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University News

Strait Talk Symposium forges ‘peacemakers’

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The sounds of Chinese, Taiwanese and English mingled inside Vartan Gregorian Quad Sunday afternoon during the Peace Project Workshop of Brown’s seventh-annual Strait Talk Symposium. Empty coffee cups were strewn over the tables, and students — clad in jeans and T-shirts — chattered away.

It was the second day of the intensive week-long event, intended to bring together 15 student delegates from the United States, Taiwan and mainland China and to “create a generation of peacemakers” to broker new relations between China and Taiwan in the long term, according to the event’s organizers.

“The idea behind this is very humanitarian,” said Qian Yin ’12, chair of the 2011 Strait Talk Symposium and a former Herald staff writer. “It really challenges you to slow down and to think about the other side’s fears, concerns.”

Tatsushi Arai, associate professor of conflict transformation at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vt., and facilitator of the symposium, said he has experience in conflict resolution, but, “I have never seen anything like this in my life.”

Strait Talk, started by Johnny Lin ’08 in 2005, was created with the intent to facilitate non-partisan discussion about and between both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The program has since gone on to create a national board with chapters in Berkeley and Hong Kong. A new chapter in Taiwan is slated to host its first symposium in 2012.

The Brown symposium, which has its final event tonight, is a mix of general panels and private sessions intended to encourage a safe space for delegates to talk freely about Cross-Strait issues. The panels, which are open to all members of the University community, draw speakers with a background in Cross-Strait relations, from academics to think-tank scholars, said Lan Mei ’14, the program’s public events coordinator.

“The information that we give (speakers) about Strait Talk presents a very positive image,” she said. “They really like the concept of coming here for this cause.”

But at the heart of the symposium is the series of private sessions held Sunday through today in which delegates create a consensus document, which details a “set of policy recommendations for policy makers,” Yin said. The sessions employ a method called Interactive Conflict Resolution, which promotes “mutual recognition and consensus building, seeking a framework in which participants can acknowledge each other’s identities, grievances and aspirations,” according to Strait Talk’s website.

The atmosphere at these sessions differs from that at the Peace Project Workshop Sunday afternoon — students were engaged in more muted and serious conversation and were focused on the detail-specific work of creating a consensus document.

The delegates clearly felt they were working toward a greater goal.

“It’s a really refreshing experience because you get to see people across the Strait as well as the U.S.,” said a Chinese delegate, who wanted her name withheld for security reasons. “We have these (conflict resolution) meetings which definitely help us realize the problem and how to solve it.”

One of the more notable results of the week-long symposium are the friendships formed there.

“It’s comparable to a Brown connection,” said Alina Kung ’12, the 2011 Peace Project coordinator. “You can talk to a Brown alumni, and you can automatically make all these assumptions because you had the same experience, and you share that deep connection. That’s how it feels like when you meet up with a new Strait Talk person.”

“A movement involves a sustained process, involved different stakeholders, especially in terms of interest, and it has to be acceptable to many people,” said Arai, who has facilitated the Brown symposium since its inception. “We’re not daydreaming that those small student-led dialogues will eventually change something so drastic, but it is possible that a group of 100, 200 people across those two sides will have sustained friendship and also happen to have some social influence.”

But the symposium remains long-term in scope.

“This is a 10- to 20-year proposition, not a three-year proposition, but I think there is no peace building without a long-term commitment,” Arai added. “That’s the future.”

The conflict resolution sessions culminate in the presentation of the consensus document to the Brown community during the final panel of the symposium, which will take place tonight in Kassar Fox Auditorium at 8 p.m. This year, the 15 delegates are also presenting to a combination of think-tank members and government officials in Washington, D.C., at the end of the week.

The student-run symposium, which is supported every year by the Watson Institute for International Studies, received increased funding from the Year of China initiative. There was also heightened interest from potential delegates. The number of applications for the Taiwan delegation doubled from last year, while applications for the U.S. delegation tripled.

Because of the increased financial support from the Year of China initiative, the symposium was able to attract and fund international speakers, Kung said. “In the past, we wouldn’t solicit people in Taiwan or China because we didn’t have the money to fly them over,” she said.

“(The Year of China) is really trying to engage the whole Brown experience for students,” said Chung-I Tan P’95 P’03, professor of physics and director of the Year of China initiative. “Because of the Year of China, we are helping advertise and make (Strait Talk) better known, so hopefully more people engage.”

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