PEACETALK: Civil Society More Ready Than Ever to Play Role in Forging Peace in Mindanao

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In a study I wrote a number of years ago, I quoted a peace activist in Mindanao lamenting the lack of success in ending the war between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). He was speaking in the wake of President Estrada’s 2000 “all-out war” offensive that overran fixed positions of the MILF. Similar sentiments were echoed after the 2003 government attack on the Buliok Complex (in an attempt to arrest MILF Chair Hashim Salamat) and the 2008 upsurge in violence when “rogue” MILF commanders responded to the aborted signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). In short, civil society in Southern Philippines has often had to face the reality that despite “sustained and varied collective actions,” progress toward peace in the Muslim separatist conflicts has been halting.

In describing and diagnosing the efforts of civil society, I wrote that there was the promotion of dialogue among communities, but that there was an asymmetry since Christian churches tend to have hierarchies that can organize activities, while Islam has no hierarchy, leading to a perception that such dialogue was Christian-led. A similar situation was seen in that Moro civil society was considerably less developed than Christian civil society. This seemed to be the dual result of poverty and the fact that the revolutionary fronts, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, used up much of the ideological space for organization.

At the community level, “peace zones” were often established, where citizens requested combatants from all sides to stay away. However there was not much evidence that they were effective in reducing violence in the absence of a general peace agreement, since combatants would still maneuver. An encouraging development was the Bantay Ceasefire (ceasefire watch), a valuable parallel civil society initiative begun in 2003 to supplement the formal Local Monitoring Teams (LMTs) that had been agreed upon in the talks. Since the LMTs were not uniformly active, and since their reports to negotiators were confidential, the public activities of the Bantay Ceasefire were most welcome. However, at that time, the effort was very poorly funded.

I also noted that civil society has over the years become increasingly engaged in the formal peace process, with a good example being the chair of Mindanao Caucus of Development NGOs (MinCODE), Sylvia Paraguya, serving on the government’s negotiating panel (and Teresita “Ging” Deles serving as Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process). Still, overall civil society had little effect on the formal peace process, since negotiation contained considerable confidentiality, went through back channels, and can be highly technical. Civil society members on the panels are constrained in what they can say without violating confidences, and in their new role in government were no longer able to be as freewheeling in their participatory consultations as they had been in the past.

Since the study was written, the better part of a decade has passed, and the implementation of a new Agreement seems imminent, as promised in the October 15 signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. In particular, there is a Transition Commission being set up to draft the Basic Law for the new arrangements. The Executive Order establishing the Transition Commission mandates “authentic democratic collaboration in the crafting of a proposed law by the affected people themselves.” In light of these new developments and progress in civil society over the past years, what are the prospects for the role of civil society in managing the conflict?

Firstly, direct civil society engagement in keeping the peace on the ground is considerably more robust than in the past. Bantay Ceasefire is now better funded, and such engagement is formalized now with Mindanao People’s Caucus involvement in the Civilian Protection Component of the International Monitoring Team. They are joined by two Moro NGOs, Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC) and the Muslim Organization of Government and Other Professionals (MOGOP), in this role of providing local, on-the-ground complements to the efforts of the IMT.

The addition of two Moro NGOs to the Civilian Protection Component is a reflection of how Moro civil society has been strengthened in recent years. Long-standing programs by donors, both foreign and domestic, have over the last decade begun to make a difference. Despite progress, there still remains a lot to do, with the strife-torn island provinces of Sulu and Basilan still having far less developed civil society than central Mindanao.

Along the same line, the ulama (Muslim male scholars), and to a lesser extent, the aleemat (Muslim women scholars), are beginning to become more involved in solving community problems. This begins to remedy some of the asymmetry I mentioned earlier where the hierarchies that Christian churches have makes organizational efforts easier. For instance, the Sulu Ulama Council for Peace and Development interacts with the provincial government on development issues, and with the security forces on peace and order.

Civil society is undertaking new tasks – an interesting example is Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society and its long-standing efforts (funded first by The Asia Foundation, and more recently by Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue) to assist in “convergence” between the MNLF and MILF by consulting the grassroots on what they want from the two fronts. The idea is to produce an independent “Moro Agenda” to which the two groups could react. This begins to open up what I called the “ideological space” for alternative approaches. At the community level, as Asia Foundation conflict expert and author Willy Torres describes in his “Letting a Thousand Flowers Bloom,” civil society organizations have gone beyond just making bantay (watching) to active work on mediating and helping to settle conflicts. In the last five years or so, Asia Foundation partners have been able to settle a total of 204 clan conflicts (accounting for 604 deaths and 231 injuries).

There is one aspect of the peace process that definitely shows the impact of civil society:  the greater involvement of women. Last year, I blogged on Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer who became the first woman to chair the government’s peace panel. But still, overall, we must stick with the judgment that civil society has not had much influence on the peace process thus far – it has been the choices of the parties that make the difference. Notice the progress made in the MILF peace process versus the decades-long stalemate in the NDF process. The MILF chose not to let the question of detainees halt the process, while the NDF refuses to talk until this issue is resolved. Peace talks start and stop based on decisions of the GPH and the MILF, and the details of the talks develop behind closed doors, with little reference to the activities of civil society.

Such disconnect is perhaps understandable since the confidential negotiations were taking place in Kuala Lumpur following diplomatic modalities. But now that the Transition Commission is about to start work in Cotabato City, civil society has an opportunity to engage directly in the process – but it must go beyond mere expressions of sentiment. Taxation, forms of governance, policing and community security, social service delivery, new forms of politics – all of these are difficult and often highly technical topics that must be tackled by the Transition Commission in a limited time. Civil society must step up to the challenge of helping the Transition Commission draft a Basic Law that sets the new Bangsamoro on the path to peace and development.  At the national level, something of a stretch for Mindanao civil society, Congress needs to be encouraged to see the document produced by the Transition Commission as a positive step for the entire Filipino nation.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. This piece was from ‘Notes from the Field’  of ‘In Asia,’ of  The Asia Foundation at

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