20 Lessons for Peace Making from Southeast Asia

Zachary Abuza

There is nothing harder than a peace process after a protracted insurgency. And since so few insurgencies have the military capabilities to fully achieve their goal of statehood, a negotiated settlement is the most likely outcome. But that does not mean that a peace process will succeed. There are many pitfalls. In my forthcoming study of the peace processes in Southeast Asia, I found there are 20 factors that are essential to any peace process between a government and a sub-state insurgent group. While not all need to present in a peace process, without a majority, a peace process will fail. And sadly few are present at the time in Thailand’s Deep South.

1. There must be a realization of elites from both the government and rebels that there is nothing more to be gained from fighting. As long as one side believes that there is something to be gained from continued combat, a peace process is impossible. Ceasefires might be reached and talks begun, but they are only tactical lulls if one side still believes they can improve their negotiating position through gains or by weakening their adversary's position on the battlefield.

2. Insurgent groups invariably view themselves as a vanguard and the natural leaders of their constituents. But they always overestimate their popular support, especially in protracted conflicts, and discount the war wariness of the population.

3. Trust must be built by the two sides. Peace processes are long-term endeavors. Ceasefires are broken, deals are undermined by politicians or thwarted by hardliners in the military or government. Often these actions are perceived to be an intentional and calculated ploy, when all too often negotiators are hung out to dry by their political leaders or opponents to the peace process. Overcoming these setbacks is only possible through personal trust.

4. Peace processes require bold and courageous leadership on both the part of the rebels and the government. And not just leadership. There has to be genuine statesmanship. They need to look beyond their short-term political horizon. Usually peace processes are nearly as protracted as the conflict. Leaders have to be bold and creative, willing to reject old and failed paradigms. Successful peace processes require leaders who can empathize with their adversary and convey that empathy to their own supporters. They have to have enough political capital, and be willing to spend it to achieve long term goals of peace and reconciliation.

5. All parties must acknowledge the concept of bellum se ipsum alet, “war feeds itself”. Leaders must demonstrate an ability and willingness to take on vested interests within their own constituency, including the will and capability to neutralize hardline spoilers, through inducement, socialization and coercion. For example, military commanders who fear that the peace process will lead to cuts in budgets, must be as given new roles and missions, with new hardware and requisite funding, as happened in both the Philippines and Indonesia.

6. New mechanisms and institutions must be created. These institutions must be durable and outlive the people who negotiated them. They have to be transparent to win the trust of the local community. These include ceasefire organizations, transitional justice mechanisms, development agencies, refugee resettlement bodies, organizations to resolve land ownership and other compensation.

7. The peace process and their agreements and annexes have to be fair and equitable. Both sides have to acknowledge the other's right to exist, that their core grievances are legitimate, and that historical wrongs were committed and that they must be addressed. Many times, simple acknowledgement of injustices and the taking of land satisfies many. Not everyone expects historical wrongs to be reversed (though that is an ideal), but they have to at least be acknowledged. It's amazing how much formal apologies, official acknowledgements of misdeeds, abusive policies and internal colonial practices go in winning over popular support.

8. There must be some sort of transitional justice mechanisms. These can range from a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to formal war crimes tribunals. But there has to be something, even if its merely symbolic. There cannot be lasting peace without some form of justice. And yet, there are limits. No government will agree to its security forces being scapegoated; and if security forces believe that they are being sacrificed for the sake of peace, then they will act as spoilers. It's important that wrongs by all sides are addressed, as insurgents were often abusive and terrorized the local population into supporting its struggle and holding some of the civilian population responsible for battlefield losses through their active or passive support for the government.

9. There must be a general amnesty. But in most insurgencies, the government doesn't give insurgents “belligerent” status for fear that that would legitimize their struggle. Most governments treat captured insurgents as terrorists, murders and bandits. And it is difficult for governments to put in place the legal mechanisms to free these individuals, but even harder to sell their release to the public, especially outraged victims groups and the ultranationalist politicians who cynically champion them.

10. There needs to be an adequate degree of international support, including post-conflict rehabilitation and development. The international community can serve as facilitators, host back channel meetings, deploy peacekeepers or simply monitors, engage in training and capacity building, and coordinate post-conflict aid and human capital development. External partners can turn off the supply of arms, funding and diplomatic support. Most importantly, the presence of the international community is a type of guarantor that makes reneging, backsliding and other violations more costly. But we should not over-state the power and influence of external actors. A peace process can only be facilitated or supported by the international community. It cannot be imposed, no matter how much leverage, political, financial or economic, they might wield over their clients.

11. The peace process is unlikely to be successful on its own. It has to be part of a broader political transformation, including the devolution of political and economic powers. For example, in Cambodia, it wasn't just the end of a Cold War proxy conflict; but the end of one party communist rule. Myanmar's ongoing insurgencies with ethnic militias would have little chance of being resolved under military rule. But the political reforms put in place since 2010, including gradual democratization that led to the 2015 opposition victory in the polls, press liberalization, and a constitution which enshrined regional assemblies, makes any negotiated settlement far more likely and durable. In Indonesia, peace in Aceh would never have been possible without democratization and political decentralization.

12. There must be wealth sharing between the central government and the post-conflict region. While most conflicts were never completely about resources or inequitable distributions of wealth, they are often times a major contributor to the conflict, and part of the narrative of resistance. So a peace process must include mechanisms to allow for greater wealth sharing, control over natural resources or control over taxation.

13. Civil society must be developed and engaged. No civil society, no peace. Independent civil society in conflict zones is often weak. But it plays a key role in the peace process, pushing the warring parties to the table, keeping them honest through investigations and reporting, and mobilizing popular support for the peace process. If a peace process is simply negotiated by political elites without mass buy in, it will never have traction. Most importantly, at its core, an insurgency is about social justice, and the best guarantors and groups committed to expending social justice are non-combatant civil society organizations. By their nature, insurgencies are violent. And one of the most important things in a peace process is for there to be broad societal rejection of violence as a means to settle disputes. It is the responsibility of civil society to alter the thinking, create moral pressure to sanction offenders, socialize people in non-violent dispute resolution, and to establish effective mechanisms to make that possible.

14. There must be a well thought out and funded disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation (DDR) program for former combatants. The region cannot be awash in both weapons and young men, with no livelihoods or career prospects. There has to be a process of disarmament of at least a critical mass of weaponry. While surrender of the weapons may be politically untenable, there are ways to put weapons under third party or technical guard or put beyond use. This is a highly emotional issue for insurgents, who often went through enormous hurdles to acquire their weaponry, which they see as the manifestation of their struggle, and without which they never could have advanced the cause of their population. In regions with endemic crime, that often went hand in hand or under the cover of insurgency, with weak rule of law, and a culture of violence, getting people to relinquish their weapons is very hard. As Mao Zedong quipped, "power comes from the barrel of a gun," and in post conflict environments, weapons remain an insurance policy. There must be vocational training, land allocation, livelihood projects, integration into the security forces or new government. Not every former guerrilla is going to be given a job, and so managing expectations is a serious challenge. The failure to do so led to a mutiny and a potential coup in East Timor. But there has to be a peace dividend, something more appealing than continued combat.

15. Insurgents must find a way to transform themselves into effective political parties that are capable of governing. Retail politics requires a very different skill set from guerrilla warfare. They have to develop platforms, establish party organizations, mobilize the electorate, appeal to the population without threat of coercion, and compete in a open process. And they have to be prepared to lose and cede power, a bitter pill to swallow: Most insurgents feel a sense of entitlement to rule because of the sacrifices they made under armed conflict. Most importantly, they have to effectively administer and provide social services, for which they have very little experience. All insurgent groups claim to have shadow governments and provide basic social services, but these are really quite rudimentary as most resources are marshaled into the war effort. Even the Tamil Tigers, who were arguably the most effective administrators, still relied on the Sri Lankan government to provide electricity and other utilities into their "liberated zone." Former insurgents also have to change their leadership styles. Insurgencies are not democratic, or used to compromise. Insurgents are romantics with maximalist demands, and often poorly suited for the task of day-to-day administration or transparency. And yet most guerrilla leaders see themselves as the inheritors of political power borne of their military leadership.

16. Insurgents really need to have good independent and external council. While they may have proved themselves adept (or at least sufficiently adequate) guerrillas, complex legal negotiations are a completely different skill set. They are facing off with skilled negotiators and legal teams, with years of training and practice. Governments do not send their “B teams” to these negotiations. They have teams of technical experts on issues ranging from mineral rights, to the law, to transitional justice, to tax collection. No rebel group can match that experience. They need expert advice on the law and other technical issues. And governments, if they are serious about the durability of a peace process, should encourage rebel groups to seek outside council.

17. The peace process must be a formal mechanism, not an ad hoc or informal process. The absence of violence is not peace. It is important that the peace process has a strong sense of formality, legality, and finality. This is an issue of "face." The state needs to make the insurgents feel like they are equal partners, despite the asymmetry in the relationship. But an agreement is also based on the principle of sovereign equality. Any government that thinks that they can simply cut side deals or buy off some of the insurgent leaders without making meaningful concessions or addressing core grievances is sowing the seeds of future conflicts.

18. The best and most equitable agreements can be negotiated, but they still have to be ratified by legislatures, which must also pass implementing legislation. This is truly the weak link in any peace process. Once a deal is reached between the negotiating teams representing their various executives, there is a dangerous assumption about the prospects for peace. Legislatures invariably water down peace agreements that they see as affecting their purview, power, or setting dangerous precedents in other parts of the country, as we have seen in Mindanao. Some members will support the peace process, some will not. Most will be somewhere in the middle, swayed by political expediency: whether future vote trading, whether support for the agreement impacts their own chances at re-election, or if a stance, one way or another, can be exploited for political gain, or as a spring board to higher office. The legislature cannot be expected to work for the common good, but instead it will be pulled as many ways as their are legislators. The executive branch must work assiduously to build up a solid coalition in parliament and be willing to use all political capital and cudgels at his disposal to prevent the peace process from being sufficiently watered down to the point where there is sufficient dissatisfaction that the rebels quit the peace process en masse or in toto.

19. Cultural and minority rights, including language rights must be protected. This has to be a cornerstone of any peace process, the agreements and the post conflict political order. There have to be genuine protections for a group's identity. And what is critical, though so often lacking is that identity becomes not just protected, but embraced by the country as a whole. They have to feel that they are part of a national narrative.

20. Finally, there needs to be a formal process to resolve disputes over implementation, or non-implementation, after the agreement has been concluded. This can include third party adjudicators or internal/bilateral mechanisms. But disputes will invariably arise, and thus it is imperative that there are pre-agreed mechanisms for resolution.