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Understanding Asean cultures: the call for an Asean volunteer organisation

The focus of this article is the critical need to create an Asean Volunteer Organisation as an important pillar of preparation for the AEC era and being successful in this new international regime.

This idea does not originate with me, but I think was first suggested by Surin Pitsuwan, the dynamic Thai secretary-general of Asean from 2008-12.

Surin, a southern Muslim who earned a doctorate at Harvard, was greatly influenced and inspired by one of his teachers, who was a US Peace Corps volunteer.

The United Nations and many countries have such organisations. Among the other best known are the United Nations Volunteers, Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers and Volunteer Service Overseas of the United Kingdom.

Also several universities have such organisations. Examples are Volunteers in Asia (VIA) associated with Stanford University and Minnesota Studies in International Development, a programme of the University of Minnesota. Many VIA alumni have gone on to great successful careers.

Thailand also has an important tradition in this area. Decades ago, the Education Ministry had a visionary programme, Khru Tayaat. Those with teaching potential from rural areas were granted scholarships to train to be teachers. After completing their studies, they would return to teach in remote areas.

Also in the 1960s under the inspiring leadership of Puey Ungpakorn at Thammasat University, that institution created what became the Thammasat University Volunteer Centre. Thammasat also has a Graduate Volunteer Centre.

Thammasat students volunteer to work in remote areas to cooperate with local people to carry out projects to improve the quality of life. This programme proved to be sustainable and is still active.

This was an early example of service learning. The goal of the programme was to have urban students become more aware of problems and conditions in rural areas.

As a result of the volunteer experience, students were expected to become more civic-minded and more committed to making contributions to the common good.

Thailand actually has had considerable experience in hosting students and trainees from other developing countries. Since 1999, the Thailand International Development Cooperation Agency has been running the Thailand International Postgraduate Programme for students from diverse developing nations.

The agency also holds the Annual International Training Course (AITC) for trainees from over 50 developing nations. Thailand has gained considerable experience in South-South cooperation.

Some argue that the Asean volunteer programme would be too costly and that Asean has more pressing development needs. Actually, these kinds of volunteer programmes are relatively inexpensive, as allowances received by volunteers are modest. Many argue that the Peace Corps has been American's most cost-effective diplomatic investment.

Also Asean has access to financial resources to support such an initiative, such as extremely wealthy nations like Singapore and Brunei and many highly successful businesses. Thailand's own Crown Property Bureau has resources that might help fund such an initiative as a way to foster peace and greater mutual cultural understanding.

To ensure sustainability, the organisation should be funded by establishing an endowment that could grow substantially over time and enable more Asean youths to enjoy such a rich cultural experience learning from each other.

The organisation would have three basic goals:

l Increase knowledge about Asean neighbours, their cultures, languages, histories;

l Increase the number of individuals with proficiency in Asean languages;

l Contribute to the quality of life, particularly in remote areas.

The following are examples of possible assignments:

l Thais going to Vietnam, where there is a strong interest to learn Thai, to teach Thai language and culture;

l Philippine nurses going to work in remote parts of Laos, where there is a shortage of health professionals;

l Philippine, Singaporean and Brunei individuals going to teach English and train teachers in remote areas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to improve the quality of English instruction in those nations.

While such an organisation would have many benefits, there are numerous obstacles that would need to be overcome:

l Difficulty attracting young talent, as any bright young Asean individual naturally prefers to get overseas experience in places such as the US, England, New Zealand and Australia;

l Challenge of establishing adequate numbers of quality placements;

l Potential readjustment problems of returned volunteers.

In an important book entitled "The Overseas Japanese", Merry White describes difficulties faced by Japanese returning from working abroad. Their new linguistic and cultural abilities are not necessarily well utilised or appreciated.

The first problem could be overcome by providing incentives. For example, after completing assignments, volunteers could receive a "bonus" so that they could pursue graduate studies or travel in the region and maybe beyond.

Thais returning from Asean volunteer assignments could be valuable resources for helping Thai education to become more culturally sensitive, intercultural and cosmopolitan. They could contribute to the development of curricula, so it is not be fuelled by ultra-nationalistic hysteria, but would enhance Asean and global literacy and major intercultural/ linguistic competencies.

A three-year pilot of this idea, the Asean Young Professional Volunteer Corps, was actually approved by Asean in May of last year, based on an initiative of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports of Brunei. There have been three projects in Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines (aypvc.com/).

His Majesty the King had the vision of creating a peace university in Thailand. An Asean Volunteer Organisation could be an Asean "peace university" without walls, contributing to the Southeast Asian ideal of diversity in unity.

_ Gerald Fry is a distinguished international professor in the Department of Organisational Development, Policy and Development at the College of Education and Human Development of the University of Minnesota. gwf@umn.edu


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