Next month, the beautiful South American nation of Colombia has the prospect of peace for the first time in over half a century. Why this topic appears here on a Teamakers’ blog is that Dilmah Founder, Merrill J. Fernando was invited to join a panel at the Foro Futuro Colombia in Cartagena. It was an experience that was filled with surprises.
The first was the genuine warmth of the people of Colombia, the second the extraordinary cultural and architectural heritage of Cartagena. Most surprising was the knowledge that a referendum was due next month, and that it was needed to allow the people of Colombia to consider the arguments of a gallery of past and present political leaders for continued aggression or peace.
So soon after a similar referendum on the future of a nation – in Great Britain – fortunately governing its economic future and not a conflict, the unreliability of popular polls in arriving at a conclusion that is good for the people is clear. In Sri Lanka our peace was secured differently. There are many conflicting views on whether it should have happened this way. Some say that after the death of the LTTE leaders, the remaining rebels should have been crushed. Others that the leader should have been captured alive and put on trial, others even that the military offensive that led to the end of the conflict was illegal and should not have happened.
Following an intense conflict with thousands dead on both ‘sides’, emotions were riding high and forgiveness was a state of mind that was least evident on either side. Peace was achieved but had that decision been put to a poll, Sri Lanka may today counting a much larger death toll from a continuing conflict. The people of Sri Lanka paid with the lives of over 100,000 people on both sides, and impact of war on the economy, on education, health care, aged care, and social, political and general development. Everything suffered in war, and the only beneficiaries were the vendors of weapons and ammunition.
The Colombian politicians facing off on the issue of peace are mostly unhappy about the terms and they may be right. The issues are many and complex; impunity for former combatants accused of crimes against humanity, doubt on the sincerity of the rebels’ commitment to peace, the unfair benefit they may accrue in profits from their earlier criminal activity, or the suggestion that the impact of integrating several hundred thousand rebels into the social and economic fabric of life and of the consequences of bringing their leaders into the political landscape. To secure peace, Colombian will have to ‘swallow many frogs’ as one speaker clearly summarised at the Cartagena Forum.
The plebiscite will not be helped by the unpopularity of President Santos’ regime, nor the impact of low oil revenues and prospects therefore of higher taxation. Those opposed to the present terms of peace will take every advantage of these concerns but peace has nothing to do with President Santos, former President Uribe and every everything to do with the children of Colombia and their generations. Colombians will see sense on the arguments of those opposing the negotiated peace that it should be on different, more punitive terms. It is hard to see the FARC agreeing to renegotiate after years of negotiation have already elapsed.
Conflict almost always stems from the corrosive influence of inequality. It was no different with the FARC. Rather than resolving the cause of dispute, war invariably magnifies that inequality and enforces it upon present and future generations. The rebels are Colombian, and the fact that they are rebels does not change either their entitlement to be Colombian or to peace, in a wider sense of equality, security and opportunity. They are people with the same aspirations and emotions as every other Colombian.
In the immediate aftermath of war in the North and the East of Sri Lanka, the families of the combatants had the same prayer – food, safety, medicine, education, hope – they all wanted peace. Had there been polls to decide on peace on either side of the moving boundary of Sri Lanka Government and LTTE control, the answer would probably have been negative due to the impact of decades of polarization and heightened fear, anger, pride, suspicion, external influences and misinformation.
Yet today, 7 years on, neither side can even contemplate return to war. Mistakes were made on both sides for months after the war officially ended, as emotions rode high amongst the former combatants. Yet the dividends of peace have come as a massively overriding benefit to people on both sides.
What is clear from our experience in Sri Lanka is that however resilient an economy, those dividends cannot come in a country that is divided. In its military context peace generally means the absence of conflict, but that is not peace in its true sense. The true definition of peace requires that men, women and children on both sides of a former division should have education, healthcare, and have the possibility of dreaming, and knowing that those dreams could come true. It is peace in the whole ecosystem – social, political, economic, environmental and military – and in every part of the country.
To most Colombians, especially those who may have been affected by FARC operations in the past would think this fanciful and unrealistic, but anything less is only conflict postponed.
Peace is a basic right of every human. Conflict can rob a nation of its future, polarising opposing forces and inducing irrational and violent reaction that fuels itself to a point where reason is obscured. Colombia has lost 220,000 of its citizens and displaced over 7 million. Whether for economic reasons, humanitarian ones, right or wrong reasons, the country should welcome the prospect of peace with arms and minds wide open. The frogs they must swallow to formalise the temporary peace, are fewer than those they will be force fed if war were to persist and the present efforts fail.
In the words of a man who swallowed more frogs than most to embody the peace that many only speak of,
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” (Nelson Mandela)
The question will hopefully not be the cost of the present peace in whatever terms, but the cost of war. Let Colombia – former rebels included – look to a future that is blessed with the dividend of peace. In this way the nation will grow as a whole. The alternative – as one can see from the history of the Balkans, the present in Sudan – is a divided future and too frightening to contemplate. On 2nd October, Colombians will not face a crossroad, whether for or against the negotiated terms of peace, but a one way street with the options being forward or backward. Peace or conflict.
A young Sri Lankan Poet – Thisuri Wanniarachchi – elegantly expressed in 2013, her personal reflections on peace. Most insightful and relevant for Colombia is the final sentence of her post.
“War crimes, you say?
No matter how many policies you put on paper, in reality, there are no rights and wrongs in war. War itself is a crime. War cannot be justified.
I believe, the only people, in this world, whose opinions matter, are the ones who go the extra mile to help other people expecting nothing in return.
Soldiers who fight fiercely for their country, the doctors in Sri Lanka’s public hospitals attending to hundreds of patients at a time for no extra pay , the nuns who voluntarily teach English and math to children of refugee camps in the north, the monks who collect food to feed entire villages during crises, they are the people worth listening to, their opinion matters.
So find me one of them who will say: they wish the war didn’t end in 2009, that they wish Sri Lanka was divided into two parts. Find me one of them who agrees with the international war crime allegations against Sri Lanka, and I will listen.
But I will not listen to the opinions of those who are paid to find faults in a war they were never a part of, a war they never experienced themselves. I will not listen to the opinions of those who watched the war on tv or read about it on the internet or were moved by a documentary on Al Jazeera.
The war is over. The damage is done. Let Sri Lanka move on. So our children will never have to see what we’ve seen.” (Thisuri Wanniarachchi)