241st Meeting – December 2003

A Social Psychologist at the Burma Border

A talk by Richard Gorsuch

: Hans Bänziger, Mark Barrett, Quenton Buckler, John Cadet, Jim Campion, Sunited Chaiyakul, Bernard D. Davis, Louis Gabaude, Sachie Kageshima Herzog, Sirirut Katanchaleekul, Ray Kaulig, Georgina Kenyon, Annette Kunigagon, Mike Long, Seng Maw, Maggie McKerron, Sayaka Mori, Richard Nelson-Jones, Nathalie Otis, Somkoan Piboonrat, G. Lamar Robert, Chongdut Robert, Damoong Sarotho, Peter Schupp, Jason Taylor, Patrice Victor, Leslie Warren, Edward Wilgress. An audience of 28.

Richard Gorsuch’s summary of his talk:

The last three falls, I have been in Thailand and Yangon and talked with people involved in the problems along the Thai-Burma border. While my knowledge is obviously very limited, I have made some observations that arise from my background (PhD in social psychology;

MDiv.) that you may find of interest. These are about ways of thinking, types of interaction that I have not found that are instrumental for peace, and methods of conflict resolution that my explorations suggest could be useful. I shall be very interested in checking how consistent these are with what the audience has been observing.

Thank you for inviting me to share with this Northern Thailand interest group. I must begin by noting my limitations, which are several. First, I speak neither Thai nor Burmese, and so have had to rely on translators and what bilinguals could tell me. Second, I have had little time in this setting; particularly compared to the time many of you have had here.

My only excuse for speaking is that I have a different base from which to make my observations that you may find of interest. My major professional role is that of a social psychologist. Note that this is NOT a clinical psychologist, who is concerned with mental illness. Instead a social psychologist is concerned with normal people in relationship to each other. I have taught in graduate schools of psychology and have published research in a wide range of areas.

The major social psychological expertise that has been relevant to my Thai and Burma experiences could have been in several areas but was in my research on how people think (with a couple of cross-cultural projects) and my teaching in terms of conflict resolution. The former was research with modes of thinking in USA, Black Caribs in Belize, and Iranians in villages and towns. Given my strong research background, conflict resolution has been an unusual area for me in that I have published little in the area. My experience has come from teaching and from involvement in mediating conflicts in Californian congregations. I was invited into that activity by other faculty, Newton Malony and David Ausberger, when they were contacted by congregations to help them with a major problem. I quickly found that my social psychological perspective contributed to that work in ways which I felt were very useful. I have continued to occasionally mediate a conflict.

So with that background, how did I become involved in Thailand and Burma? Through our Disciple of Christ missionaries, namely the Eubank family. We have known Joan and Allan Eubank since they first came to Thailand in 1960. They were the people who led to my first experience in Thailand when I spent part of a sabbatical at Payap University while my wife, Sylvia, helped the Eubanks work with their Ligay performers. We also got to know David Eubank, first casually as the son of Joan and Allen, and then as an adult when he came to study at the school at which I teach, Fuller Theological Seminary. He stayed in our house first in a one-room efficiency and then, after he married Karen, in a two room apartment. He once got me to climb a mountain, a hobby of his, and we have also spent some time together in Alaska.

In the mid-1990’s, after his schooling, David became our Disciple missionary here in Thailand. Since he is a proficient– even world-class -- outdoorsman, he oriented his missionary work towards the areas with no roads, and in particular with the ethnic groups along the Thai-Burma border. Of course, that border has traditionally been open with everyone freely moving back and forth.

To make a long story short, David's missionary work moved into the medical missionary model with some unique twists. The uniquenesses are from his love of the peoples, his commitment to serving God, the needs of the peoples, and his past experiences with the outdoors. So he began taking to the peoples not only Bibles but also simple medicines and the like on his treks into the hills. Since the local people invited him into their lands without regard for the formal border, he ministered to people without regard to boundaries. But the plight of the peoples on the Burmese side of the border is particularly crucial. The result is the Christians Concerned For Burma that sponsors the World Day of Prayer for Burma and the Free Burma Rangers, for which David has trained some 15 indigenous teams for humanitarian relief. The teams are composed of a medic, nurse, pastor, and photographer / human rights violations documenter. They operate on treks which can be as long as several months, going where no medical aid of any kind is available.

So when I had a year's sabbatical due me at Fuller 3 years ago, my wife and I decided to split it in thirds and take it for each of three falls and spend it here in Thailand. That choice was easy because of our friends here, including the Eubanks and also the Roberts whom we had met on our first trip. As is required on a sabbatical, I bring a full workload with me on which I report when I return to Fuller.

Since I was here, David wondered how he could utilize me. I was quick to point out what he already knew - I am not a trekker and that I just did not want to get in the way, but we would see what we would see. So that first fall, I was given the usual outsider introduction to the ethnic groups’ problems in Burma. We visited refugee camps and talked to leaders from the groups.

That fall David was conducting a leadership seminar for young people sent by their ethnic groups for training in communications, such as writing news releases. That 4-day meeting was led by a professor from Fuller's School of Intercultural Studies. David asked me to spend some time doing some training on what I felt was important. I told David that I had not grown up in a village and knew too little about the Burmese situation to feel that I had sometime to say. But I did go up as an observer. So for the first 3 days I listened and watched. In the evenings I spent an hour with each of the 4 teams which had been formed for the workshop. This was a stretching experience for me because everything had to be translated into Burmese, and then, for some, into their own language. In the group interviews I asked questions about how their peoples dealt with conflict and then told each group a moral dilemma to consider. David asked me to take an hour the last evening, and I agreed but warned I might not go the full hour. And I didn't, I just went for 40 minutes. David was bunking with the men, and he reported that my talk was all they were talking about that night. Outside of the communications training itself, it was the hit of the week. So we decided that I could communicate with the young leaders of the ethnic groups.

Sylvia and I then went to Yangon. We went to encourage the people there and to tell them of the World Day of Prayer. While there I met people at the seminaries and others working for peace or living there. This provided me additional information about the peoples and what has been happening.

The second fall that we came here I was invited to address a meeting of ethnic leaders who came from 11 different ethnic groups. I am the only outsider to have done so, but they accepted the idea because David vouched for me and perhaps because they had heard of my speaking the previous year. My topic was “From Destructive Conflict to Dynamic Peace: the Three Pillars Approach”.  We also went to Yangon again for a week, and spent time with others talking about the border situation.

This year my sabbatical plan is to draft a book on the topic of my talk the previous fall. I scheduled it for Thailand and the ethnic groups so as to better understand the cross-cultural aspects of my approach to conflict. I have again spent time at the border, visited Yangon, and conducted a workshop on the topic of my last year's lectures, and participated in another conflict training workshop.

With that as background, let me summarize some of my observations. I would deeply appreciate your views on these as you are people who have spent much more time here than I.

My first observation was a relative lack of clinical psychological needs among the refugees. At Fuller we have, in cooperation with World Vision, a research and training group on post-traumatic stress. But I could find only some concern for that issue the first year I was here. Only in the second year did I learn the major reason for that. When the SPDC troops move into an area, they seldom torture people. They just kill them all. There can be little post-traumatic stress if people do not live through the stress.

I did observe that the young leaders coming from villages thought like other cross-cultural research had suggested. That thinking is oriented to a limited time frame, of perhaps a year. Longer time periods can be talked about, but such conversations have little personal meaning. Only some of the major leaders have had enough experience outside of the classical village to be able to develop and carryout long term plans. The limited range thinking is illustrated by the planning of those living in a village being only for the current year. For example, given the weather when the rice is planned, plans are made for irrigation and harvest later that year. But a plan for the following year is not very relevant since villagers cannot predict the weather for next year. This short term orientation does work very well for the village but makes it difficult to plan and coordinate long term activities with each other. (My talk the first fall was designed to help them grow in this area.)

Another observation is based in J. P. Lederach's “Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace Press). His conclusion is that sustainable peace is based in middle level leadership. This leadership includes business, religious, government, and educational leaders. The middle level is important because they are in conversations with both the grass roots and the upper level of leadership. While the latter make the peace agreements, those agreements only work with support from the middle level leadership. So it is important that middle level leadership spend time together around critical issues. This is very consistent with what a social psychologist is attuned to: patterns of interaction. My observation was that this is not happening among the ethnic groups, not happening between the ethnic groups and government people, and not happening between the peoples of Burma and the SPDC. In fact, I have been told, there is little communications of any kind between the middle level government people and the SPDC.

Another observation is that the peoples of Burma want and can use more training on reducing conflict and building peace. My three pillars approach seems to help fill that need. I tie it in with Lederach's approach by noting that Lederach says the middle level people need to be meeting, but has little to say about the meeting itself. My three pillars approach is a social psychological approach which sets out how the meetings should happen to reduce destructive conflict and promote dynamic peace. When I participated in a classical conflict workshop here in SE Asia  (set up before I knew about it and so not including my approach), the participants were quite happy with it except for one point: they received almost nothing about what to do in a conflict. My book project starts where that workshop left off: with how to help people interrelate in ways that build peace while meeting each's needs. And the 2-day workshop I did with middle level ethnic group leaders (average age =30) was spontaneously rated as worthwhile and valuable by almost every one of the 15 participants, with the major suggestion being to make it longer. So I am writing my book, will be involving several from the peoples of Burma to advise me on it, and am making tentative plans to have it translated into Burmese.

On the USA front, I have come to the conclusion that people there, including our government, have a major misunderstanding of the situation. They see it as strictly a democracy vs. totalitarian question. They fail to see that the ethnic minorities see themselves discriminated against by all Burmans. Replacing one set of Burmans with another will not, they suspect, stop the war along the border nor stop the persecution within Burma.

After Richard’s talk there followed a somewhat lengthy question and answer session during which members of the audience asked Richard to clarify, and expand upon, aspects of his endeavors on the Thai-Burma border.   


Richard L. Gorsuch, PhD

Professor of Psychology

Graduate School of Psychology

Fuller Theological Seminary