Mindanao Peace Process – lessons from Northern Ireland

In my blog last week I noted the British Government’s interest in the Mindanao Peace Process.   I’m going to use this week’s blog (and next week’s) to offer some personal reflections on this important issue for the Philippines.

The reasons for the UK’s interest in the peace process are straightforward.  The Philippines is an important partner for the UK in ASEAN, but it will not achieve its full potential politically or economically while there is violent conflict within its borders.  It’s clear too that with our traditional support for human rights, democracy and freedom, Britain should wish to see an end to the injustices and human rights violations that have blighted Muslim Mindanao for many years.

There’s another, crucial reason why we are involved – it’s at the invitation of both the main parties to the conflict.   In 2008/9, we worked intensively to share best practice from the UK’s own successful experience of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland – a conflict with several centuries more history behind it than Mindanao.  Former Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Philippines; the peace panels of both the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) visited the Northern Irish capital Belfast and London.  When later in 2009 the GPH and MILF decided to set up an International Contact Group of other governments and international NGOs, the British Government was on both their lists, and we willingly accepted the invitation to join.

The International Contact Group – ICG for short – is essentially an advisory body, observing the peace negotiations, and assisting the parties and the Malaysian facilitator of the talks when asked to do so.  It’s not had a high media profile – rightly so, because it’s not a party to the conflict.  But without breaking confidences, I can say that on more than one occasion it has worked to ensure that the talks did not break down – under this administration, and the previous one.

There are many superficial parallels between the conflicts in Mindanao and Northern Ireland.   And there are some fundamental differences too.   But there are some genuinely useful lessons to be taken from the way we managed the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.   I believe these are relevant here in the Philippines.   (And incidentally, Britain doesn’t have a monopoly on that experience.   Dominic Hannigan TD, chair of the Irish Parliament’s committee on the Good Friday Agreement is currently in the Philippines as part of a volunteering programme with NGO VSO, sharing ideas with a wide range of groups and individuals on peace building.  We had a good meeting last week.)

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that apparently intractable conflicts can be solved.  As a child I grew up in mainland Britain with acts of violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland regularly leading the evening TV news.   Like many others I formed the view that this was a conflict that was doomed by history to run and run.  You could manage it, but not resolve it.  The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 proved that that was not the case.    Hopefully that’s a message that has already been taken on board here – after all, agreement has been tantalisingly close in the past.  Here are three more lessons.

First, talking is an end in itself.   You can’t reach agreements if you’re not communicating.  Here in the Philippines the Mindanao peace talks are conducted very much in the full glare of the media spotlight.    There’s more than one reason why I don’t think that’s always a good thing.  One of them is that it tends to raise expectations of what each round of talks will achieve – and increases disappointment and disillusionment when those expectations are not met.   Sometimes, the fact that the talks simply took place and the parties agreed to come back again is enough.  (But no, you can’t talk forever – at least if you want to take advantage of the window of opportunity afforded by the Aquino administration.)

Second, to make peace, leaders need to invest political capital and take risks.     And they need to be prepared to take some flak for doing so.   Tony Blair was criticised when he first met Republican leaders (the “rebels” – in the Philippine context) – but it proved a crucial piece in the jigsaw of engagement and building of trust.   So I was personally heartened when I read of President Aquino’s surprise visit to Tokyo to meet MILF leader Ebrahim Murad.  To me that was a bold and imaginative move (by both men), that signals a determination to move the talks forward and make peace.   The criticism from different quarters simply confirms the boldness of what the President did.   I hope he will continue to invest political capital in the peace process, and that the negotiators on both sides will display similar creativity and ambition.

Third, a signed peace agreement won’t necessarily bring peace straight away.   In many ways, the agreement is the end of one chapter in the peace process and the start of another.   The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was truly historic, but it was followed by many new political challenges within Northern Ireland.  Only with the follow-up St Andrew’s Agreement of 2004 were the political foundations fully in place.  And it took until 2010 to transfer to the Northern Ireland Assembly responsibility for policing and justice.  Today, the province still faces a threat from dissident Republican terrorist groups, who reject the Agreements.   But those dissidents have no significant community support.  They are a challenge to law and order; but the peace process is solid.  The dissidents want to turn back the clock; but most people in Northern Ireland are looking forward.

Translate that third point into the Philippines’ context, and I draw a couple of conclusions.   It’s right to go all out for a comprehensive peace agreement if you can – but expect still to have to deal with problems after that.  It might even be better to leave some of those problems to resolve later if it means being able to seal the initial deal while the political conditions are right.   As for the dissidents – I think it’s almost inevitable that there will be splinter groups as and when the MILF reach agreement with the GPH.   That will be a serious challenge, as it already is with the case of Commander Umra Kato.  It will have to be managed – including by ensuring that such groups lack broader community support.   But it should also not divert attention from the core task of building peace and reaching an agreement.

I’d welcome feedback on these ideas – positive or negative.   In my next blog I will offer some personal reflections on the KL peace talks, and whether the positions of the two parties are as far apart as some people claim.   Without giving too much away now, I’m not sure they are.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Stephen Lillie is the British Ambassador to the Philippines. He posted this article on September 6, 2011 in his blog site in http://www.fco.gov.uk/en, the website of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. )

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