At the forefront in pushing for peace training among soldiers are Maj. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, commander of the Army's 6th Infantry Division based in Maguindanao, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino, commandant of the Philippine Marine Corps who once headed ground forces in various trouble spots in Mindanao. Dolorfino also heads the government peace panel's Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) in the negotiatons with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Lt. Gen. Cardozo Luna, chief of the Davao City-based Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom), seemed convinced the peace trainings would somehow be beneficial to the Armed Forces.
"I'm convinced that this is good," he said, but stressed that the experiences shared by ground commander should be documented and validated by "appropriate agencies in GHQ" (general headquarters) to validate if the peace building trainings and efforts could be replicated by other units.
The problem, Luna said, is sustaining the peace building efforts, because commanders come and go, and succeeding commanders may undo what the predecessor has achieved. "We need this to become standard doctrine, to be institutionalized, so that when Gen. Ferrer has left 6ID, the next commander will be mandated to do the same," he stressed.
Ferrer, then a colonel, started training his soldiers on peace building and conflict management when he was commander of the 103rd Infantry Brigade in Basilan a few years ago, in partnership with some non-government organizations like the Catholic Children's Fund and Peace Advocates Zamboanga.
With the positive impact on his men, he continued with the trainings when he was promoted as chief of the 1st "Tabak" Infantry Division last year, with the help of the Cagayan de Oro-based Balay Mindanaw Foundation, Inc. (BMFI).
When he was transferred to head the 6th Infantry Division in Maguindanao early this year, Ferrer did the same, still with the help of BMFI and other NGOs in the Cotabato-Maguindanao areas.
Col. Raynard Ronnie Javier, who succeeded Ferrer as commander of the 103IB, continued the trainings in partnership with BMFI when his brigade was transferred to Lanao a few months ago.
A total of 375 of his men — officers, enlisted and members of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit — have undergone nine of BMFI's Operation Peace Course (dubbed OPKORS!), an intensive seminar-workshop spanning four days. The sessions include a history of the conflict in Mindanao, the island's diverse cultures, discovering one's strengths and weaknesses, the soldier's role in society, dialogue skills, conflict management, and even exercises to keep the body and mind fit.
Javier said that because of these courses, his troops now "fight with a clearly defined role and purpose" and their "actions are re-aligned in support of peace processes."
In effect, he noted, his unit's peace efforts helped contain the threats posed by rebel groups and even helped resolve political and family feuds in his area of responsibility.
Lt. Col. Paul Lorenzo shared his involvement in the skirmishes in Sulu a few years ago, when the soldiers killed a lot of enemies, only to find out a few days later that the brother, the cousins, the neighbors of the fallen rebels had taken their place as combatants and were now fighting the soldiers once more.
"There has to be a stop in the cycle," he stressed. "As long as these martyred rebels could inspire the young among themselves, we would still see violence into the future," Lorenzo noted.
Lorenzo, commander of the 5th Infantry Battalion based in Zamboanga del Sur until lately, was among those tapped to give lectures in the series of OPKORS! trainings.
He said he has observed "improvement of inter-personal relations" among his men, and the latter becoming adept at mediating conflicts in the communities.
Col. Pedro Soria III, commander of the 602nd Infantry Brigade in North Cotabato, related that when his men were fresh from the peace trainings, one of them asked: "What now, sir? Will we not fight the enemy anymore?"
"Wrong!" he exclaimed. "We will continue to do what we've been doing, what we're mandated to do. But we will fight at the right time, at the right context," Soria told his subordinate.
Soria was in the midst of the skirmishes between soldiers and MILF rebels in Midsayap, North Cotabato last February that led to the evacuation of hundreds of civilians. Shortly after that, Ferrer became his division commander.
Ferrer sent Soria to the Mindanao Peace Institute (MPI) in Davao City for peace training, where he was able to convince his suspicious classmates that he was serious about his peace studies, and that he was not there to spy on civil society participants. (Ferrer attended MPI's peace course a few years back).
Soria relayed that while he was at the MPI in June, German national Thomas Wallraf and his three Filipino companions were kidnapped in Pikit, North Cotabato.
He said the ground commander, Lt. Col. Dickson Hermoso of the 7th Infantry Battalion, whom he instructed against deploying a platoon immediately, instead got in touch with the MILF in the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH), the mayor, and a few others.
Hermoso was former head of secretariat of the government peace panel in the JCCCH.
In the end, because of the close coordination between the Army, the police, MILF and even the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), local government officials and community and religious leaders, Wallraf was released within the day, Soria said.
Soria noted that had the kidnapping happened at a different time, a different situation, with the usual military option of sending a pursuit and a blocking team, violence could have erupted, unnecessarily dragging government and rebel forces in clashes they did not start or wish to be involved in.
"But because we initiated dialogues first, the kidnapping was resolved within six hours," he said.
The three ground commanders were one in their recommendations — that peace education be sustained, and that it be institutionalized into the regular military training to reach as much soldiers as possible.
Charlito Manlupig, BMFI president, said they are honored working with the military peace builders, and would be willing to continue helping the military in this endeavor.
Maj. Gen. Jaime Buenaflor, head of the Armed Forces' newly created National Development Command, said "it's about time" to look into the peace-building approach deeply, after using the same (military) approach in the last three to four decades that did not succeed in quelling the conflict in Mindanao.
"Maybe we have done something wrong. We really need a paradigm shift," said the head of the office whose task is to launch a "humanitarian offensive" in conflict-affected communities.
Defense Undersecretary Ernesto Carolina said that among the thrusts of his boss, Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., is transforming the AFP into a peace-building machinery. "If we can win the war without firing a single shot, then good," he added.
Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea, chair of the government's CCCH, said that peace building in the military is ripe these days, noting the progress in the GRP-MILF peace talks these past few years, thanks to the International Monitoring Team, the peace-minded people in the AFP and the MILF, and members of civil society pushing the peace agenda.
He noted that in 2002, there were over 700 skirmishes between government troops and the MILF. The number was reduced to 588 in 2003.
In 2004, with the resumption of the IMT, clashes were drastically reduced to only 15 incidents. This was further reduced to only 10 a year after, but slightly went up to 13 in 2006. Since the start of this year, Gurrea's team has documented only seven GRP-MILF clashes, and he is keeping his fingers crossed that no more violence will erupt for the rest of the year.
Luna, however, lamented that while the peace-building efforts in the military has been producing results in Moro rebel areas, none has so far brought it in "CTM areas," the military lingo for places under the influence of the "communist terrorist movement." His command, the EastMinCom, is dealing mainly with the communist New People's Army.
The peace talks with the National Democratic Front had not resumed. Instead, President Arroyo last year ordered the military to crush the NPA and even set aside P1 billion for the military and police to help fight insurgency. (Bobby Timonera/MindaNews)