THE RAVAGING OF RAKHINE

Rohingya fire

Another village goes up in smoke. Image source: Getty Images

The Rohingya of west Myanmar eke out a living on the margins of society, making do with subsistence farming and fishing in primitive conditions. They live in a state of smoldering enmity with their neighbors, the Rakhine, who occasionally pillage and murder them. But the real terror strikes when the soldiers arrive. Hardened by decades of indiscriminate violence against Myanmar’s minorities, they torch whole villages, gun down fleeing villagers, ravish the women, shoot the livestock, and force the Rohingya out of the country altogether.

The persecution of the Rohingya has gone on for a long time, although since Myanmar was such an obscure and isolated country, it was out of sight of the outside world until recently. The current crisis, though, is a serious escalation of their oppression, and it could have (other) dire consequences.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Myanmar is an old country; its history stretches back to the 800s. But it is a country dominated by the Bamar ethnic group, who conquered the fertile and hot Ayeyarwady Valley and subjugated the other ethnic groups that ring it. The Bamar are proud of their history and especially of the military prowess of their kings, and usually react to any uppitiness among the minorities with ferocity. This tendency has carried on into Myanmar’s modern history, since the country is dominated by its army, which reacts to any problem or threat or hint of a threat violently and ruthlessly.

But even though the Rohingya share this bitter relationship with the Myanma military with other ethnicities, they are different. They are closely related to the Bengalis, the ethnic group that dominates Myanmar’s western neighbor, Bangladesh. How exactly they came to Myanmar is a matter of heated dispute today; the Rohingya stress their heritage in the independent Kingdom of Arakan, when they were invited to serve in a royal court heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Most probably migrated to Arakan later, when the region was conquered by Britain and annexed to its huge Indian colony; the new colonists needed menial laborers for their tea plantations, and Bengalis had a lot of experience with that, especially in the area around Chittagong in southeast Bengal.

So the Rohingya originate from Bangladesh (which used to be Pakistan, and before that, India — but the point is, a foreign country); they are Muslim, while Myanmar is deeply Buddhist; and they are Aryan, while the rest of Myanmar is Mongoloid (basically, they have darker skin and rounder eyes). Their language is closely related to Bengali. They are seen as foreigners by the rest of Myanmar. Worse, they have links with the hated British overlords: as part of the classic imperial divide-and-rule strategy, the Rohingya were favored as enforcers in the colonial regime, which tended to admire Muslims as fierce warriors and loathe Myanma as duplicitous, scheming weaklings. When British rule was overthrown by Japan in 1942, ethnic riots broke out in Arakan as the local Arakanese got their revenge on the Rohingya, with the tacit approval of the Japanese.

Myanmar* gained its independence in 1948, giving the Bamar a chance to restore the national glory that had been tarnished by their humiliating conquest 60 years earlier. This meant seeking revenge against the many Indian migrants who had flocked to the colony and gotten rich at their ancestors’ expense. The Indians were encouraged to go back to India, especially forcefully after the army seized control in 1962. Their wealth made them a tempting target. The Rohingya, on the other hand, were too poor to bother with. They remained in Myanmar, laboring away in their neglected corner of the country and launching an insurgency to unite their area with Bangladesh. The local Rakhine, descendants of the Arakanese, held them in contempt and avoided having much to do with them. In 1982, the Rohingya were even stripped of their citizenship, and to this day are considered Bengalis by the rest of the country (although Bangladesh does not recognize them as such).

CURRENT SITUATION
The army’s harsh and authoritarian regime, by all accounts, ran Myanmar into the ground. Its socialist, then corrupt capitalist economy impoverished the country. Its xenophobia and paranoia isolated Myanmar from even its neighbors. Its violent impulses dominated its interaction with its subjects. By 2011, the regime could no longer be sustained, and Myanmar has undergone a groundbreaking reform since then that has opened up the country and given its people democratic rights and a better standard of living.

On the other hand, the reform has also exposed how volatile Myanmar’s ethnic relations are. In 2012, a riot broke out in Sittwe, Rakhine’s main city, after a Rohingya was accused of raping and murdering a Rakhine. Dozens of Rohingya were killed, but the main effect of the violence was to drive the 2 communities further apart, with the Rohingya forced into concentration camps (“internally displaced persons camps”). It might be helpful for their own protection, but the camps are poorly guarded, squalid, and by most accounts saturated with an atmosphere of hopelessness and boredom and afflicted by the usual woes of poverty (domestic abuse, substance abuse, petty theft, hooliganism).

Rohingya map

These problems pale in comparison to what happened when the army showed up in October 2016. The Myanma army has a long history of using brute force and terror to subdue rebellious minorities, and it has used the same tactics against the Rohingya. Hundreds of villages are put to the torch; families are terrorized and driven out; torture and rape are frequently used. Children and the elderly are gunned down.

The whole crisis has understandably sparked an outflow of refugees from the conflict zone. In earlier years, Rohingya would brave the Andaman Sea in flimsy boats and set sail for Thailand or more distant but also more Muslim countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia). Now most just head out on foot for nearby Bangladesh, accessible by crossing the narrow Naf River. All face the woes of refugees everywhere: locals unable or unwilling to help them; crowded, dangerous and filthy conditions; difficulty in finding jobs or integrating into society; a tendency to fall into the clutches of unsavory and unscrupulous characters who abuse them in exchange for money or food. Bangladesh has done what it can to provide for their needs, but it is overwhelmed by the latest inflow: over 400,000 since August 25. Bengalis are sympathetic to the Rohingya’s plight, but Bangladesh is very poor and crowded already, and most locals hope or assume that the refugees will go back to Myanmar at some point.

Rohingya refugees

Refugee camps are so overcrowded that food (biscuits, in this case) is thrown out of trucks into the crowds. Refugees have died in the stampede. Image source: Reuters

The situation has provoked an international outcry, especially from Muslim countries sensitive to religious persecution. The UN has carried out a fact-finding mission under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and puts the onus on the Myanma military. Protests have been held in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia against the repression. Myanmar is facing increasing international isolation and condemnation. Some NGOs and media outlets, less cautious and diplomatic than governments, label the conflict ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Ayman az-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, mentioned the Rohingya in a rant against persecution of Muslims in South Asia, and there are fears that the Rohingya will be radicalized and gain support from jihadists eager for a war with infidels.

Why is Myanmar oppressing the Rohingya so much? In part it’s because they have never really been accepted as Myanma. To a large extent it is a religious conflict: militant Buddhism has been on the rise in Myanmar, and like others, they see little distinction between ordinary Muslims and terrorists. Wirathu, an outspoken monk with a huge fan following, likes to remind his audiences that Indonesia used to be a Buddhist country until it was swamped by the forces of Islam, and claims (unrealistically) that Buddhist Myanma are being outbred by hordes of Muslim infiltrators. For the Rakhine, they are seen as illegitimate competitors for their state’s scarce resources. I visited Yangon in March to conduct a research project on the conflict, and the Rakhine I spoke with were mostly unsympathetic to the Rohingya. They were well aware of the international sympathy for them and claimed that they were burning down their own houses in hopes of getting food aid. They claimed that there was a thriving black market within the camps. They had little comment on the military assault that provoked the recent refugee outflow, and focused much more on the Rohingya attacks that had provoked it. Most refused to call them “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” in an obvious attempt to deny them a separate identity from Bangladeshis.

Rohingya cartoon

A mainstream Myanma view of the conflict (Aung San Suu Kyi being the figure on the right). See this article if you’re interested in more anti-Rohingya Myanma cartoons. Image source: Okka Kyi Winn Facebook

The Rohingya do have an insurgency fighting on their behalf: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is shadowy and poorly understood. (I have noticed this report is the main source for most articles on the subject.) It is mostly funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and carries out attacks on police and army outposts. It might receive support from the villagers that the army targets. It might grow as the conflict heats up, but for now it is outmatched by the army and the Rakhine militias that pillage the Rohingya alongside it, and it is surely reliant on outside assistance.

The case of Myanmar is an excellent example of the complicated results of a long-repressed society suddenly awakening to democracy and the realities of the modern world. A people long oppressed and terrorized by their army can rally to the same army’s side when it turns on those it considers outsiders. Conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islam, it is easy to see local Muslims as sleeper cells ready to carry out terrorist attacks and bring down Myanmar’s old Buddhist civilization. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader and a world-renowned icon who endured decades of house arrest for winning an election in 1990, now must heed her people’s demands to stand up to meddling foreigners. She has no wish to confront an army that still controls 25% of the national legislature and a big part of the economy and could easily take over again. And hey, the Rohingya can’t vote anyway.

What can the outside world do? It’s hard to say. Western and non-Muslim Asian countries have been reluctant to press Myanmar too hard, out of fear of imperiling its fragile and very young process of democratization. Reviving the national economy (including Rakhine too, maybe) seems to be a higher priority than a million or so Rohingya. China, annoyed at losing influence in Myanmar since its opening, sees an opportunity to regain favor by not criticizing the government for its crackdown and maybe even mediating the conflict with Bangladesh. India, under the Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi, has become unfriendly to Muslims in general and wants to deport the Rohingyas that have ended up there.

Given the widespread popularity for Aung San Suu Kyi, hostility toward Muslims, and resentment of foreign criticism, there might be little that the outside world can realistically do to sway Myanmar. This might be a golden opportunity for Indonesia to exercise its latent political power: an NGO I spoke with claimed it has a reputation as an honest broker with experience in quelling ethnic unrest and a distaste for the sort of grandstanding favored by, say, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan (who have both used the issue to whip up their voters). Helping Bangladesh, which shoulders most of the burden for caring for the refugees, would also go a long way. And of course, countries could take in Rohingya refugees themselves — although the international climate does not seem very receptive to accommodating Muslim refugees these days.

*

Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989. I have avoided using “Burma” in this post to avoid needless confusion.

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A LAND PROMISED TO WHOM?

Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

ANCIENT HISTORY
1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

MODERN HISTORY
The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

CURRENT SITUATION
Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.

 

PEACE IN OUR TIME?

Colombia Peace

Image source: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Colombia has a lot going for it. It’s strategically situated where South America begins, bordering both the Caribbean and the Pacific and sort of midway between Mexico and Brazil.* It has a stable democratic government that’s historically avoided the sort of grandstanding left-wing populism that’s derailed other parts of Latin America lately. It’s rich in natural resources, from oil and minerals to coffee and food crops. It is increasingly oriented towards the future, joining the free trade-oriented Pacific Alliance and taking concerted steps to kick-start its economy.

But there’s a little problem that’s been holding it back for a long time now: war. Colombia has been plagued by not 1, but 2 different Communist insurgencies — the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army), plus a medley of anti-Communist paramilitaries. While the war has recently simmered down to a low bubble, it still detracts foreign investment and unnerves locals. Luckily, the Colombian government has taken great pains to wind the war down and might be close to doing so.

BACKGROUND
Colombia is a diverse land for its size, with 2 different coastlines, the Andes Mountains running down the middle of the country, wild plains to the east, and Amazon rainforest even further east. Even the mountains have different valleys, each with its own character. But this terrain means that the government has long had a hard time holding the country together. In 1830 this meant that Venezuela and Ecuador split off. In general it meant that local landowners got to run most of the show.

As elsewhere in Latin America, unequal land distribution, low levels of human development, rich natural resources demanding lots of labor to cultivate, and flat-out racism (Colombia has both native peoples and blacks) meant that discontent in Colombia’s rural areas built up over its history. It exploded in 1948 when a charismatic liberal politician, Jorge Gaitán, was assassinated, leading to a vicious 10-year civil war called La Violencia (“the Violence”). It was settled when the Liberal and Conservative Parties agreed to share power among themselves, therefore buying stability at the price of democracy (since the parties just rotated each term).

In the climate of the 1960s, this failed to settle the problem. Instead rural Colombians turned to armed insurgent groups to stand up for their rights and foment a Communist revolution, with the example of Cuba’s successful revolution in 1959 as a guide and motivation. Besides the FARC and ELN, there were a constellation of smaller bands. They fought off the Colombian army and ruled isolated rural areas as mini-states. They also thrived off of kidnapping, extortion, rape, pillage, wanton murder, and intimidation. Landmines were sown throughout the countryside. Prisoners were tortured. Oil pipelines were sabotaged. Millions of hectares of rainforest were logged. Young men and boys were conscripted into their guerrilla forces. The FARC and ELN had 25,000 soldiers between them at their high point in the late ‘90s.

Colombia is also one of the world’s main coca-growing and cocaine-processing centers. The rise of armed insurgent movements coincided with a spike in demand for cocaine internationally. As a result, narcotraffickers cropped up to feed the demand. They formed a tacit alliance with the guerrillas, and by the ‘80s, Colombia was a chaotic, violent place, with criminals and insurgents acting with brazen impunity and terrorizing the populace. High-profile government officials and presidential candidates would get shot in public. At one point the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, the capital, was even assaulted, with 120 fatalities (including several Supreme Court justices). To protect themselves, politicians, businessmen and rich landowners would surround themselves with bodyguards and hired guns. These coalesced over time into paramilitaries who fought back against the Communists and drug-runners. As always, civilians were caught in between and were flagrantly killed by both sides.

Luckily, the worst of the drug violence died down in the ‘90s after the 2 most influential cartels were broken up. But the guerrillas remained, steadfast in their determination to overthrow the regime despite the end of the Cold War and the overall discrediting of Communism around the world. By the end of the millennium Colombia was a failing state driving its neighbors to despair and frustration.

The US stepped in. Tired of the constant flow of cocaine out of the country, it organized billions of dollars in aid to stamp out coca production there and to support stronger economic institutions. It also trained the Colombian army to take on the rebels. Under the aggressive presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the army did so, wiping out thousands of fighters in the field. The FARC sought refuge in Venezuela, which was sympathetic to them on ideological grounds. As you might imagine, Uribe didn’t take too kindly to this, but Venezuela’s liberal firebrand Hugo Chávez denounced him as an imperialist stooge.

Colombia Terrorism Map

Image source: The Economist

CURRENT SITUATION
By the end of Uribe’s rule in 2010, it was clear that the FARC had no chance of taking over the country. Colombia is now ruled by President Juan Manuel Santos, a former journalist with a more moderate outlook than his predecessor. He saw an opportunity to finally bring peace to his country and accordingly opened negotiations with the FARC in 2012. Cuba, once 1 of the FARC’s sponsors, hosted the talks.

Although skeptical of the FARC — they’ve broken peace agreements before — Santos has basically been generous with them. His peace plan is based on demobilization, forgiveness and reconciliation. Although the FARC’s leadership will be punished, their sentences have been reduced to 20 years for the worst criminals and 5-8 years of community service for those who at least confess. The FARC army’s rank and file will pretty much go unpunished. The FARC will also be allowed to reorganize themselves as a normal political party and participate in elections (something that was already tried in the ‘80s with the Unión Patriótica party; it just dissolved into violence again). The rural bastions of the FARC’s support will see development efforts. The government will also continue the process of demobilizing and punishing the paramilitaries, which began under Uribe.

Colombia has suffered hugely from the war. 220,000 people have died, mostly civilians, and 6 million were internally displaced (meaning they had to move to escape violence). 7.5 million people (about 1/6 of the country!) have registered with the Victims Unit, a government agency that helps out civilian victims of the war with reparations, therapy, and rehousing ‐ although that isn’t always possible with guerrilla fighters still on the loose. By and large, people are sick of the endless violence and ready to say adiós to the conflict. Communism doesn’t have the appeal it used to. If anything, Santos’s biggest challenge is fending off allegations that he’s being too soft — Uribe (perhaps annoyed that he didn’t get a 3rd term and can’t control Santos as much as he wants) has fought a Twitter war against Santos and the peace negotiations using the hashtag #AcuerdoDeImpunidad (“Agreement of Impunity”).

Last year, the two sides, Santos and Timochenko (the FARC leader’s alias, after Soviet general Semyon Timoshenko), reached a preliminary agreement in Havana (pictured at the top of the post). The deadline for the final treaty was set for March 23. The foreign media applauded. Santos went to Washington, D.C. in February on a premature victory lap and to beg Congress for more money to help integrate the rebels back into society and rebuild his country. Analysts were hopeful for peace at last.

And yet… the deadline passed with no agreement. In part this stemmed from a tricky issue, “concentration zones” — designated gathering places for the FARC soldiers to be demobilized and protected in turn by the Colombian army. The FARC wanted big areas, including towns and farmers, the better to maintain their rural bases of support. It also feels vulnerable without them. The government wasn’t prepared to grant this; Timochenko lambasted it as a “surrender” and the proposed concentration zones “prisons.” In part, it’s probably a calculation on the FARC’s part that it has more to lose than the government, which is desperate for peace. If the FARC holds out a bit more it can probably win concessions.

Kerry Colombia Peace

Barack Obama was hoping for a historic photo op during his trip to Cuba with the peacemakers. Instead his secretary of state (foreign minister), John Kerry, had to settle for this photo with the potential peacemakers. Image source: FARC-EP International

Santos has indeed staked his political career on this peace deal, and so of course he reneged on his earlier implication that he would resume fighting if the deadline wasn’t reached. But in the meantime, he’s reaching out to the ELN as well. The ELN is much smaller (1,400 men under arms as compared to the FARC’s 6,000) and has less of a rural base; it thrives mostly on kidnapping and extortion. It has roots in urban areas, Marxist students and priests subscribing to “liberation theology,” but by and large it’s similar to the FARC now. It has continued waging its low-level war against the government since it was shut out of the peace talks, but released 2 hostages in March as a sign of good will.

Can Colombia get its long-sought peace? It’s increasingly unclear. On the one hand, the delay in reaching agreement is a bad sign. The FARC and ELN have been fighting since 1964; at this point, fighting is their job, and they don’t know anything else. They still have rural bases of support. Colombia’s terrain hasn’t gotten any easier, and communication and transport across its territory is still difficult. Coca is still by far the most profitable crop poor Colombian farmers can grow. The underlying economic and social disparities that fueled the war still fester.

But on the other hand, most Colombians are tired of the war and eager for peace and reconciliation. Decades of violence and revenge have exhausted the country and convinced the majority that it’s time to move on. Santos has promised to hold a referendum on the peace deal if it’s concluded, and it’s projected to pass. He also projects a 2% economic boost for Colombia if peace is reached. Foreign investors and tourists, long scared away by the threat of kidnapping, robbery or bombing, are increasingly interested in Colombia: both the national and local governments are putting money into infrastructure and fostering an economy less dependent on commodities and drugs. Removing the threat of attack would do wonders for Colombia’s still-tarnished international image.

And an enduring peace deal would also vindicate Santos’s strategy of letting bygones be bygones and reconciling with hated and feared enemies. He has studied both Colombia’s past failed peace initiatives and conflict resolution in other countries and claims to have learned from their mistakes. Let’s hope for South America’s sake that his dream of peace will come true.

*Technically Colombia is right next to Brazil, but it’s not the part of Brazil where most people live.