Scholars urge unis to focus on rights
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Scholars urge unis to focus on rights

Teaching subject seen as vital to Asean peace

Higher education institutions in Asean nations must focus more on teaching human rights and on research to promote peace in Southeast Asia, said a research project released yesterday by Swedish-sponsored human rights scholars.

According to the Asean Declaration of Human Rights, established in 2012, "Education will strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Asean member countries."

However, fewer than 10 of Asean's 7,446 higher education institutions offer specific graduate programmes on human rights, said scholar Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a lecturer at Mahidol University.

Ms Sriprapha led the Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in Asean/Southeast Asia (SHAPE-SEA) research project. 

Mahidol University, the Swedish government, Asean University Network and Southeast Asian Human Rights Studies Network worked together on SHAPE-SEA.

The most common option for human rights education in Asean is the incorporation of human rights and peace studies into other subjects like political science, sociology and international relations.

This can be seen in higher education institutions in Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Specific undergraduate courses dedicated to the subject are rare.

Mahasarakham University in Thailand is the only higher education institution in the Asean region that offers a specific undergraduate programme on human rights and peace studies.

Graduate programmes, such as those at Mahidol University in Thailand, are more common, but are still limited.

The SHAPE-SEA project found a lack of qualified staff, teaching resources, student interest, funding and academic freedom to deal with sensitive political issues, has hindered the setting up of human rights tertiary courses.

"We need to create citizens with an interest in human rights, not just with educational skills," said Ms Sriprapha.

Academic research and students educated in human rights can pressure governments to implement ethical policies, according to SHAPE-SEA.

Currently, however, Ms Sriprapha said there is a "deficiency in policy and political commitment to human rights education" at university, government and regional levels.

Despite efforts by academics to promote peace in the region, human rights violations continue in every Asean nation, Ms Sriprapha said.

The disparity between academics and government policy-makers in terms of human rights awareness is evident in the conflict in southern Thailand between Thais and [ethnic] Malays, said Kamarulzaman Askandar from Malaysia's University of Sabah.

"Our policy recommendations often fall on deaf ears," he said. "Peace efforts are bound to fail for many reasons."

"Many of the issues are not being addressed. The Thai and Malaysian governments are talking to each other but not to people on the ground."

Academic research is crucial for finding peaceful conflict solutions, he said.

SHAPE-SEA recommended better funding for research, which can then be used to formulate quality human rights curricula and localised textbooks for students.

It also called for increased training of teachers and more collaboration between regional universities.

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