DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/11 August) — The Pikit-Aleosan boundary was home to Manobos until Maguindanaoan Muslims started to settle in the area around the 1950s. In the 1960s, Christian migrants from Iloilo also came to set up homesteads. By the end of the 1960s, community conditions became volatile with many Muslim residents recruited to the secessionist movement and Ilongo settlers bonding to defend their landholdings. For over a decade until the late 1970s, violent clashes between the Blackshirts and the Ilaga factionalized the residents across cultural divides. Relative peace came with the surrender of MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) commander Hadji Salik Nawal in 1976. Mutual animosity and distrust, however, remained simmering below the surface on issues of secessionism and contested land ownership. People held on to their guns for their defense and protection.
Recognized to be resident communities of the MNLF, Pagangan and Nalapaan were declared to be Peace and Development Communities in 1997, allowing them to be among the villages that were to benefit from the peace dividends of the GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement signed in September 1996. The multi-donor package not only meant infrastructure and livelihood assistance, but also included capability building for governance and mainstreaming. Thus, the enculturation of peace was among the earlier interventions that allowed residents to reassess their role in ensuring and sustaining communal peace and social cohesion. Through three phases of the GRP-UN Multi-Donor Programme and its successor program, the GRP-UN Action for Community Transformation for Peace Programme, these villages had inputs on participatory needs assessment and development planning, with particular emphases on dialogue, stakeholding, and inclusivity.
Many among the original MNLF members in the locality followed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) when the latter split from the MNLF in the late 1970s. Thus MILF enclaves in the area were direly affected by the spillover of violence and actual armed encounters between the government forces and the MILF in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2008. Through all these turbulence, the multi-donor support buffered the impact of the armed conflict and attracted further the involvement of the academe, religious organizations, and civil society groups for humanitarian assistance and social development.
After the 2003 Rajahmuda campaign, there was a noticeable change in the climate of the peace negotiation that resumed between the government and the MILF. The assignment of the AFP Vice Chief of Staff to head the government CCCH and the activation of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the other ceasefire mechanisms seemed to convey the sincerity in the desire of both parties for the talks to hammer out a negotiated settlement. Caution was exercised by both the MILF and the AFP to avoid provocation that would spell the collapse of the peace talks. The uneasy peace held until 2008 when disgruntled factions of the MILF expressed their disgust over the non-signing of the MOA-AD. Events would bear out that Tubac in Pagangan was the first flashpoint in the MOA-AD debacle, requiring the government to mount military offensives against the 105 Base Command led by Amiril Umra Kato.
What happened after the MOA-AD debacle is not very well documented. In Pagangan, the village residents tell of the barangay officials leading the evacuees back home to Tubac and staying with them in the sitio for a week to help rebuild their homes and to allay their fears. More than anything, this conveyed to the residents that barangay governance did not exclude on the basis of suspected political loyalties.
In September 2011, the MILF would drop Ameril Umra Kato and his followers from the 105 Base Command for insubordination. Kato had by then resigned his leadership of the 105th Base Command and, along with about 300 of his loyal troops, established the breakaway Bangsomoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). They set up camp a little further south in Maguindanao. However, his ties with his former MILF command would time and again bring his influence to bear on events in Pagangan.
In August 2012 when government troops sent the BIFF scampering for parts unknown, Tubac would again be monitored by security forces as a likely safe haven where BIFF troops would try to seek shelter. Again, the visibility of the barangay officials in monitoring community conditions and their willingness to engage the local MILF and the government troops in determining courses of actions significantly stabilized the sitio during these tension-filled days.
Today, communal relations have been restored somewhat among village residents, aided by proactive barangay governance that practice culturally-sensitive peace processes and innovate on mechanisms for conflict monitoring and mitigation. There, too, is improved social participation among MILF members in barangay matters, most notably in their exercise of their right to suffrage. However, while the MILF members themselves profess a desire for peace, their loyalty to the MILF Central Command remains a binding commitment to their willingness to take up arms at Darapanan’s call.
Managing security in an environment where loose firearms abound and loyalties overlap across family ties, political patronage, and organizational loyalties could be very problematic. For the security forces operating in the area, this required a thorough understanding of the ceasefire agreements and the readiness to play support to LCEs and barangay officials as they take the lead in determining the security agenda. This meant selectively employing military interventions only to suppress armed violence. protect civilians, and create the conditions that would allow third party mediation of community tensions through the LGUs and other stakeholders.
In Nalapaan and Pagangan, the barangay peace and order councils are fully functional and articulated to the municipal leadership, the security sector, the local MILF, as well as their neighboring barangays. Over time, convergence on the peace agenda bonded the various actors in the goal to improve the people’s capacity to initiate, sustain, and manage communal peace. Of late, given the mandate of the IPSP, the ground troops too have joined the peace wagon, employing CMO activities not as a means to win hearts and minds but to deliver together with the various stakeholders basic services that would address what are deemed to be the root causes of conflict.
Optimism runs high for the success of a negotiated settlement between the MILF and the government, especially with the recent signing of the wealth-sharing agreement. Increasingly, the MILF plays a more active role in coordinating law enforcement and rido settlement. This bodes well for the continued improvement of the peace situation in the boundary of Aleosan and Pikit.
As I write, however, safe in Pagangan Barangay High School and in neighboring Nalapaan where they were immediately evacuated out of harm’s way, some 35 families from Tubac cringe at the sound of mortar fire as 602nd Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army pounds the BIFF forces that had attacked the government detachment and occupied their sitio once again. The last time something like this happened was in 2008. The evacuees had come home to the most disheartening sight of war damage then, just as they did in 1997, in 2000, and in 2003. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail Ilagan heads the Psychology Department and the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University.)