President Obama’s meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other world leaders in November was an opportunity for Asian countries to discuss international relations. Meanwhile, civil society representatives of those countries took the opportunity to hold their own regional meetings in Phnom Penh, discussing the issues they wanted to raise to regional and world leaders.

To build international peace, many agreed, Asian leaders must focus on solving internal conflict first.

AFSC’s Chhit Muny, Asia peace partnerships program officer, shared his lessons on this point with 80 civil society representatives from throughout Southeast Asia at one of the regional forums focused on peace and security.

Muny talked about the experience of AFSC’s partners in building peace between Cambodians and Thais following a 2008 border dispute. The dispute took place in the vicinity of an ancient temple. Soldiers and civilians alike were killed in armed clashes, and thousands of people had to evacuate their homes.

This year, both sides withdrew their troops from the conflict area, but there is no written agreement or resolution to the underlying dispute. Although ASEAN has tried to play a role in conflict resolution, these efforts have so far been ineffective. There is still a possibility that the fighting could flare again.

In such circumstances, civil society plays a vital role in sowing the seeds of peace, Muny said. He described the efforts of AFSC’s partners to promote and give voice to ordinary people’s desire for peaceful coexistence.

“At the beginning, it was hard to engage Cambodian and Thai partners on this emotive topic,” he said. “But by analyzing the conflict dynamics and examining their personal understanding and attitudes, the civil society groups have become more confident in working across conflict divides.

“They initially worked on building understanding and a desire for peace among youth. They are now engaging diplomats, politicians, government officials, academics, religious leaders, border communities, and the media in their campaign for peace.”

AFSC’s partners successfully organized a range of activities, from community cross-border gatherings to public awareness campaigns and cross-border peace walks.

''It is very important that civil society organizations play a role to reduce tensions and prevent the escalation of nationalist attitudes,” Muny reflects. Inviting people from both sides of the conflict to raise their common voice to appeal for peace proved in this case to be an effective way to reduce the divisions.

As for ASEAN, Muny says it should focus on interrelated strategies: avoid conflict by working with civil society and international peace-building organizations and supporting negotiation and mediation practices. ''ASEAN should play a stronger role in solving its internal problems before jumping to international ones,” he says.