Reflecting on the ‘Initiative For Peace Youth Conference’

Sanya Mansoor (India, UWC SEA 2010-2012)

Timor-Leste (East Timor) and Kashmir, are both conflict-ridden regions with an abundance of beauty embedded in their people and their culture. But in the outside world and the first images that come into people’s minds regarding these places, are those of violence. Take for example, the response of a friend in Singapore upon hearing I would be interning as a journalist in Kashmir: ‘Don’t get bombed.’ It was a light-hearted, satirical comment but it summed up how conflict-zones are perceived. From the mountains of Gulmarg to the streets of Timor-Leste, the conflict always steals the spotlight.

Whilst Kashmir is still dreaming of independence, Timor-Leste recently achieved independence from Indonesia in August 1999. The Timorese journey to independence was a bloody one; during the 24-year Indonesian occupation there were an estimated 100,000 conflict-related deaths. Despite their newfound independence the Timorese struggle has not been brought to an end. Like Kashmir, they are still in the process of building the framework of a stronger nation. Both regions are plagued with conflicts dating legions back into history. However, the last few years have seen developments in both nations; peace has started to creep its way through the cracks in conflict. 

Recently, the youth of both regions Timor Leste and Kashmir have been active pioneers in the struggle for peace. Having grown up in conflict-zones, the youth are undoubtedly familiar with the suffering associated with such conflict. However many youth have taken it upon themselves to play a significant role in development. Workshops, summits and conferences are proving to be the new means for interaction. Youth conferences, such as One Young Kashmir (OYK) here in Kashmir and Initiative for Peace (IFP) in Timor-Leste, are just a few examples of youth pushing their respective nations forward. Both conferences were spread over a week, with each day dedicated to a particular area of development. They covered areas spanning social, environmental and economic initiatives. 

This June, United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) held the IFP youth conference in Timor-Leste. The ‘Initiative For Peace’ movement runs on the principles of this phrase: ‘youth connecting youth to build sustainable peace’. At its core, IFP is a student-led initiative whereby a team of 20 student facilitators and 4 supervising teachers from Singapore travel to conflict-ridden regions, every year, to host week-long peace conference. The movement has been running for nearly ten years now; the first conference focussed on Kashmir. This was followed by conferences in Sri-Lanka and Timor-Leste.  

‘If not you, who? If not now, when?’ Those were the questions posed by participants in their presentation during the 2011 IFP conference. There was appeal in its simplicity; it embodied the truth behind the word ‘initiative’. The end of the conference brought an evident newfound confidence glowing on the participants’ faces. “One of the most important things I learnt from this conference is how important it is to be confident and how to impart the confidence to others. Now I know how to convey my message while being part of a group,” says Susan a participant of the 2011 IFP conference. 

The 2011 OYK youth conference took place in March. It was organised by a group of 112 Kashmiri youngsters of diverse backgrounds, brought together by Mercy-Corps, an NGO. The conference focused on the culture, rights and economic recovery in Kashmir. Asked what set the conference apart from other initiatives, Usmaan Ahmed, one of the organisers, emphasised that it was “all facilitated by the youth. Everyone participated and everyone was in charge. It was not a seminar whereby participants only listened to speeches.” The conference created a networking platform for like-minded youth with individual initiatives. It made coherent use of a 4-quadrant structure; the situations at hand were divided into problem, diagnosis, possible approaches and specific action ideas.  

Usmaan goes on to highlight that the OYK conference did not end with a day to mark the “closing ceremony” but instead to mark a day of “stepping forward.” “I was impressed with how the participants independently took up issues and put them into action.” Post-OYK activity is evident with the creation of various initiatives from participants.  

Apart from the focus of the conferences on the discussion and articulation of ideas, they also proved successful in contributing towards the sustained implementation of new initiatives. An entire day in the IFP conference was dedicated to the environment, with the successful plantation of 96 trees between the 20 facilitators and 40 Timorese participants. A group of Timorese past-participants started their own initiative, TLYFP (Timor Leste Youth For Peace) immediately after the 2009 IFP conference. Salles Sousa, a representative from TYLFP, claimed that the organisation had planted over 1000 trees since its formation. Similarly the ‘Let’s Paper Bag’ post-OYK event, entailing 350 participants, involved the conversion of newspapers into approximately 950 paper bags. 

Although both conflicts have left deep wounds on the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir and Timor-Leste, initiatives, such as these conferences are proving to be the small initial steps towards peace building. As a Kashmiri and IFP participant, nothing can make me prouder.

-United Words-


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