Why mediation matters in Asia
- Bangkok Post, 22 November 2006Why mediation matters in Asia
Dialogue as a way to resolve conflicts is back in vogue
By MARTIN GRIFFITHS
Internal conflicts continue to rage across Asia, with tragic effect. In the period since the end of September, more than 50 people fell victim to conflict-related violence in southern Thailand. In Sri Lanka, a cease-fire between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority is in shreds and some 3,000 people have died in 10 months of fighting. The good news is that people are once again turning to dialogue as a way to resolve such conflicts. Around the world, the majority of internal conflicts ends with settlements negotiated among the parties and facilitated by third-party mediators.
Decisive military victories are rare in a world where arms are easy to access and fighters easy to recruit.
There is an emerging consensus at the multilateral level on the need for collective diplomatic action to resolve or prevent conflict and there are a growing number of homegrown mediators.
There is no question that the path-breaking memorandum of understanding signed in August 2005 between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement in Helsinki has helped make dialogue more respectable in Southeast Asia.
The governments of Thailand and the Philippines both face irredentist claims from their Muslim minorities, and have endorsed dialogue as the way forward.
That is not to say that dialogue is a path to easy solutions. Agreeing to dialogue is one thing; making the compromises that lead to a lasting settlement is quite another.
Entrenched notions of sovereignty and strong feelings of nationalism in the region make it doubly hard for governments to make concessions at the negotiating table.
Strong affinity with Westphalian notions of non-interference still militate against the effective use of good offices and mediation within the region, even if there have been exceptions like Cambodia.
The global war on terror has greatly complicated the status of insurgents. In Sri Lanka, for example, the designation of the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group has made it harder for Norwegian mediators to do their work.
But the lessons from Aceh are instructive. Before 2004, there was nothing about Indonesia's transition to democracy that suggested an easy path to peace in Aceh. The earnest attempt by the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre) to bring the two sides together ended in a reassertion of martial law and the military's hardline approach. Some would say that the December 2004 tsunami, which killed almost 180,000 people in Aceh, was the turning point which made peace possible. Some Acehnese certainly believe that without the world's attention and sympathy on their land, both sides might still be arguing.
Importantly though, the Helsinki MoU forged new ground by showing that it was possible to concede to a rebel movement and persuade them to disarm without losing sovereignty. There are clearly lessons here for other countries facing internal conflicts over territory.
In this respect, it is heartening to see Army Commander-in-Chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin issue a public call for dialogue with the shadowy insurgency that has resulted in more than 1,700 deaths in southern Thailand since January 2004.
It is also encouraging to see the Philippine government resist the temptation to withdraw from difficult talks with the Moro Independence Liberation Front when it could fall back on thousands of US troops sent to Mindanao to track down militant Islamists.
For these governments, the decision to engage with armed insurgents remains controversial at home. Powerful constituencies support the use of draconian legal measures and violence to stamp out insurrection. The violence has driven different ethnic and religious communities apart. In some cases, civilians are being armed by their government to defend themselves.
Of course, even if settlements could be reached involving a mild degree of autonomy, it is far from certain that governments could win popular support for such a concession.
Furthermore, governments are vulnerable during the process of negotiation. Talks frequently break down and have to start from point zero. Agreements often require several years of arduous debate and there is no guarantee that dialogue will actually bear fruit.
Skilled mediators play a constructive role in helping governments and opposition talk to each other. The parties need to overcome deep-seated mistrust and to devise creative solutions to long-term grievances. Mediators provide invaluable assistance in this effort: they facilitate the exchange of information between parties, encourage the continuation of dialogue despite the setbacks, bring international financial resources needed for reconstruction, and assist the search for solutions.
Given the reality of increased mediation efforts in settling internal conflicts, mediators need to be supported and their skills strengthened.
Mediation is not a straightforward endeavour that can be practised in the absence of prior experience. It may not be necessary to study mediation in a specialised university programme, but it is crucial that mediators interact with their peers and learn from comparative experiences.
To this end, HD Centre is holding its second Asian Mediators Retreat in Singapore at the end of November. The retreat will provide a venue for mediators to meet as a peer group, to learn from each other's experiences in an informal setting, to discuss where gaps in knowledge or resources may be hampering mediation efforts.
Martin Griffiths is Director of the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.