Some Good News

22 August 2005

Some Good News

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes, just forcing yourself to say the right words can save thousands of lives. “The Kurdish problem is everybody’s problem, but above all mine,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbekir last week. “We will solve all problems through democracy,” he added — and went on to admit that the national government, dominated by the Turkish-speaking majority, had long mistreated the Kurds who make up a fifth of the country’s people.

The rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which resumed its separatist war in south-eastern Turkey last year after a five-year ceasefire, responded immediately by suspending all attacks for a month because Erdogan’s remarks had “created a positive atmosphere for a resolution.”

Can it be as simple as that? Well, no, but the words have to be said. Kurds suffered more than anybody else in the PKK’s 15-year separatist revolt in 1984-99, which killed 37,000 people. Most of them don’t insist on a separate state; they just want respect for their language and culture in a country that used to deny their very existence, calling them “mountain Turks”. But Erdogan had to convince them that he was truly committed to righting those past injustices, so they needed a public apology.

The trick now will be to turn the PKK’s one-month unilateral ceasefire into a permanent peace. That mainly depends on Erdogan persuading Turkish public opinion and his own armed forces not only to accept an amnesty for the estimated 3,000 PKK fighters who are still in the mountains, but also to let the PKK participate peacefully in legal, democratic politics.

The situation is remarkably similar in Indonesia, where the separatist rebels in Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra signed a peace deal with the government on 15 August after a 29-year war that killed at least 15,000 people. What opened the door to peace was the tsunami last December that killed over 200,000 of the 4 million Acehnese and gave both sides a new perspective on their long quarrel, but the words still had to be said there, too.

They were spoken first by the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who announced last February that they would finally drop their demand for independence if only the Indonesian state would live up to its long-neglected promises of local autonomy for Aceh. The newly elected Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had already been making conciliatory noises, so Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative offered its mediation services, and after five rounds of negotiations in Helsinki they came up with a peace deal that may actually work.

GAM’s 3,000 fighters will amnestied and disarmed, while its leaders will re-emerge as a legitimate political party. The local government will get a high degree of autonomy, including 70 percent of the income generated by the province’s rich oil and gas resources, and Jakata will withdraw more than half of its 53,000 troops and police from Aceh. The European Union and ASEAN will send monitors to settle disputes and oversee the process. And everyone will live grumpily ever after.

Even the deepest and most embittered conflicts over language, religion and ethnicity are soluble if there is enough patience and good will. In fact, the past month has seen another case where a peace settlement that almost fell apart was saved, at least for the moment, by people who simply refused to lose their heads or to jostle for political position. The Sudan peace deal is still holding, too, despite the unexpected death of its main architect, John Garang.

The 22-year civil war between north and south in Sudan has cost about two million lives, and the power-sharing deal to end it was very much the personal accomplishment of John Garang, the southern leader who became Sudan’s first vice-president in a north-south power-sharing government only last month. His sudden death in a helicopter crash early this month led to days of rioting by southerners who suspected foul play (though it was almost a certainly an accident), and hundreds of people were killed.

Garang had systematically crushed potential rivals for control of his organisation, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, but the southerners have managed to install his successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, without falling into another internecine struggle. Moreover, the northern leadership has so far resisted the temptation to exploit the factionalism that has always been the curse of the southerners, who are deeply divided on tribal and religious lines. It’s enough to restore your faith in the concept of enlightened self-interest.

Once conflicts topple into organised violence, the rules of war generally force people to behave like intransigent fools. That doesn’t mean they really are, and given half a chance they will often behave much better and more sensibly. Democracy often gives them that chance.

Look around: rational behaviour abounds. Not just Turkey and Indonesia and Sudan. Sub-Comandante Marcos has just led his Zapatista rebels out of the Chiapas jungle with a view to influencing Mexico’s next election. The Irish Republican Army’s spokesman, “P. O’Neill”, declared late last month that the IRA “has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms.” And the incentive, every time, is the prospect that the rebels can achieve at least the more important of their goals through democratic political action.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The 22-year…self-interest”)