Several years ago I participated at the very edges of the peace process in Mindanao. While I was with the US Institute of Peace I helped organize a series of workshops that examined the conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government of the Philippines (GRP). Our input was on the capacity building side, as well as facilitating dialogue between various social segments. The MILF-GRP conflict gets most of the attention outside Mindanao. Yet the problems of violence and conflict in Mindanao go far beyond these two parties. Finding peace in Mindanao requires more than signing a peace agreement.
In addition to the MILF-GRP conflict, there was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)-GRP conflict too. This has been addressed, at least in part, by the 1996 Peace Agreement that ended the violent clashes between the GRP and the MNLF. It has not, unfortunately, addressed many of the socioeconomic problems of the region, but at the very least reduced local violence. One cannot forget, however, the other conflict in the western side of Mindanao (Basilan and Sulu) between the Abu Saayaf Group (ASG) and the GRP. The US military still supply advisers to the GRP in pursuit of ASG.
Further to the east conflict boils along between the New People’s Army (the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines) and the GRP. This Maoist inspired insurgency has ties to an earlier armed uprising known as the Huk Rebellion of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Periodically, as in 2003, the NPA and elements of the MILF link up. So, conflict in Mindanao cannot be said to be exclusively between Muslim and Christian.
Another undercurrent of conflict resides in the feudal relationships between large landowners and the broader community. In November 2009 the world learned of the Ampatuan or Maguindanao Massacres in which 58 people (mostly journalists) were murdered and buried in a shallow grave on the roadside. Some members of the Ampatuan family have been accused of the killings, but as of now nobody has been convicted. The story is another tale of violence and mayhem in Mindanao.
Moving forward to resolve conflict in Mindanao is no simple task. The most recent peace pact agreed in 2008 by the GRP-MILF was not ratified by the GRP when the Philippine Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the government from signing. Those representing non-Muslims in Mindanao effectively acted as spoilers to the peace process.
My impression formed after many conversations with people in Mindanao is that the island lacks links that cut across ideological, tribal, linguistic and sectarian lines. While many people live in Mindanao, they do so largely in ignorance and cut off from one another. Recounting three conversations will illustrate my point. At a Women’s conference in Zamboanga, on the western end of Mindanao, I spoke with a prominent Muslim who commented that “the only thing separating Abu Saayaf, the MILF and the MNLF was a common language”. That these groups often draw their members from different tribal groups supports the claim. A second conversation with representatives from civil society while visiting Davao let me know that many in civil society do not trust the government (neither the US nor the Philippine) and refused to engage in dialogue with them. Finally, at a conference at Notre Dame University at Cotabato City in Mindanao we spoke with social workers who had all graduated from the same program, but who had never met as a group. They had never exchanged their experiences, nor their solutions to problems encountered in Mindanao. For all the talking that goes on in Mindanao, it seems it is largely within silos and not across groups.
What is needed is an investment in social capital, building links between people. Such a pan-Mindanao dialogue would go a long way to building the capacity for the people of Mindanao to bring peace to their island home. Rather than focus on one or two armed groups in building peace, it would be useful to look across the island. Doing so might help reduce misunderstanding, find common understandings and points of agreement, while at the same time forestalling the efforts of spoilers to interfere with the peace process more broadly. Who can act as a convening body and be an honest broker? Who has the financial capacity to bring such a process into play?