The International Symposium on “Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence in Multicultural Societies” was successfully held in Bangkok, Thailand on 11-12 January 2016. The symposium was jointly organized by the OIC Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) and the Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs (DVIFA) of the Kingdom of Thailand. Having come to fruition as a result of systematic collaboration between the two institutions over the course of last two years, the symposium brought together leading diplomats including the Secretary General of the OIC H.E. Dr. Iyad Ameen Madani; H.E. Mr. Virasakdi Futrakul, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand; H.E. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Former ASEAN Secretary-General and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand; and Tan Sri Dato’ Sri H.E. Dr. Syed Hamid Albar, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. Moreover, several academics and intellectuals specializing on interfaith dialogue between the Muslim and the Buddhist communities also contributed to the symposium. The symposium program started with a working dinner on Sunday, 10 January 2016 at Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel for the organizers from IRCICA and DVIFA, as well as the speakers.     

The symposium proceedings on Monday morning, 11 January 2016, started with the welcoming address of H.E. Dhiravat Bhumichitr, Ambassador at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand and Deputy Director of the DVIFA. Ambassador Bhumichitr explained the process leading to the organization of this crucial symposium and expressed his wish that similar meetings that could contribute to better understanding between Muslim and Buddhist communities could be organized more frequently.  

The Director General of IRCICA, Dr. Halit Eren, in his opening speech gave an extensive historical account of the relations between the Muslim and Buddhist societies and stressed that there has been always a harmonious relationship up until the recent decades. Dr. Eren indicated that current conflicts in Southeast Asia between the two communities largely from ignorance and lack of proper education and systematic efforts shall be made to improve the national systems of education in a way that promotes intercultural harmony and peaceful coexistence.      

The Secretary General of the OIC H.E. Dr. Iyad Ameen Madani, in his opening address pointed out the opportunities and challenges posed by the multidimensional processes of globalization. Dr. Madani indicated that the swift dissemination of information via conventional and social media was making it easier to disperse false perceptions, prejudices and stereotypes across borders. Therefore, it is vital to improve face to face contacts and academic/intellectual exchanges among different faith communities to empower a culture of tolerance and peaceful coexistence on a global level. Dr. Madani congratulated IRCICA and DVIFA for organizing this major international symposium and expressed his wish for the organization of several meetings in the future that would bring Muslim and Buddhist academics, intellectuals, religious representatives and artists together.

The Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, H.E. Mr. Virasakdi Futrakul, in his welcoming speech gave examples from the Buddhist and Islamic teachings concerning the importance of mutual understanding, forgiveness and tolerance. Mr. Futrakul expressed his view that better understanding between the two communities will pave the way for a more peaceful and prosperous future for Asia and the world.     

The first session of the symposium was titled “Intercultural contacts and exchanges in multicultural societies as a basis of interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence”. The speakers of the session included Dr. Surin Pitsuwan (Former ASEAN Secretary-General and Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand); Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Dr. Syed Hamid Albar (Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia); and Venerable Phra Dr. Anil Sakya (Deputy Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences of Mahamakut Buddhist University, Thailand). The session witnessed inspiring presentations and a lively Q&A sub-session at the end.

The second session was titled “Education and the role of the youth in maintaining and promoting interfaith dialogue and culture of peace” and the speakers included Prof. Ali Murat Yel (Dean, Faculty of Sociology, Fatih University, Turkey); Dr. Chaiwat Satha-anand (Professor for Politics and Government, Thammasat University, Thailand); Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree (Lecturer, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand); Dr. Steve Taylor (Director of Research and Development, Bangkok Bible Seminary). This session also witnessed lively debates.

The third and final session of the symposium was titled “The influence and role of media and civil society in promoting interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence” and the speakers included Dr. Sadik Ünay (Associate Professor for International Relations, Senior Researcher, IRCICA); Dr. Abdulla Numsuk (Executive Director of the Wasatiyyah Institute for Peace and Development, Sheikul Islam Office of Thailand); Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn (Assistant Group Editor, Nation Media Group, Thailand); Dr. Hassan Abedin (Head of Muslim Minorities Division, OIC). The presentations gave the audience a rich reservoir of information about the work of the OIC and IRCICA concerning interfaith/intercultural dialogue and peaceful coexistence by indicating concrete examples and specific projects. There were also references to the use of conventional and social media for the purposes of promoting peaceful coexistence.

At the end of the sessions, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand to Ankara, H.E. Tharit Charungvat presented gifts to the speakers and thanked all the participants. The Director General of IRCICA, Dr. Halit Eren, in his closing speech summarized the main ideas and discussions that came to surface during the symposium. Dr. Eren thanked the DVIFA and the Government of Thailand for their hospitality, H.E. Dr. Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General of the OIC, for his unwavering support and the valued scholars for their contributions. Dr Eren expressed that a book comprising the presentations made during the symposium will be published by IRCICA in due course and expressed his wish that similar meetings could also be organized at the ASEAN level.