Never Give Up: The Cases of Colombia and Myanmar

"There will never be peace."

How often have you heard those fateful words used to describe some persistent, longstanding conflict? Whether between people, organizations, or nations, some conflicts just seem to go on -- with no hint of ever ending.

But is that really true? Are longstanding conflicts hopeless?

In the past year — perhaps overlooked amid the noise of other global news — two very longstanding national conflicts, each lasting more than 50 years, have in fact ended: 1) the Government of Colombia vs. the FARC Rebels and 2) the Myanmar junta vs. the Myanmar citizenry. How did the seemingly impossible happen? And what might we possibly learn? Let's take a quick look at both: COLOMBIA

For Colombia, the fateful day was June 23, 2016.

It was on this day that the Government of Colombia and the guerrilla forces of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) agreed to a "definitive cessation of hostilities," thus ending a 56-year conflict that had led to 220,000 deaths and the displacement of over six million people. It is a dramatic and still-fresh turn of events. Only in the past week, rebels from across the country have turned in their weapons at special UN stations.

How did this come about? What changed?

In short, attitudes -- starting with that of Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, a former hardliner, who initiated the peace process. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he declared that the first and most important step for himself was "recognizing your opponent as an equal, as a human being" rather than merely the enemy.

A will for peace is important, but a way must also be found -- one that works. So Santos brought in two well-respected Colombian civil servants to conduct the negotiations, drawing on the win-win strategies of Harvard Prof. William Ury (of "Getting to Yes" fame). Also supporting the process: Norway and Cuba, who agreed to serve as hosts for the talks. Observers from the UN, the U.S., and elsewhere helped as well.

Perhaps most important of all, Santos says, was the encouragement he received from the victims who, rather than seeking revenge or punishment, told him they sought peace.

Negotiations also followed a few important guidelines: 1) narrow the focus of the talks to just six key issues; 2) carry out the work with discretion and confidentiality; 3) be willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions; 4) seek support from outside nations, and 5) incorporate a system of "transitional justice" to help bring healing to the nation.

The process continues to grow through new avenues of cooperation, including joint plans now between Colombia's government and FARC's now-retired rebels to work together on substituting legal crops in place of vast tracts of coca leaf.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, March 15, 2016, is also a day that will be remembered.

On this day, Htin Kyaw was elected as Myanmar's first non-military president since 1962, and longtime pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was named state counselor (equivalent to prime minister). Thus marked the end of a 54-year national struggle against military juntas that had controlled the country over those decades.

How did that happen? Why did dictatorship there finally end?

Briefly, it was because of a long, drawn-out series of steps -- many of them led or inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite being under house arrest for much of the past 20 years, she helped galvanize the populace. Importantly, in 2007 a series of political protests known as the “Saffron Revolution” brought thousands of monks into the streets in protest against the junta, at one point parading past Suu Kyi's home.

This, in turn, led to a 2008 constitutional referendum that set as its goal to create a "flourishing democracy." General elections followed, but these were widely viewed as fraudulent. Finally,

in 2011 the military junta began transferring power to civilian leaders and was officially dissolved on March 30, 2011.

Since then, the civilian government has embarked on a series of reforms towards democracy and reconciliation, including the establishment of a human rights commission, granting of general amnesties to more than 200 political prisoners, new labor laws permitting labor unions and strikes, and a relaxation of press censorship.

The U.S. has supported these efforts, and in 2014, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit, the first by a Secretary of State in more than 50 years.

To what does Aung attribute the movement's success? It is what you might imagine: faith, conviction, and dedication.

"Without faith in the future, without the conviction that democratic values and fundamental human rights are not only necessary but possible for our society, our movement could not have been sustained....A dedicated core remained strong and committed...based on a clear-eyed assessment of their own powers of endurance and a profound respect for the aspirations of our people," she declared in her Nobel acceptance speech, written long before she yet knew the ultimate outcome.


To be sure, the work is not yet complete in either country. In Myanmar, for example, oppression continues against the Rohingya minority. In Colombia, many issues also remain unresolved.

Yet, there can be no doubt that both countries are well on their way. Nor are they alone. Northern Ireland and South Africa come prominently to mind along with much of South America. In the Mideast, witness Israel's peace agreements with both Egypt and Jordan. Consider as well Western Europe, where nations once warred regularly with each other -- and who now thankfully spar only with words.

So the lesson to be learned when facing enduring conflict might well be: never give up, never give up, never give up. As the examples above demonstrate, there is always still very much the real possibility of better days ahead.


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