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Together We Stand: UNESCO initiatives in Asia-Pacific on the International Day for Tolerance

The Asia-Pacific region is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse in the world and now more than ever the countries that comprise it stand to benefit from this vast wealth.

©UNEP Photographer: Dennis Bautista (Philippines)

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), for example, will come into effect in 2015, and countless other cross-country initiatives within the region are bringing with them the potential for benefits, both economic and cultural.

Moreover, several individual countries in the region are undergoing transformations within their own borders. Groups once in the margins – whether due to ethnic minority status, gender or sexual orientation – are finding their path to the centre as democratic spaces open where their voices can be heard.

These sweeping changes throughout the region and within the borders of individual countries hold great promise for positive change. But they also raise the potential for conflict, as long held grudges between nations and animosity between majority and minority groups within countries fester.

The message of the International Day for Tolerance, 16 November, then is perhaps more vital now than it has been since it was first celebrated in 1995.

As the declaration establishing the day makes clear, tolerance does not mean “concession, condescension or indulgence”, but rather “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human”.

At the core of a tolerant society, as UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova noted in her message to mark the International Day for Tolerance, lies education.

“We need education to disarm the fears that many feel of the unknown and of other people, their cultures, life choices and beliefs. Education is the best way to foster a culture of peace and build inclusive societies,” Ms Bokova wrote.

As the Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific, UNESCO Bangkok is in a unique position to pursue these ends. Many initiatives undertaken by the office in the past and several currently under way share the core desires to foster tolerance and to promote the principle of “learning to live together”. Here is a small sampling of some of these initiatives.



The formation of the AEC has the potential to reshape the region, but whether the transformation is towards a more tolerant, unified whole or one in which longstanding grudges are further cemented remains to be seen.

Recognizing the primary role that education plays in determining which path the sub-region will take over the long term, UNESCO Bangkok set off on a highly ambitious project: the creation of shared history and teaching materials to be used throughout South-East Asia.

As UNESCO Bangkok Director Dr Gwang-Jo Kim noted, the potential of the initiative is immense. “From my own perspective as an educator, I believe real generational change is possible if we improve young people's understanding of past events and of their individual countries and neighbours as unique parts of a diverse whole.”

To lay the foundation for this project UNESCO Bangkok commissioned a study of the way history is taught throughout the region and found that national narratives are stressed to the point of exclusion of the histories of other countries in the region. Young people, therefore, receive an incomplete picture of the region that is their home and their place in it, creating an environment in which intolerance can fester.

Armed with this information, an expert meeting on “Promoting Intercultural Dialogue and a Culture of Peace in South-East Asia through Shared Histories” was hosted by UNESCO Bangkok from 16 to 17 September 2013.

Acknowledging the massive challenge before them, the educators also recognized how growing interest in ASEAN and the formation of the bloc make this an ideal time to launch the project.

The experts who gathered for the meeting from around the region agreed on the importance of developing shared history teaching and learning materials and a timeframe was sent for the creation of these materials and the eventual rollout of pilot materials set for 2016-2017.



Asia-Pacific’s ethnic and cultural richness is perhaps most clearly evident in the number of languages spoken in the region and within member countries. For millions who speak minority languages throughout the region, preserving these linguistic traditions means falling victim to discrimination and exclusion, a key impediment to Education for All (EFA) goals and a breeding ground for intolerance.

To address this, UNESCO Bangkok is again focusing on education for a long-term, sustainable solution, specifically through recognizing and promoting the importance of mother-tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE). 

That was the focus of a major global conference held recently by UNESCO Bangkok. Top-policy makers, NGO representatives, and academic experts shared their insights and discussed their successes and challenges regarding the implementation of MLE programmes in their countries.

The event was the fourth in a series of international conferences organized by the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group (Asia MLE WG), which aims to build national and local capacity in MLE throughout region.

Participants found the conference to be both informative – a common challenge for many was choosing which session to attend when more than one was running at the same time – and also inspiring. For example, the Philippines and Cambodia were among the countries who reported making strides in incorporating multilingual education into their curricula were the Philippines and Cambodia.

For the latter, the country’s Undersecretary of State, H.E. Ton Sa Im, affirmed her country’s commitment to expanding mother-tongue based education for minority groups, particularly in Cambodia’s north.

The push for Multilingual Education is among several initiatives of UNESCO Bangkok that fall under the umbrella of inclusive education, a major focal point in particular for the office’s Asia-Pacific Programme of Education for All unit.



Communal violence in Rakhine State has resulted in a harrowing humanitarian situation that has, among other devastating effects, impacted hundreds of schools and thousands of students.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Education has recently partnered with UNESCO to promote “peace education” to foster mutual respect for cultural diversity at the school level.

Three townships in Northern Rakhine State have been chosen for the project – Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The aim of the peace education project is to raise the capacity of teachers, students and parents to deal with problems in a manner aimed at consensus building and with the community’s needs at heart.

The project will aim to facilitate such constructive civic dialogue, while combating discrimination and promoting peaceful coexistence through human rights-based, quality education.

Some 350 teachers from 40 conflict-affected schools will receive peace education training, and the project also aims to reactivate 40 parent teacher associations and set-up three community learning centers.

These lessons in tolerance could spread to cease-fire areas in Myanmar, benefiting the cause of tolerance in other areas of historical conflict within the country.



Education of a different sort was the focus of another UNESCO initiative to combat intolerance in Cambodia.

The first media training session of its kind was organized by UNESCO’s office in Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s National AIDS Authority (NAA), with the aim of engaging the press to join in the fight against stigmatization and discrimination.

Mr. Pen Bona, board member of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and Editor-in-Chief of Radio France International, highlighted the important role media play in shaping public opinion.

“As media play a key role in society to inform the public, it is crucial that journalists must have a deep understanding of the topic which they cover,” he said. Unbiased, fact-based reporting, he said, is crucial to informing the public on important health related issues, and changing their perceptions.

The training session provided an ideal opportunity for representatives of at-risk communities to meet media professionals and share their stories in the hope that doing so will combat discrimination and intolerance.


Written by Noel Boivin, Media Relations Officer, UNESCO Bangkok