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What is Required for Wars to End

29 October 2012

What is Required for Wars to End

By Gwynne Dyer

More or less at opposite ends of the world, two very long wars are coming to a negotiated end, with no victors and no vanquished. In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino signed a peace agreement with the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on October 16 after more than 40 years of war. In Norway the next day, Colombia’s government began talks with the FARC rebels to end a war that has lasted for over 50 years.

Neither deal is yet complete, and in both wars there have been several previous peace deals that failed. But the omens are better this time, mainly because there is a lot more realism about what is possible and what is not.

“You can’t just ask the FARC to kneel down, surrender and give us the arms,” said the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, as the talks in Oslo began. “They will not do that, so there has to be some way out, and this way out has to be that you are able to participate in the political arena. This is the way any conflict is settled, not only the Colombian conflict.”

The Colombian war has gone on so long that neither side remotely resembles the adversaries of 50 years ago. The left-wing revolutionaries who once set out to win power through a guerilla war have become hereditary rebels who finance their operations through kidnapping and cocaine production.

At the same time, the repressive right-wing governments of the 1960s have given way to a more or less democratic system. The death squads are gone and the economy is growing fast. Time to stop, then. But how?

There are two reasons why there is more hope for this peace initiative than for its predecessors. The first is that FARC can no longer hope for an eventual victory, although it will be a crippling nuisance for another generation if it is not brought back into the political system. The other is that the two sides are not trying to solve all the country’s problems in these talks; they are just trying to end the fighting.

The talks, which will move to Cuba for the next round, deal with only five topics: rural development, FARC’s participation in democratic politics, an end to the fighting, an end to the drug trafficking, and justice for the many civilian victims of the war. Colombia has dozens of other issues that demand attention, but if you put them all on the table there will never be agreement.

Those other issues can and should be settled by the normal political process, in which FARC will play a legitimate part once the war is over. There will have to be an amnesty even for grave violations of human rights. Nor will the fighting stop during the negotiations: that is what provides the pressure for a deal. But this time, in the end, there will probably be a deal.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the long war between the central government and the Muslim minority on the big island of Mindanao is also heading for a peaceful resolution. It has been clear for some time that MILF could never achieve its goal of an independent Muslim state in western Mindanao—and it is also clear that MILF could go on fighting for another generation unless there is a deal.

So you might as well make a deal, and the only plausible one is that the Moros (Filipino Muslims) get a broad degree of self-government in the areas where they are the majority. There will be a referendum in 2015 to settle the size and shape of the new “Bangsamoro” region, but it will remain part of the Philippines, and Manila will retain control of defence, foreign policy, and the broad outlines of economic policy.

This is a bitter pill for MILF to swallow, especially as it was created by leaders who broke away from the old Moro National Liberation Front when it accepted exactly the same deal in the 1980s. But 30 years and tens of thousands more deaths did not change the fact that the Moros were too weak to win their independence, but too strong for Manila to crush or ignore. The current leaders are just recognizing that reality.

So two wars down (probably), and how many more to go? No more than a dozen or so of comparable scale, most of them in Africa and the Middle East. And whether they are internal wars like Colombia and the Philippines or wars between local nationalists and foreign occupiers, they tend to end the same way.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Sri Lankan government’s recent victory over the Tamil Tigers, but in most cases the wars get closed down when both sides recognize that a decisive victory is impossible. Or, rather, they get shut down when the participants finally recognize what has already been plain to most outsiders for decades.

The extra time is required because the people directly involved have already paid such a price for that elusive victory that they just cannot bear to admit to themselves that their sacrifices were wasted. Does this have any relevance to the horrors that are now unfolding in Syria? A great deal, I’m sorry to say.

 

Two Wars

12 June 2003

Two Quite Different Wars

By Gwynne Dyer

The wars that flared up again last month in the Indonesian province of Aceh and the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines seem to have a lot in common. Indeed, both Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are exploiting the climate created by the US ‘war on terrorism’ to justify their attacks on local separatist movements that call themselves ‘Islamic’. But neither the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia nor the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines are really linked to al-Qaeda, and the two conflicts will probably have quite different outcomes.

“It takes two to tango,” said President Macapagal Arroyo in Davao City on 10 June, demanding that MILF respond to her offer of permanent peace with more than a temporary ceasefire. But the fact that she is following up her military offensive with an extended visit to the troubled island of Mindanao suggests that she is after something more than a mere military victory. She is actually trying to end the war.

Both MILF and its rival in the region, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), embody the resentment of the Muslims of the southern Philippines who have become a minority in their own region due to massive government-sponsored Christian immigration over the past fifty years. MILF is more ‘Islamic’ in tone, but the original break between the two groups was driven by personal rivalries (MILF leader Hashim Selamat was second-in-command of the MNLF until 1979), and current differences are mostly about the peace agreement that MNLF leader Nur Misuari signed with Manila in 1996.

MILF would be withering away by now if Manila had actually carried out the 1996 deal in good faith, but it didn’t. Nur Misuari was elected governor of the new Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, but the deal was sabotaged in Manila by Christian senators and congressmen from Mindanao, who cut funds for implementation of the peace agreement and refused to give the autonomous regional government any taxation authority.

As a result, the Muslims of Mindanao still do not have their own government seven years after the peace agreement — and so popular support has shifted to the hold-outs of MILF who never trusted Manila in the first place. Despite a ceasefire, skirmishes between MILF’s 12,000 fighters and government troops have been escalating since 2000, and a wave of attacks that killed about 100 people in Mindanao in May was the last straw for Macapagal Arroyo’s government.

She also accuses MILF of having had contacts with the Islamist terrorists of Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional affiliate of al-Qaeda, and at some level that may be true. But MILF’s support still comes mainly from moderate Muslims who want to stop the erosion of their community’s political and economic position in Mindanao, and a proper implementation of the autonomy deal would either draw MILF into peaceful politics or cut the ground out from under it.

The fact that MILF has responded to the government’s offensive with a series of unilateral ceasefires, the latest of which suspends offensive operations until 22 June, and that neighbouring Malaysia is offering to broker peace talks, suggests that this flare-up of fighting is only temporary. It also raises the rather comforting suspicion that both MILF and Macapagal Arroyo are really manoeuvring to outflank the roadblocks thrown up in Congress by Christian politicians from Mindanao and get to a real peace deal. If that’s what they want, they can probably get it.

There is no similar hope of a silver lining in the war clouds over Aceh. Though the rebels of GAM say they want an Islamic state in Aceh, their more important and non-negotiable demand is for an independent state. That is something no government in Jakarta will grant for fear of turning multi-ethnic Indonesia into the next Yugoslavia — and President Sukarnoputri’s government is even less flexible than Macapagal Arroyo’s because she, unlike her Filipino counterpart, is running for re-election next year.

Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, has rich gas reserves, but the war is not really about economics. Neither is it about Islamic extremism: though GAM exploits Aceh’s deep Islamic traditions as part of its basically nationalist struggle, it has no links with al-Qaeda and faces an Indonesian government that is also overwhelmingly Muslim. What makes Jakarta so obdurate is the fear that Aceh’s departure, following hard on the independence of East Timor in1999, would be the signal for every other disgruntled ethnic group in the country to head for the door.

The ceasefire that was signed by GAM five months ago never had a chance, for Jakarta always insisted that the rebels renounce their claim to independence, accept autonomy as the basis for further negotiations, and lay down their weapons. Since GAM was undefeated in battle after 27 years of rebellion and continues to have the sympathy of most of the 4 million Acehnese, there was no reason for it to comply. The return to fighting was inevitable.

Forty-five thousand Indonesian troops have now swept into the province, 300 schools have been burned, and several hundred civilians are already dead, but there is no end in sight because neither side will compromise and neither side can lose. It is perfectly possible to believe that this war will still be going on — though punctuated by ceasefires of varying duration — a full generation from now.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It takes…war”; and”She also…it”)

NOTE: even Filipino newspapers disagree on whether to refer to the president as Macapagal or Arroyo. The use of both patronyms is always correct.