The people of rural Thailand dislike conflict so much—they feel it destroys social harmony—that they frequently turn to mediators to settle their disputes. For the Rural Thai, conflict not only undercuts positive social relationships, it may also result in a loss of face, which is a very important value for them. Their desire to avoid these possible consequences of disharmony prompts them to soften their positions in a dispute as much as they can, to withdraw from conflict whenever possible, and to apologize for behavior that may have fostered a problem.
Part of the reason the rural Thai people avoid conflict and emphasize human harmony is that most of them accept the tenets of Theravada Buddhism, according to a recent article by Ronda Roberts Callister and James A. Wall, Jr. “Thai and U.S. Community Mediation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48(4): 573-598, (2004). Thais believe that individuals gain merit from promoting peace and harmony as they go through the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth. These merits accumulate until the individuals ultimately reach a state of perfection. Their religious beliefs prompt them to apologize and forgive others, actions that contribute to their karma and lead to inner calmness.
Inspired by their Buddhism, the rural Thai also believe in obedience to social and economic superiors, which further supports their collective harmony. Thailand is primarily a hierarchical society. The head of the village, the phuyaiban, reports to the head of a cluster of villages, the kamnan. That official reports to the head of the district, the nai amphoe, who reports to the governor who reports to the king. People involved in disputes often turn to the local officials, the phuyaiban and the kamnan, for assistance in mediating their conflicts.
Villagers also call on senior monks quite frequently to mediate their disputes. These monks are eager to provide the mediation service because an important aspect of their Buddhist beliefs is to minimize ill will and disharmony in the community. The villagers, for their part, turn to the respected local elders and monks in order to avoid the expenses, possible shame, and potential corruption of going to court.
The research that Callister and Wall report in this article involved interviewing 111 Thai mediators to get details on their methods of resolving conflicts. For comparison purposes, they also interviewed 111 U.S. mediators. The researchers found that the Thai mediators, with their positions of prestige, status, and authority in their communities, tend to be more assertive in their mediation techniques than the U.S. mediators, who usually do not have comparable power positions in American society.
The Thai mediators more frequently bring the disputants together, according to Callister and Wall, than the Americans do. They more often demand that the disputants make concessions, they more frequently criticize them, and they threaten them more often than their American counterparts do. In addition, the Thai mediators are more likely than the Americans to press the disputants to seek forgiveness and to offer apologies. Furthermore, the Thai mediators frequently emphasize to the disputants their interdependence within the community (see also, for similar approaches, “Avoiding and Resolving Conflict” among the Semai).
The authors conclude that the success of Thai mediation can be attributed to the Buddhist beliefs that predispose the people to seek a harmonious society, to their desire to save face, and to the fact that the mediators are broadly influential, older people with more status and respect in the community than the disputants. Thai mediators therefore can press forcefully for people to effectively resolve their conflicts.