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.