“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word.” And with that, in Act One, Scene One, Tybalt, the violent “Prince of Cats” in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins a fight that could possibly have been avoided.
A journalist with more than 16 years’ experience covering stories of terror, violence, attending inquests, carrying out death knocks and focusing on the emerging field of “trauma journalism”, there came a point last year when I was ready to take a step back and deep dive into the world of peace and conflict, which had come to underpin every bit of storytelling I was doing.
So earlier this year, I took three months’ unpaid leave to take up a Rotary International peace fellowship at Chulalongkorn University, in Thailand.
This is a professional development programme for mid-career workers interested in understanding peace and learning conflict-resolution techniques.
Fifty people from around the world had been selected for a funded scholarship this year, after a two-part face -to-face interview process and a long paper application system.
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An article I had written for BBC History several years previously, on why people destroyed cultural heritage, had instigated a real interest in identity politics.
My three months would be spent examining the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, in 2001, the role the media had played and lessons for the future.
Peace and conflict study courses are on offer at universities and educational centres around the world – it’s a popular subject.
In 1948, peacemaker Gladys Muir established what is believed to be the world’s first undergraduate programme in peace studies, at Manchester College, in Indiana, in the US.
Plethora of programmes
A quick online search for “peace fellowships” brings up a plethora of opportunities across the globe.
The peace fellowship in which I enrolled receives $3.4m (£2.6m) from the Rotary Foundation each year, although the running costs are more than that.
Rotary International president John Germ says the organisation invests in the fellowship programme because it gives students “a tool, to use and pass on – to build a world of hope and peace for all of us”.
The foundation also funds master’s courses at peace centres in Tokyo, Uppsala, in Sweden, North Carolina, Brisbane and Bradford, but the centre in Bangkok is currently the only one hosting this mid-career certificate.
Taking two cohorts of up to 25 a year, the classes are intense and operate on a pass-or-fail basis.
My 23 classmates came from 17 different countries and a wide variety of backgrounds – a farmer, development consultants, lecturers, a lawyer, women’s rights activists, a government official and people with experience in the United Nations and smaller scale NGOs – all with the same intention of developing our experiences in this field and learning from each other.
We had to live together in the same university accommodation and spend a lot of time together.
But, as US classmate, Travis Burke, a consultant with experience in Afghanistan, Somalia and Ukraine, said: “The value of different voices and thoughts can’t be underestimated when tackling these major issues.”
This particular Thai peace course began as a pilot in 2005.
It has been running ever since, producing 203 male and 220 female peace alumni from 78 countries.
Each cohort goes on a domestic and international field trip.
Class 22 visited Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, to examine the fight over the Mekong River.
We then travelled to Sri Lanka to look at the after-effects of the civil war, which came close to devastating the country.
People on all sides, from villagers to fishermen to military staff to government officials, all wanted to share their experiences.
The course lecturers include lawyers, Buddhist monks and peace activists.
The fellowship also uses its network of alumni as a resource – so who knows which of my classmates will be back in Thailand soon to pass on their expertise.
We examined military approaches, the role of storytelling and the media, how women were integral to peace, mediation and human rights, within the designated modules.
But the world is moving on, and cyber-warfare is becoming a norm.
With fellows raising issues around disinformation and the role of fake media and technology in obstructing peace, the director Vitoon Viriyasakultorn says changes to the course curricular are afoot.
“As well as the changing political environments and emerging issues around the world, it is the right time to revisit the programme to make it more attractive and responsive to the world’s changing environments and technologies,” he says.
For some of my classmates, the scholarship has already instigated change.
Dan Noel Odaba, who teaches international relations at the United States International University Africa, in Nairobi, is using the skills he learned to help young people in slum areas to learn how to resolve conflict.
Sharada Jnawali, from Kathmandu, has 15 years’ experience in the development field.
For her, the programme provided an immediate networking pool and some theoretical tools to complement the practical experience she had already accumulated, while Jill Mann, a peace activist from Leeds, says it’s made her rethink how communities approach peace and conflict.
Maybe soon we’ll find the words of Benvolio, Tybalt’s counterpart in Romeo and Juliet, will be far more influential in a world where conflict dominates the news agenda: “I do but keep the peace: put up thy sword, Or manage it to part these men with me.”
Follow Dhruti Shah on Twitter: @dhrutishah