middleclass, the poor or the marginalised, etc.
  4. Our willingness to have our own faith, and world views questioned and challenged.

In reality, education is a life-long process of gathering information and experiences, reflecting deeply on what we have learned and seen, and then seeking the most productive way of using that knowledge and experience to benefit ourselves and the world in which we live. This process is important as we seek a deeper understanding of the conflicts swirling around us and develop strategies that can bring about the kind of structural transformation that can result in a true and lasting peace. 

Looking at National/Regional conflicts 

Many conflicts exist in Asia today. They range from border wars between neighboring nations to internal civil conflicts. Large or small, they bring great suffering on the people, especially the marginalized. Some of these conflicts include:

  1. In Burma a 50-year self-determination struggle by ethnic groups against a military dictatorship continues with little hope for a quick and just end.
  2. A sovereignty dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands at the eastern edge of the East China Sea remains a very sensitive issue.
  3. The Spratly Islands of the South China Sea are a potential tinder box in the region. Approximately 44 of the 51 small islands and reefs are claimed or occupied by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The conflict is the result of overlapping sovereignty claims to various Spratly Islands thought to possess substantial natural resources—chiefly oil, natural gas, and seafood.
  4. The Kashmir conflict not only continues to raise the spectre of war between India and Pakistan, but it also continues to produce serious human rights violations: summary executions, rape, and torture by both sides. This is all done in an effort to curb support for pro-independence activists.
  5. In Indonesia, struggles for self-determination and secession continue in Aceh, Kalimantan, Maluku, and Papua.
  6. Tensions between North and South Korea continue with persistent interference from outside powers that often hinder movement toward a positive solution.
  7. A struggle in Nepal between Maoist rebels and the government continues to result in bloodshed.
  8. In southern Mindanao of the Philippines, the Moro struggle for self-determination and the protection of their land and way of life continues unabated.
  9. Simmering discontent in the south of Thailand has recently erupted into bloodshed as Muslim communities seek just treatment by the military authorities and a guarantee that they can maintain their way of life.
  10. The Tamil struggle for self-determination in Sri Lanka seemed to be moving toward a positive conclusion with a cease-fire, but it seems like the talks may breakdown and the violence resume.

These are just some of the conflicts we live with that cry out for our attention. Without striving to identify the root causes of these conflicts as well as the outside forces that have a strong influence on them, we cannot hope to effectively address them and move toward a time of harmony and cooperation.

 Let us look briefly at some of the global factors that have a significant influence on the

a) The role of the US and militarisation

Since the end of the Cold War, US military planners have increasingly been talking about establishing a semi-permanent or permanent US military presence along an “arc of instability” that runs from the Caribbean Basin through Africa to South and Central Asia and across to North Korea. This arc of instability corresponds very closely to regions of great oil, gas and mineral wealth. Further momentum was given to this policy following the attacks of 9/11 and the resulting “War on Terror.”

Presently the United States has a military presence in about 135 out of the world’s 192 independent countries. In some cases this is a small presence with military personnel active in US embassies or maintaining small intelligence units. In almost 60 countries, there are military bases, some of which are huge in size. To ensure that these bases can continue to operate without interference, the US often offers protection to repressive regimes despite opposition from local democratic movements. This will obviously result in growing resistance from these democratic movements to both their own repressive regime as well as the US presence which hinders their movement toward democracy and freedom.

To counter this growing resistance, the US places much emphasis on expanding its military power and in helping sympathetic regimes also build up their own militaries. Presently the world is spending over US$2.1 billion every day on defense. More than 50% of that is spend solely by the US. This is money taken away from budgets needed to solve global problems of hunger, poor health, poor education, lack of clean water and sanitation, poor housing, etc. Security issues could perhaps be better dealt with by funneling a large percent of this money into helping people lead healthier lives.

According to statistics provided by the United Nations, the amount of money used by the world for defense in six days would be enough to provide for global sanitation and food needs for one year. Global education needs could be met by only spending the amount of money the world spends on defense in three days. In other words, there is sufficient resources to solve global problems, but a large portion of these resources are being diverted to militarising our globe. Ironically, the more money put into defense, the more insecure the world becomes, and the great the conflicts we must all live with.

b) Globalization and the World Trade Organization

Globalisation is simply the ability for goods, services, information etc. to flow around the world more freely and cheaply. It can have both good and bad results, depending on who controls it. Presently the World Trade Organization (WTO) is setting the rules for global trade and that means that those countries with the most political and economic power can set rules which help them benefit the most. Taking down trade barriers does not mean that there is a level playing field for all participants. In truth, since the establishment of the WTO, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased. A UN Human Development Report states that the richest 20% of the world’s population consume at least 86% of all goods and services while the poorest 20% consume just 1.3%. This gap has been growing despite the WTO.

Again, the problem is not about a lack of resources, but rather there is a serious problem of distribution. While a budget of US$6 billion is needed to insure that every child in the world could have access to a good education, the people of Europe spend US$11 billion on ice cream. Basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world would cost only US$13 billion while people in the United States and Europe spend US$17 billion on pet foods.

This unequal distribution and use of the world’s finite resources plays a significant role in regional and global conflicts. Until and unless this issue is address courageously and creatively, conflicts will continue to erupt throughout the region.

c) Religious Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is generally defined as conservative religious authoritarianism in all faiths. It is marked by a literal interpretation of scriptures and favors a strict adherence to traditional doctrines and practices.

Fundamentalism results in a very polarized view of the world—either you are with me or you are against me. Religious fundamentalism becomes a seriously divisive issue as those who are most out-spoken claim to have the final work on what is right in God’s sight and what is wrong. They claim to have the right to judge others and to demand that their view be accepted and followed. Anyone of a different faith is wrong, and anyone of the same faith who holds a different view is considered suspect.

Christian fundamentalism is on the rise, especially in the United States. Christian fundamentalists are narrowly defining what represents true Christian moral values and how those values must be lived out. While this is perhaps a local American issue, it has serious implications for those of us in other parts of the world. As the world’s only super power, and as a “Christian” nation, the United States is the face of Christianity to much of the world. They will influence the way others view both the Christian faith and Christian communities. Misunderstandings are bound to develop and this could well result in growing religious tensions and conflicts in Asia.

d) Seeking an Alternative Education Within These Realities

To develop an alternative education system that will equip youth with the skills and knowledge needed to confront the growing violence in our region, it may be necessary to do some work outside the normal education institutions. That does not mean that these institutions should be avoided, or that they are not effective and useful. It does, however, suggest that presently these institutions tend to work more to protect and preserve the status quo rather than push for social, economic, political and ideological transformation within our societies.

We can develop alternatives to the present education systems while still studying within those systems. This can be done by organising study groups which meet outside the classrooms and which provide more information to help understand the root causes of conflicts and the global factors that influence those conflicts. Such an alternative education process should have:

  1. A commitment to look at the world through the eyes of the most marginalised.
  2. A way of encouraging participants to have a variety of experiences that can open their eyes to deeper realities in the society.
  3. An access to information from different perspectives and sources.
  4. A process of encouraging good critical thinking.
  5. An effective process of analysing issues from the perspective of the marginalised
  6. A way to apply, in an effective, creative and prophetic way, the lessons gained from the educational process in order to build a just and peaceful world