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Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

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With the advantage of hindsight it is possible to see the huge changes that have taken place in the Asian region, and the re-ordering of challenges between 1947 and 1975. In the post-colonial countries and in isolated, defeated Japan there was a hunger for change after WWII. Young people in the West also had a hunger to reach across barriers, hoping that international understanding would prevent any future war. When societies become so thoroughly convulsed by war and defeat, people begin to say no more. SCI provided a tiny, but deeply effective vehicle for ordinary people, who were thirsting for peace, to become bridges and to work at grass-root levels. The no nonsense physical labor in workcamps, not only demonstrated the dignity of manual labour, it also enabled a bond to be formed because manual labour transcended the barrier of language and culture. Anybody could do it. The diversity in participants - not just in nationality but from regions within the host country - could lead to misunderstandings but the process of overcoming them, even just the attempts, also led to hope. Impressionable students had their eyes opened to how vast segments of their fellow countrymen lived and in many cases this affected their choice of career.

Those years of heady hope gradually were overlaid by the intractable problems not solved by independence or peace. International politics also affected the course of events. In addition to the active wars – struggle over Kashmir, China’s occupation of Tibet forcing out the Dalai Lama in 1959, the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, stalemate on the Korean peninsula, civil war and formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Vietnam War, and communal tensions within Sri Lanka – the Cold War also left its mark on the region. SCI continued to play a role, and the development of long-term projects throughout the region enabled SCI to meet a new challenge. Particularly when the projects were easily accessible by local members, such as the Nangoli project outside of New Delhi, a cross-fertilization could occur. However, SCI was at the mercy of governments for obtaining visas for volunteer exchange, and chronically short of money, therefore its efforts waxed and waned.

In the 21st century, population has increased throughout the region creating new challenges. On the other hand, strong economic growth has raised the overall standard of living considerably and is setting the stage for a major shift of power. Instant communication by means of mobile phones, faxes and the internet have brought big changes. It is a totally different environment from the period of 1945-1975. Can the low-tech of workcamps meet the hi-tech times? The next generation, or heirs of those who passed through the countless workcamps and long-term projects in India, Pakistan, Japan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea may find meaningful ways for ordinary persons to connect. It may be that the need to make connections across barriers, especially of religion, will be the genesis of SCI work in the 21st century.

See Dorothy Abbott’s period in India, 1950-1953 and Thedy von Fellenberg’s time in India

Memories of volunteers in Asia

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