Re-imagining victory
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - June 27, 2020 - 12:00am

It is 75 years since the Allies celebrated victory over their enemies in the 2nd World War, is it time to think again about what victory could mean? War and conflict rage around the world but part of the reason why they are so difficult to transform into peace is the narrative that there are winners and losers. No one wants to be the loser, no one wants to be seen to give up on their cause or their security.

The Philippines’ successful peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has taken many years, and overcome enormous difficulties that are nowhere near as interesting or gripping in mainstream news media and the public as war. Public perception of the nature of war and peace is central to creating conditions that make peace possible beyond the signing of agreements between combatants. The story behind the talks: the slow building of trust and momentum, beset by threats and obstacles, to reach a comprehensive peace agreement was necessarily shrouded in secrecy, and often reported and analysed in terms of which side is making concessions and which benefitting most from the deal.

As in any authentic negotiation, neither side walked away with everything they wanted, but conciliation has given the warring parties and their constituencies a wealth of new possibilities that they would not have if the deaths and devastation had continued with neither side “winning” or ‘losing.”

Former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos signed the peace agreement that was to bring a settlement to his nation’s long civil war with communist rebels FARC. When he was asked about the meaning of victory, he said “Victory is peace.”

It was in an interview that’s part of a digital series of events “Re-imagining Victory” that’s being launched on 30 June online by peacebuilding NGO, Conciliation Resources and the Imperial War Museums here in the United Kingdom. ( Santos joins psychologist Steven Pinker, Jonathan Powell (negotiatior for the UK government in the Northern Ireland peace process), human rights expert Philippe Sands, and Martin Griffith, UN Special Envoy for Yemen as they discuss questions like: what does it really mean to ‘win’ a war and what challenges do we face when it comes to peacebuilding?

Also speaking is Miriam Coronel Ferrer who is recognised globally as a formidable peacemaker and made history as the first woman to ever serve in a chief negotiating role and sign a final peace accord.

“Peace talks may be seen as a confrontation between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but we never framed the issue as A versus B, with B as the enemy to be defeated,” she told me when I asked her who had “won” the war between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“The whole point was to keep together all component parts of the Philippines through political and other arrangements that would correct historical marginalization and enable meaningful self-governance of a distinct part of the country,” she explained further. The agreement does not look at the conflict as a zero sum game, the idea was to find ways that both sides got what they wanted. “Finding a mutually acceptable arrangement was good for the peace and development of the Philippines (which includes the Bangsamoro) as a whole and the MILF (which is a major party coming from the Bangsamoro community who have manifested the desire to stop fighting and engage in talks where they could secure key reforms),” according to Coronel Ferrer.

This kind of ideas have a long history. The first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize was peace activist Bertha Von Suttner. In her book “Lay Down Your Arms” she wrote about the vicious circle of wars. “Vengeance, and always repeated, vengeance! Every war must leave one side defeated, and if this side can only find satisfaction in the next war, a war which must naturally produce another defeated side craving satisfaction, when is it to stop? How can justice be attained, when can old injustice be atoned, if fresh injustice is always to be employed as the means of atonement? It would never suggest itself to any reasonable man to wash out ink spots with ink, and oil stains with oil. It is only blood which has always to be washed out with new blood!”

The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed in 2014, but nobody in the Philippines realized that it would be the first major agreement between conflict parties that was signed by a female chief negotiator. It’s another aspect of a modern re-imagining of victory to be far more inclusive of all society.

Coronel Ferrer notes that there are intractable conflicts, especially socially rooted intra-state conflicts, that by a host of reasons, make any decisive victory of any one party out of reach.  She says that kind of situation does not benefit anyone and only prolongs the agony of the directly affected populations. “These are the ones begging for a ‘shared victory’ that will bring about  peaceful co-existence and constructive partnerships where fundamental rights are enjoyed by all. This was precisely our goal in the negotiations.”

The transformation in the area now known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is dramatic. Coronel Ferrer explains that MILF leaders are now part of the Philippine government. “They are now vested with the privilege and the responsibility to do good for their own constituents and to contribute to the betterment of the whole country. Every Monday they sing the Philippine anthem and raise the Philippine flag in their Cotabato administrative compound.”  Now, MILF forces help the AFP and police battle violent extremist groups who advocate an agenda beyond the confines of the nation-state. “Interestingly, many of the vocal opponents of the talks are now allied with the present dispensation and since the present dispensation pursued the implementation of the agreement, these critics have now muted their opposition,’ she adds.

It is, by her account, a shared victory indeed. Reconciliation, not revenge, is allowing people to re-imagine their own futures with a sense of all things, now, being possible.

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