PEACETALK: Peacemakers as Agents of Change

What I will share to you this afternoon is my humble opinion in my capacity as chair of the GRP CCCH. Whether or not my input will help complete a larger montage of factors that should lead to the ending of a protracted conflict in Southern Philippines, I will leave that up to your esteemed judgment.

But before anything, please allow me to show you this organizational chart. This illustrates the various formal mechanisms aimed at assisting the CCCH in its mandate to preserve the ceasefire agreement. As you can see from the chart… We have the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) which is tasked to coordinate action against criminal activities in conflict areas. Other instrumentalities of the CCCH include the Joint Monitoring Assistance Centers, the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Posts, and the Local Monitoring Teams. The International Monitoring Team (IMT) has been a very important partner of the ceasefire mechanisms. It now has about 60 members from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya, and Japan helping us to ensure that both sides of the conflict adhere to the letter and spirit of the truce.

I started to chair the CCCH middle of last year with an open mind.  While I was committed to my mandate to preserve a bilateral ceasefire within the bounds of the Constitution, I was also aware of the possible pitfalls along the way. While there was every reason to be elated with the challenges of peace-building, there were also some bases to expect frustration.

Let me elaborate on this:

Many sectors in Mindanao still harbor biases and prejudices against our Muslim brothers and sisters. Independent studies point to a deep-seated mistrust, bred by centuries of miseducation, against Muslims in general. The Philippine Human Development Report says that 33-39 percent of Filipinos still have a "latent anti-Muslim bias." The pervasiveness of this undue suspicion runs against the grain of confidence-building.

Corollary to this is the tendency of some quarters, including the mass media, to issue public statements that hurt sensibilities, inflame sentiments, and undermine the peace process. People casually tend to discredit others, without worrying if such recklessness may fuel an outrage, or start a shooting war.

On the flip side of the coin is the prevalence of rido, or clan wars, among Muslim families. Rido attacks are vicious and unrelenting. Many times, these incidents escalate and drag the MILF and our armed forces into the hostilities.

All this is not helped by the twin realities of loose firearms and determined terrorists. The fact is that there are just too many guns let loose in the island. And more often than not, such armaments are in the possession of unauthorized persons or groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf, the Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al-Qaeda, and other criminal elements.

Yet in spite of all this, the initial gains of our efforts to preserve the ceasefire bear telling.

Just the other weekend, field commanders from the MILF and the armed forces sat down in a roundtable discussion in Cotabato City. The occasion marked the first time combatants from both sides agreed to meet under friendly terms. The meeting may not have been perfect, but for a first attempt at bridging the armed divide, it delivered a singular message: that peace is not only possible, but inevitable.

That unprecedented event in Cotabato capped a list of recent accomplishments. The AHJAG, for instance, has worked to arrest criminals and effectively addressed kidnapping, carnapping, robbery-holdup, and other such incidents. Having resolved some 26 cases, it has proven to be efficient as a joint ceasefire effort.

What is even more encouraging is that members of civil society have actively engaged themselves as support groups to the peace process.

Bantay Ceasefire is an independent, grassroots-based monitoring group, composed of over 550 volunteers. Mostly evacuees, indigenous leaders, youth, and women, they are not part of the formal ceasefire mechanisms. But they work closely with us in reporting alleged ceasefire violations and keeping the spirit of the truce alive.

Other important assemblies are the Mindanao Peace Weavers, the Mindanao People’s Caucus, and the Bishops Ulama Forum. All of them have been actively working to preserve the ceasefire agreement.

An important addition to these helpful organizations is the donor community.  

Last year, the World Bank led efforts in putting together the first phase of the Mindanao Trust Fund (MTF). In the interest of peace in Mindanao, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia put in US$2.697 million in grants. Most of it went to initiatives meant to strengthen the Bangsamoro Development Authority (BDA), which is mandated by the MILF to coordinate development efforts in conflict-affected areas.

Also aimed at improving the BDA’s capability to manage future projects, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed off on a new program. JICA contributed P4.2 million to train 34 BDA participants for seven months.

The BDA is also working with the United Nations Children’s Fund on a project called “Days of Peace,” a one-year engagement that includes immunization, micronutrient supplementation, and birth registration of children in troubled areas.

Japan poured in more than US$624,000 into a new effort called the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD). This is intended to help build school buildings, post harvest facilities, a livelihood training center for Bangsamoro women, and potable water systems.

These grants were funded through Japan’s Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects (GGP) in the Philippines.

Japan has also chipped in some $2 million for peace and development programs, and facilitated the distribution of medicines and anti-tetanus vaccines worth P3.5 million, funded by the Tokoshukai Medical Corporation.

The World Food Program is supervising the implementation of a major food assistance program in Mindanao’s troubled areas. This was initially funded by Japan.

Just recently, in response to requests made by the MILF leadership, government has taken steps to put together a major plan for the Socio-Economic Reconstruction and Development of Conflict-Affected Areas in Mindanao (SERD-CAAM). While the plan itself will take two years to complete, ann inception report has already been presented in Cotabato and Davao cities.

By these developments alone, one may deduce that optimism runs high among stakeholders. So bullish, in fact, are the prospects of peace in Mindanao that two more countries, Sweden and Canada, have expressed interest to join the International Monitoring Team.

Japan has already deployed Mr. Masafumi Nagaishi, First Secretary of its Embassy in the Philippines, to Cotabato City, to meet with MILF leaders. Mr. Nagaishi has joined several IMT-led fact-finding missions in Maguindanao and North Cotabato, and he continues to work with people on the ground to bring rehabilitation and development in conflict-affected areas.

Perhaps the most telling fact out of all this is that clashes between government forces and the MILF have plunged over the last five years. In 2002, violent incidents were recorded at almost 700. This dropped to 15 in 2004, and 10 in 2005. No incidents of significance were reported last year. Interestingly during that period, the economy expanded in Muslim Mindanao at the rate of nearly 18 percent. That record represented the second highest GNDP growth rate nationwide in 2004.

The link between the reduction of hostilities and the improvement of the local economy is unmistakable.

“The stars are aligned for peace,” President Arroyo said last year. And from where I sit, judging from how the commanders from both sides are now beginning to explore new avenues of understanding, judging from how the countryside is now bereft of sustained violence, save for isolated skirmishes, and judging from the level of support we have been getting from local and foreign groups, I can only agree with our commander-in-chief.

Yet, elated as we are with the notion that we are prepared for the dawning of peace, we must continue to see the larger picture and reflect upon our capacity to be true agents of change.

Consider, for example, the folowing facts:

Ø      Four out of the five poorest provinces in the country still come from Mindanao. These are Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Sulu. [2005 Philippine Human Development Report]

Ø      Since May 2005, the number of Mindanao households going hungry has increased four times. [Social Weather Stations, 2006]

Ø      Mindanao itself may be backward, but Muslim Mindanao is even worse. The poverty incidence in the ARMM is the highest across the island, at 53.3 percent. .  [Peace and Reconstruction Imperatives for Mindanao’s Enhanced Development (Primed); 2001; Dr. Fermin Adriano, World Bank

Ø      ARMM has lowest literacy rate at 61.19 percent; 6 out of 10 elementary students do not finish grade school. [Primed]

Ø      In Sulu, 85 percent of the residents don’t have any access to sanitary toilets. The situation is graver in Tawi-Tawi, where 90 percent of the people have neither seen nor used one. [Mindanao Catch-Up Plan; Garilao and Associates, Inc.,  for the Philippine Business for Social Progress; 2000]

Ø      In terms of access to a power source, while 78.3 percent of the residents in the National Capital Region have electricity in their homes, only 59.1 percent in Mindanao do. In the ARMM, the figure is a grim 33.9 percent. [Primed

Ø      Fifty-five percent of the country's remaining barangays with no electricity are in Mindanao. [Mindanews, 2006]

Many other issues that affect our island-community cry out for attention and resolution. From our end at the CCCH, it is true that we must continue to keep the peace and pursue the path towards a meaningful settlement. But all of us, collectively, must work to mitigate, if not eradicate, the scourge of poverty and marginalization. All of us, however modestly, must aim not just for the reduction of hostilities, but the ultimate elimination of the causes of want and war.

For only when we have begun to address these core issues can we say that we are up to the challenge to squarely confront the imperatives of development.

And only then can we truly say that we, as a nation, are ready for peace. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wants to contribute his/her thoughts on peace in Mindanao. Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea is the chair of the government peace panel’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities).