FIELDS OF HOPE: Religious Perspective on the Ceasefire Agreement and the Peace Process in General

I speak as a religious leader but also as one who has witnessed four wars in Pikit (North Cotabato). I don’t know exactly how many combatants died in the battlefields during these wars.  All I know is that many children died in evacuation centers due to hunger and disease. And that there were many pregnant mothers who gave birth to their babies in evacuation centers.  And, that there were babies who died in the womb of their mothers even before they were born. 

This is not to say that the lives of the civilians are more precious than the lives of the combatants.  No, the life of every person is precious in the eyes of God. Not only that. It is also sacred.

As a religious leader, it is always my fervent prayer that no war will take place in Mindanao so that no more innocent civilians will die in evacuation centers and no more combatants will die in the battlefields.  To me, in war the real enemy is not the rebel or a soldier.  In war, the real enemy is war itself.  If war can be avoided, it must be avoided at all cost in order to save human lives.

The Bible tells us that one of the central teachings of Jesus is Peace.  “Blessed are the peace-makers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” he told a crowd of people. When he appeared to his apostles after his resurrection, his first message to them was peace. “Peace be with you,” he said.  And just before he ascended into heaven, he told them, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.”

That is why as a religious leader, I always support the ceasefire and the peace process. I always believe that problems, no matter how big they are, can be solved in a peaceful manner if only men and women believe in their own goodness and in the goodness of their fellow human beings. God created every person out of His goodness.  By nature every man and woman who is born into this world is good. 

I’m happy that both the government and the MILF have listened to the plea of the ordinary civilians to resolve this conflict in Mindanao in the negotiating table and not in the battlefields. General Douglas MacArthur once said, “I have known war as few men now living know it.  Its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless in settling international disputes.” 

We thank this administration for declaring the primacy of the peace process a national policy.  It is the most humane way of resolving the Mindanao conflict. We appeal to all field commanders, AFP and BIAF, to uphold this policy for the good of all. In upholding the primacy of the peace process, your role as commanders has inevitably changed.  Because of the existing ceasefire agreement, your role is no longer to engage one another in battle.  You are playing a new role in a new context.  Your role in this new context is how to prevent violence from happening in your area of responsibility. 

We know this is something new to you who were trained to fight in the battlefields. But this new role requires a lot of restraint on your part; also patience, understanding, tolerance, emotional stability and yes professionalism.  In this new context, your test of professionalism as a commander is not the number of encounters you have initiated but the number of violent incidents you have prevented.  In doing so, you are not only upholding the primacy of the peace process but you are also doing great service to humanity and to God.

The ceasefire agreement is a very important agreement that provides space for the government and the MILF to talk about the problem in the negotiating table.  The IMT (International Monitoring Team), CCCH (Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities), AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) and LMT (Local Monitoring Teams) are mechanisms that are meant to minimize if not to eliminate possible armed encounters between government troops and MILF forces. 

From 2003 onward, we have observed a dramatic reduction of ceasefire violations. Except for isolated incidents in Shariff Aguak town in 2006 and in Midsayap last January and March 2007, we noticed an improvement of the situation on the ground. 

This fantastic performance has contributed greatly to the restoration of trust and confidence of the people in the peace process and in peace in general. We commend the people who worked so hard in the past and also those of the present who are trying their best to make these ceasefire mechanisms work effectively. 

In saying this, however, we also observe that there are some field commanders who are not fully knowledgeable of these mechanisms and do not fully know how to make use of them.  Besides, we also notice that there are also those who simply choose to disregard these mechanisms even if they already know.   And we ask why. 

We would like to make an appeal to all field commanders to use these mechanisms in resolving issues of ceasefire violations rather than taking any incident into your own hands.  Give these mechanisms a chance to work and the people in charge to perform their mandate.  The recent incident in Pikit regarding the abduction and immediate release of a German national and his three Filipino companions shows how effective the mechanisms can be if only they are maximized and given the chance to function. 

I believe the negotiation is reaching the critical stage.  It is all the more necessary to always uphold the primacy of the peace process and observe the ceasefire agreement.  Field commanders are the responsible people on the ground.  We appeal to you to exercise your authority with gentleness and compassion.   

The ceasefire mechanisms are like small paths leading to the big road.  The big road is the Peace Talks.  It is the road to Peace.  It is good, therefore, that field commanders follow these paths in order that we will not go astray and lose in the wilderness again.  We cannot afford anymore to make a detour while we are on our way to peace.