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World Citizen: Three Steps Forward on the Road to Peace

October 4, 2012

World Citizen: Three Steps Forward on the Road to Peace

By Frida Ghitis – October 4, 2012

The global landscape has been scarred for decades by conflicts that defy both the passage of time and the efforts of armies and diplomats — conflicts that at times seem so intractable as to appear impossible to solve.

That is why it’s worth pausing to take note of a momentous, in fact, astonishing, development has taken place in recent months: Three of the world’s most durable, deadly and stubborn conflicts appear to be coming to an end.

The progress in resolving the decades-old conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and Myanmar will undoubtedly give rise to countless claims of credit. These are all complicated struggles involving ethnicity, natural resources and geopolitical forces. And they have all been influenced by powerful external players. No one individual, country or regime can fully claim victory in achieving peace, if lasting peace is, in fact, what we see rising over the horizon.

The dark possibility that any or all of these three countries could resume their unraveling is still significant, but there is no question that recent developments are promising. It is not too soon to acknowledge that there is reason for optimism. And there is also reason for the international community and some world leaders to feel personally satisfied with the progress.

In Myanmar, better known as Burma, a particularly ruthless brand of military rule started in 1962, turning the country into an international pariah. The country’s pro-democracy leader, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, became a symbol of the struggle for freedom and democracy. But as she languished under house arrest, her enormous international popularity seemed to make no difference to the ruling generals.

From her captivity, Suu Kyi supported strict international sanctions against Myanmar, even as some activists worried that the international economic blockade would only intensify the grinding poverty of the Burmese people without ever producing meaningful political reform.

In the Western imagination, Myanmar and Suu Kyi took the place that South Africa and Nelson Mandela had occupied in the 1980s.The isolated regime, however, refused to budge, placing hundreds of political activists in prison and decimating the economy, even as top military men enriched themselves with mineral wealth concessions to the Chinese in exchange for weapons and diplomatic cover.

The Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched an attempt to break the stalemate, sending envoys, offering enticement and continuing the sanctions imposed by previous administrations.

The change in tactics coincided with China overplaying its hand. The combination of enticements from the West, pain from the sanctions and concerns over an increasingly voracious China at last persuaded the regime to relent.

Myanmar’s generals released Aung San Suu Kyi and announced that they were ready to make significant reforms. Last December, Clinton made the first visit to the country by a U.S. secretary of state in half a century. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy decided to enter the political process and won election to the new parliament. Suu Kyi has since traveled throughout the country and the world, claiming her peace prize in Oslo and most recently touring the U.S.

At the U.N. General Assembly last week, Myanmar’s chief executive, Gen. Thein Sein, offered praise of Suu Kyi, the regime’s long-time nemesis, and vowed that democratic changes are “irreversible.”

If Myanmar had become an international symbol of democratic aspirations, Somalia had become the quintessential example of a tragically failed state.

Like Myanmar, Somalia had been a geopolitical disaster for decades, with civil war raging for half a century and multiple international interventions — including by the U.S. in the 1990s — ending in disaster.

Somalia seemed like a lost cause, with every effort ending in catastrophic failure. History demands that we treat the latest developments with caution and keep optimism in check. But events have turned decidedly positive in recent weeks.

Over the past decade, Somalia’s basket-case status had gone from humanitarian disaster to security threat, particularly after the al-Qaida affiliate Al-Shabab took control of much of the country. Somali pirates threatened global maritime lanes, and when drought struck last year, hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed over the border of neighboring countries, even as Al-Shabab refused to allow aid into the country.

After many attempts, a Ugandan-led military campaign by the African Union pushed back the Islamist militias. Gradually, Al-Shabab started losing strength, while a fledgling political system started to take shape with support from the West.

A parliament was seated in August, and last month it elected President Hassan Sheik Mohammud, an engineer and civilian activist. Mohammud spoke at the U.N. last week, telling the world that his country is ready to switch from emergency aid to development assistance.

The civilian government’s reach has long been restricted to the capital Mogadishu, but now that Al-Shabab is on the run, the reality on the ground may just start living up to the hopeful rhetoric of the civilian leaders. On Saturday, Al-Shabab militias withdrew from the crucial port city of Kismayo. They vowed that their struggle is not over, but without Kismayo they will find it much more difficult to rearm and fight back.

Somalia’s troubles are surely not over. Conflict will continue, and international support, including military cover, will be needed to keep success from turning to disaster again. But for the Somali people, the odds are as good as they have been in decades. The international community, particularly African forces, can count this a success, at least for now.

If Myanmar and Somalia stood as examples of a repressive regime and a failed state, respectively, then Sudan was the country that, along with Rwanda, embodied genocide in the modern era.

For decades, Khartoum had engaged in serial civil wars. The war against Sudanese Christians in the oil-rich south is said to have killed more than 2 million civilians. And the campaign against Darfur, in the west of the country, killed as many as half a million, while creating more than 2.5 million refugees. As many gave up hope, diplomatic efforts persisted, and an uneasy peace deal, still unfolding, was reached in Darfur.

Most surprisingly, Khartoum, which in 2005 had agreed to a deal with the South allowing for the prospect of secession, in fact permitted the country to be split in two last year after southerners voted overwhelmingly for that option. Though fighting subsequently broke out between the newly created Republic of South Sudan and Sudan, leading many to believe the peace would devolve into carnage, diplomacy again appears to have succeeded in restoring calm for now.

Skepticism abounds, with good reason. But progress to this point has defied predictions. That’s the case in Sudan, just as it is in Burma and Somalia.

These conflicts may yet return to their status as perennial sources of frustration for the world’s diplomats and humanitarian activists. But for now, they represent a momentous victory for a wide variety of movements, philosophies and ideas that have made optimism and hope possible, if even for a moment.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.

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