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Kyrgyzstan needs a peace army

The ousting of Kyrgyzstan’s President back in April by violent anti-government protests was followed by more violence in June, as the Uzbek minority found itself a convenient scapegoat for the economic woes facing the country. In the aftermath, at least 2,000 Uzbeks were dead and some 375,000 displaced. Hundreds of Uzbek businesses and homes were also looted and burned to the ground. As a result, some fear a Rwanda-type situation is brewing. If so, does that mean it is up to the typically indifferent international community to intervene?

In a recent piece for Common Ground News Service, University of San Francisco professor S. Francesca Po and UC Berkeley professor/founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Michael Nagler wrote about another option that draws on Gandhi’s dream of a Shanti Sena or “peace army.”

The idea behind the Shanti Sena was that trained non-violent volunteers would live in a place with conflict long enough to gain the confidence of the locals as a truly neutral third party. They would then provide services to promote peace in times of tension: abating dangerous rumours and misconceptions, accompanying vulnerable persons under threat, mediating when asked and – if need be – interposing themselves between conflicting parties if it was too late to defuse tensions.

This practice is more commonly known as “unarmed civilian peacekeeping” and it has had tremendous success, despite the fact that it’s largely ignored by mainstream media.

For instance, Peace Brigades International has been active in conflict regions since 1981, Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1990, and Nonviolent Peaceforce—co-founded by WNV contributor David Hartsough—since 2002.

Kyrgyzstan could benefit from this kind of a neutral, non-violent third party presence to teach and demonstrate to the local population that ethnic violence does not solve anything – but non-violence just might.

In Kyrgyzstan in particular, peace armies could act as a protective force, escorting and defending targeted minorities like the Uzbeks. Nonviolent Peaceforce has already sent an exploratory team to the southern Caucasus, where there have been multiple interstate and ethnic conflicts in the recent past. With an invitation from the new Kyrgyz government, and international support and funding, Nonviolent Peaceforce could get to work in southern Kyrgyzstan and help the country transition – peacefully – into a parliamentary democracy.

Every time non-violence has been used correctly it has been a brilliant success – and almost every time, barely anyone notices. Until the media catch on, it’s up to the public to get informed about unarmed civilian peacekeeping. For if we know of no alternative, we may continue to flounder in the old dilemma of violence or inaction.