Never give up on peace!
The Mindanao conflict has reached another crossroads in its long history.
After years of difficult negotiations, the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) reached a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which was intended to be a major breakthrough in the peace process.
However, the document raised both serious concerns as well as high expectations among various communities in Mindanao and Sulu, as well as the nation at large. The abortive signing, following the temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court, then triggered local conflicts in two areas of Central Mindanao, raising tensions across the region.
In response, the World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA) and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC- SEA) sent a Solidarity Mission to Mindanao from August 24-28. Consisting of 11 international and 8 Filipino members, the mission met a wide variety of stakeholders in two regions. One team visited Central Mindanao, and the second Western Mindanao and Sulu.
As civil society organizations, we approached this mission based on two fundamental principles. First, we affirm all human rights for all peoples in Mindanao and Sulu, notably the right to self-determination of the Bangsamoro people as well as that of the indigenous peoples. Second, we reject all forms of violence, and insist on non-violent and democratic solutions to political conflict, as in the words of Nobel Peace Laureate and Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: "It is no longer acceptable to resolve political disputes through the use of force."
The following are our initial findings and recommendations:
The specter of war hangs over Mindanao once again. Active hostilities have reignited in two areas in the heartland of the conflict, while most of the island, as well as the Sulu Archipelago, are still in a state of relative calm (despite ongoing military operations in Sulu, which sadly have become a part of life for the people there). However, tensions are rising, and the danger of expansion of the conflict is significant. Therefore, we call for urgent measures to contain the conflict, to prevent its spread or its transformation into a communal conflict. Among these, we may cite:
The extension of the International Monitoring Team (IMT), which has performed well up to the present crisis, and which even now is maintaining the ceasefire in most of its coverage area. Both the GRP and MILF should move immediately to invite the IMT to continue its work, rather than pulling out on August 31. Moreover, the IMT should if anything be strengthened in mandate and resources. For example, the IMT could play a key role in supervising an investigation into the recent outbreak of fighting in Central Mindanao.
Likewise, the Joint Coordination Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH) should also be maintained and strengthened. It is notable that the ceasefire continues to hold between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and 14 of 17 MILF base commands, and the JCCCH is maintaining useful channels of communication between the two sides.
All combatants must adhere strictly to international humanitarian law (IHL). Both the MILF and AFP must implement effective enforcement measures, in order to ensure that impunity will not be allowed for any of their officers who violate IHL.
We view with extreme concern the arming of civilians, which is under way in at least some areas. Untrained and poorly organized civilians cannot meaningfully contribute to genuine security, but will only raise the risks of escalation of conflict. The duty to protect the populace lies with state institutions such as the AFP and the Philippines National Police (PNP).
Therefore, we call on the national government and local governments to cease as well as to publicly discourage any such arming. In this regard, we welcome the assurance of North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmanuel Pinol on August 27, reiterated publicly the same day, that he will not condone or allow any attacks by Christian vigilantes (ilaga) against Muslim civilians. At the same time, overt calls to "defend yourselves" muddle this otherwise positive message.
The debate over the MOA-AD has revealed the unacceptable and dangerous levels of prejudice and discrimination against the Moro people and the religion of Islam. This demonstrates the need for sensitive, nuanced, and culturally aware communication to deepen mutual understanding and also to recognize legitimate needs and rights.
Public figures, notably political leaders, must be much more restrained in their language, especially the use of inflammatory comments like "all-out war." Likewise, we call on all media, both national and international, to practice responsible journalism. We encourage media to accept their social responsibility as a crucial part of whole nation and important player in the democratization process. In a conflict situation, careless or sensational reporting can be a matter of life and death – editorial decisions cannot be made based on purely commercial considerations. We note with concern credible reports that images from previous periods of conflict have sometimes been used in coverage of the recent events.
With regard to the MOA- AD, there is clearly an urgent need for much more intensive consultations among all the affected communities. These consultations should not only explain the content of the MOA- AD, but also its historical context, and its implications for ordinary people's lives.
Finally, we are encouraged by the many civil society initiatives that are aimed at strengthening trust and understanding between all communities. Many of the civil society organizations that we visited are making heroic efforts to respond to the current crisis. We may specifically cite the initiative led by the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society to translate and popularize the MOA- AD at the grassroots, the "Ginapaladtaka" group of barangays working to maintain communal harmony, and the leading role played by women in Sulu in promoting peace education and indigenous solutions to conflict resolution.
In conclusion, we reaffirm our solidarity with the all the peoples of Mindanao and Sulu, Christian Muslim, and Lumad. In particular, we are inspired by courage of the victims of the conflict, the women, children, and powerless members of society who, in the face of so many difficulties, have not given up the hope for peace. In their honor, we will continue to work together with our dedicated partners in the Philippines and around the region for genuine and sustainable peace, democracy, and human rights.