Southeast Asian teens on diplomatic maneuvers at NIU

The parties were gathered Tuesday morning in the Lincoln Room at the Holmes Student Center: Japan, Micronesia, the United Nations, the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Department of State. Their task: to resolve a mounting depletion of Pacific fish population by getting everyone at the table to agree to the same plan of action to deal with the crisis.

This situation, a real-life crisis as global fish supplies shrink and conflicts erupt, this time was a simulation to teach 28 high schoolers and adult leaders from six Southeast Asian countries the basic building blocks of diplomacy.

Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program
Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program (SEAYLP) students Kyle Wei Ren Chan of Malaysia and Willy Wei Li Kong of Brunei confer on their position paper.

The visiting teenagers from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have been at NIU since Oct. 27, learning cooperative leadership skills as participants in the Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program (SEAYLP)  run by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS).

In its second year, the three-week program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State and is run in spring and fall, is designed around two themes: the leadership of Abraham Lincoln and river ecology.

So far, guided by an intrepid group of CSEAS graduate students, the group has seen how non-governmental organizations work, met with their teenage counterparts at the Illinois Math and Science Academy for a day, learned how to safely test water for simple contaminants, and worked on creating community action plans and how to use the spoken and written word effectively.

Nearly all of these skills were being put to the test in Tuesday’s practice for the diplomacy simulation, which will culminate in a presentation in front of real diplomatic personnel Thursday, Nov. 18, at the State Department in Washington, D.C. 

Anthropology graduate student Shahin Aftabizadeh has been in charge of the project, using his own background in refugee work on the Thailand-Burma border and a laptop full of simulation materials from the State Department to coach the SEAYLP students on crafting position papers and negotiating from there.

“We broke up the group into the five groups and tried to have each country represented in each group,” Aftabizadeh said.

Students were given the task to research their party’s position and draft a position paper. On Tuesday, often working furiously on laptops and in tight whispering huddles, the teams convened in a circle to explain and at times defend or amend their positions. Aftabizadeh presided over the sometimes boisterous proceedings with the help of the adult leaders, who participate in the exercise only as “silent advisers,” not speakers.

Japan, whose fishing fleets range thousands of miles in search of prized bluefin tuna, seemed to take the most heat on Tuesday as its lead negotiator, Willy Wei Li Kong of Brunei, tried to convince the group that getting its population to eat more soybeans would help decrease fish consumption and fishing activity.

The World Wildlife Fund, represented by Gabriel Duen Yue Chan of Singapore, and the UN, represented by Elesha Sue Yuen Chew of Malaysia, appeared unconvinced that Japan could deliver on such an outcome. Micronesia, led by Marina Tan of Malaysia, was emphatically concerned that its fishing exports to Japan would be lessened. But the Japan team held its own.

Shahin Aftabizadeh
Shahin Aftabizadeh

“Good job, Japan; you guys were under fire,” Aftabizadeh told them.

In such a situation, the different cultural backgrounds of the participants can come into play, just like in an actual diplomatic situation, which makes this exercise an especially appropriate one for a program bringing different Southeast Asian countries together, Aftabizadeh said. This is the first SEAYLP group to perform such a simulation, he noted.

The SEAYLP students and leaders are scheduled to depart NIU Saturday, Nov. 13, when they will leave on a study tour focused on the life of Lincoln in Illinois and Indiana, then on to the nation’s capital for five more days of learning activities, and, of course, preparing for their moment in the sun at the State Department Thursday. They leave for their home countries on Saturday, Nov. 20. From there, said CSEAS Director James Collins, many of the participants will put what they’ve learned at NIU into action, as have a number of teams from the 2009-10 SEAYLP groups already.

“Last year’s SEAYLP team from Cambodia staged a big rally to encourage people to keep city streets and parks cleaner. We’ve also had our participants from Vietnam organize an event to raise awareness of the needs of children with cancer in that country,” Collins said. “We just received a video of the Indonesian SEAYLP group planting mangrove trees to help restore the delta ecology in their country.”

The center welcomes its next SEAYLP delegation in spring.

by Liz Poppens Denius, Center for Southeast Asian Studies

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