FIELDS OF HOPE: What is the guarantee? Who will guarantee? By Roberto C. Layson, OMI

We have reasons to be worried. I guess you call it war trauma. I myself come from Pikit town where the people experienced four major battles between government troops and MILF forces in the span of six years. The Rajahmuda war in 1997 displaced 30,000 people in Pikit. The all-out-war in 2000 affected 500 barangays, destroyed 6,000 houses and displaced one million civilians in Central Mindanao. In Pikit, 41,000 people were displaced. The 2001 war in Bulol displaced 24,000. The last one was the 2003 Buliok war which displaced 45,000 people in Pikit.

The sad thing is, these are the same communities affected and the same people displaced. And another sad fact is, all these wars happened when the Peace Talks were going on and when Ceasefire mechanisms were supposed to be in place. The 2003 Buliok war, for example, happened when the supposed political thrust of the Arroyo Administration was already towards all-out-peace, a radical departure from the all-out-war policy of the previous Erap Administration. That’s why I heard people said, “This peace process is useless!”

The problem is when you later ask both the government and the MILF who started the violations, no one would take responsibility. As usual, it ends up with no one taking accountability with the government and the MILF pointing finger to each other. It’s sometimes disheartening. That is why in our experience in rehabilitation, the most challenging and difficult part is not to rehabilitate the physical damage inflicted by war such as the construction of houses, roads, water facilities, day care centers or even school buildings. This is the easiest part of rehabilitation, we found out. The most difficult part really is how to restore the belief of people in the peace process and in peace in general.

But what can you expect between the two parties. It’s like a basketball game without a referee. That is why, the civil society organization in Mindanao lobbied so hard for the third party ceasefire monitors because the ceasefire mechanism then was not effective in controlling the situation on the ground. And as always the case, it’s the innocent civilians who suffer the brunt of war – the ordinary Lumads, Muslims and Christians.

With the impending pull-out of the Malaysian monitors, is it possible that major confrontations will happen again between government troops and MILF forces? Is it possible that another all-out-war will happen that can cause the collapse of the Peace Talks? Is it possible that both the government and the MILF will go back to the war mode again? These are questions that remain to be seen and we hope will not happen again. Otherwise, history will just repeat itself. And that will be very damaging not only to the physical landscape of Mindanao but more so of the psychological mindset of the local inhabitants. The gains that we have worked so hard to restore their confidence in the peace process will go to waste again.

That is why in our statement, we said “If we need to kneel down before the principals and members of the International Monitoring Team (IMT), we, all 650 volunteers of the Bantay Ceasefire, will gladly do so if only to convince the IMT to stay. We speak as the sons, the daughters, the parents, the family and friends of the victims of armed conflict in Mindanao. We speak on behalf of those who have the most at stake at its peaceful resolution. We speak as the ones to pick up the pieces should skirmishes between government troops and MILF forces will erupt again.” (Bantay Ceasefire Statement)

“The pullout of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) led by the Government of Malaysia will clearly have dire consequences on the lives of people in the conflict-affected areas. As an independent grassroots ceasefire monitoring mechanism, Bantay Ceasefire saw how the presence of the IMT had dramatically improved the lives of civilians. The track record of the IMT in the last four years will show that it is indeed indispensable to the mechanism for cessation of hostilities and to the peace process.” (BC Statement)

“Records of the Joint Ceasefire Committee will show that prior to the coming of the IMT, we had over a thousand violations of the ceasefire agreement in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, however, these violations significantly dropped to less than 10 violations and we attribute this outstanding record on the strong presence of the IMT, together of course with the hard work and dedication of the Joint Government and MILF Ceasefire Committee,” (BC Statement) along with the Local Monitoring Teams and civil society participation, especially the Bantay Ceasefire, Tiakap Kalilintad and Non-Violent Peaceforce.

Undeniably, “the presence of the IMT in conflict affected areas not only allowed the people to enjoy relative peace, and quiet for sometime now, but it also provided an environment conducive to peace negotiations. Not only that, the presence of the IMT also allowed aid agencies to operate relatively free and their implementation of projects unhampered in the conflict affected areas.” (BC Statement)

In fact, developmental assistance continues to come to Mindanao from donor countries simply because of the relative peace that we are experiencing at the moment. Before, when I go around conflict affected communities, I only see bad roads and dilapidated school buildings and bare vast fields and sad faces of children. But now when I go around visiting these villages, I see improved roads, painted school buildings, rice fields beaming with yellow and happy faces of kids. And yes, all these big and colorful billboards of different international donors located on strategic locations.

“It has taken so much hard work on the part of the government, MILF, civil society organizations, and the international community to build a constituency for peace in Mindanao, to make people believe that a just peace is possible, and to generate confidence in the peace process.

Towards this end, the Bantay Ceasefire puts forward the following calls and recommendations:

– For Philippine government and the MILF to resume the formal peace talks and sign the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain based on the agreed consensus points;

– For the Philippine government and the MILF to request the Malaysian government to extend the IMT's tour of duty and reconsider its decision on the pull-out of Malaysian troops;

– For Congress to legislate the postponement of the upcoming ARMM elections to allow sufficient time for the GRP-MILF peace talks to conclude the negotiations and complete the ongoing Tripartite Review of the 1996 Peace Agreement.” (BC Statement)

However, in an event that the Malaysian government will no longer reconsider its decision, then, this will really be a time of testing where the local ceasefire mechanisms will be put to the litmus test. More and more, the Joint Ceasefire Committee will have to work double time and overtime. And, if I may suggest, it is perhaps wise and practical to add more personnel to the JCCCH in order to cover other areas to be vacated by the IMT in Davao, Zamboanga, General Santos and Lanao. It cannot be denied that for the last four years, these local ceasefire mechanisms have improved a lot because of sincerity and dedication of the people involved.

Likewise, it cannot be denied, too, that there is now a growing number of military officers and MILF commanders in Central Mindanao who are supporting the peace process and are familiar with the ceasefire mechanisms unlike the previous past. With the pull-out of the Malaysian contingent, we expect them to exert all the more their authority in their area of responsibility in order to prevent an escalation of violence. After all, they are supposed to be in control of their subordinates.

Again, let me echo the questions from the Bantay Ceasefire. The first question is, in the absence of the Malaysian monitors, what is the guarantee that there will be no resurgence of hostilities again between government troops and MILF forces? The second question is, who will guarantee?

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Fr. Roberto C. Layson is a former parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato and presently the coordinator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculates' Inter-Religious Dialogue, still based in Pikit. Fr. Layson is the 2004 Ninoy Aquino Fellow for public service.)