Given the history of colonialism and the diversity of South Asia, Dylan Mathews, CEO of Peace Direct, an award-winning international NGO that supports local activism in conflict areas worldwide, says that appreciating one’s own history can hold the key to conflict resolution. “We have lost much knowledge about how our own cultures dealt with disputes and we should take time to re-learn some of these ways,” says the London-based peacebuilder who has Sri Lankan ancestry, and who believes that the imperialism of past centuries continues to affect our perceptions of the world.
“We still carry the baggage of colonialism in our DNA, in how we value (or devalue) our own knowledge compared to Western knowledge and how we favour certain types of external intervention rather than trusting ourselves,” says Mathews, who is vice-chair of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a global peacebuilding network based in Washington DC.
Mathews, 47, also believes leaders in South Asia must “resist the temptation to pander to national stereotypes about ourselves and others, and in particular to resist the lure of ethno-nationalists who tell us that our country is better than others. We are all brothers and sisters, and if we approach international cooperation with more humility, we may open up incredible opportunities for building peace and prosperity for all.”
Mathews’ association with Peace Direct – which is headquartered in London and has offices in Washington DC and New York – goes back almost two decades. Just after he completed his BA in history from Sussex University, he was approached by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr Scilla Elworthy, founder of the think tank Oxford Research Group, to research the role of non-state actors in preventing and resolving violent conflict.
“She had a ‘hunch’ back then that the current top-down models of conflict prevention and resolution, which focus on elite-led peace agreements and high-level negotiations, weren’t necessarily the key to building long-lasting peace, and that the role of ordinary citizens and groups was overlooked. So, I set about researching whether local people and organisations had had a role in preventing or resolving violent conflict,” he says.
Mathews discovered to his amazement that there was an abundance of stories, largely hidden in obscure books and many of them unpublished. “We assembled the 50 best stories, published it as War Prevention Works in 2001 and this became the launchpad for the establishment of Peace Direct the following year,” says Mathews, who went on to do an MSc in development studies and an MBA. After working in various NGOs worldwide, he joined Peace Direct as CEO in 2015.
The vision behind Peace Direct is that local people are central to the resolution of their own conflicts, and that peace is not sustainable if imposed from the outside. The NGO aims to challenge the status quo, and to rebalance relationships and power in favour of local people and communities rather than international agencies. Its online resource Peace Insight maps over 2,200 peacebuilding organisations worldwide. In 2019 alone, the NGO impacted over 28,000 lives in 44 conflict zones around the world through sustained efforts to support local activism.
For Mathews, who is the editor of Working with Conflict 2 (2020), a practical toolkit for local peacebuilders, peace is not just the absence of war and violence. “It has to be a sustainable peace built on sustainable investments in economic development and institutions as well as the societal attitudes that foster peace,” he says, quoting the Institute for Economics and Peace.
Mathews was born in the UK and lived most of his life in a small village on the outskirts of London in the county of Essex. His mother was originally from Sri Lanka. “My Sri Lankan heritage is something that I am very proud of. My biggest influences while growing up were my mother and aunt. My mother was a single parent raising twins in a country that she hardly knew and with no real understanding of parenthood in the conventional sense as she was orphaned as a baby and was raised by nuns in a convent. My aunt came to the UK seeking a better life and – like her sister – built something out of nothing. Both filled my and my sister’s life with joy and unconditional love,” he says.
As the only Asian family in the English village, Dylan faced racism while growing up. “What most influenced my world view was visiting my father, in Zambia, who had moved there when I was a small child, leaving my mother to raise me and my sister on her own. We visited Zambia every summer, and spending time in the rural areas transformed my understanding of the world. I became curious about poverty and the differences between the development of different countries. I then learned more about my mother’s upbringing as an orphan in Sri Lanka and how her life was transformed by the generosity and kindness of one nun who acted as a mother to her. During my secondary school years, I went on an expedition to Uganda to climb the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ – the fabled source of the Nile – which again stimulated my desire to understand the world around me and to help in some way. These international experiences were profoundly important in shaping me as a young man,” he reminisces.
Mathews’ personal experiences tie in with Peace Direct’s vision of a just world free from violent conflict, and where local people are at the front and centre of all efforts to build sustainable peace. “The main learning I have taken from my time at Peace Direct is that civil society represents the largest untapped source of peacebuilding potentially globally. Wherever we have looked into countries experiencing violent conflict, we have found large numbers of groups and organisations actively working to stop the bloodshed and trying to build sustainable peace. They are chronically underfunded and unrecognised for their efforts, which is why the world knows little about them. But they are there, everywhere,” he asserts.
He believes the internet and social media can be used effectively to build connections and ties across borders in ways no one could have imagined a few decades ago. “We’ve seen already how access to the internet can give voice to marginalised groups and can link us to activists around the world to promote peace and greater understanding,” he says, giving the example of campaign group 350.org, which is working to build a global grassroots movement to “take on the entire fossil fuel industry” by tapping volunteers across borders.
He adds, however, that social media can also do precisely the opposite, and can be a driver of conflict and division. “So, we must use this opportunity wisely – to connect with those who share our values, listen attentively to those who do not, and find ways to enter into dialogue that helps us build bridges of understanding,” he says.
On the subject of India-Pakistan peace, Mathews believes each person can play their part. “Let’s not wait for the elites to decide when is the time to work towards a lasting peace between the two countries. First, challenge yourself about your perceptions of the ‘other’ side. Then join discussions with those from the other side, to understand their perspectives. There are plenty of opportunities to do so. Then educate your friends, so that your circle of people who are willing to think and act differently grows. This is how peace starts,” he says.
He also agrees with a growing movement in the Subcontinent calling for visa-free travel and reducing of trade restrictions in the region on the lines of the European Union. “While the EU project has its critics – and Brexit has shown that the EU isn’t popular in certain countries and with certain groups of people – it has been very successful in bringing peace to most of the continent for most of its life. The EU is still regarded by many as a peace project, designed to ensure that war among neighbours would be impossible. While ‘impossible’ wasn’t quite achieved, the idea of closer economic and political integration as a way of fostering collaboration and cooperation applies to other regions, and a South Asia Union could do the same, even with a region so linguistically and culturally diverse,” he says.
Of course, there are other issues in South Asia that the region shares in common with a growing number of nationalist regimes around the world, especially the increasing trend of political leaderships using religious and historical rifts to deepen hatred and conflict in their race for power. “This is tragic and – as we have seen wherever such tactics are used – this only leads to further violence and polarisation,” says Mathews.
“The rise of ethno-nationalism and religious extremism is one of the biggest threats to the security of many countries and all of us have a duty to tackle it when we see it,” he says. “This can mean not sharing inflammatory social-media posts, writing to our newspapers if they publish hate speech, and reaching out to politicians and opinion formers if we see them pandering to lazy stereotypes about other cultures. Intolerance is the perfect breeding ground for violence so we must all do our part to be more tolerant and accepting of others, and particularly the most marginalised in society.”