Opinion

Op-Ed

Waging the War of Peace

Since so many years have gone by, with so many lives and so much property destroyed, the cost of conflict has far outweighed the benefits of coexistence. So the best option is to sign a peace agreement.

The initiative for a peace negotiation begins with the premise that both parties on the table are willing to talk openly and lay down their respective cards as honestly as possible, in an atmosphere of non-curtailment of ideas and information. But this is not ideally happening today. Warring parties like the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been on the negotiating table for years, and have signed a number of milestone agreements, but the military conflict on the ground continues on and off.

Since negotiation is both a cognitive and a gut-level interaction process that requires a high degree of intelligence and intellectual skills, persuasive ability, a comprehensive knowledge of the issues, and a wide as well as in-depth data base access, the negotiating parties — each bent on gaining ground at the "expense of the other" — would certainly refrain from laying down their hidden assumptions unless a "revelation" brings them closer to their respective goals.

Double Vision Required

The talks happening at the top negotiating level are validated by the actions on the ground, or "grassroots" level, either by faithfully adhering to agreed-upon protocols based on previously signed agreements; or, worse, violated by security breaches and other ceasefire violations.

The Bangsamoro issue on self-determination, a classic example, is the lead agenda that contains issues like ancestral domains, which in the past months have struck the sensibilities of the predominantly lowland settlers of Mindanao, who happen to be Christians. The issues of territory, and governance — not to mention land and resources — as part of an ancestral domain have struck a sensitive chord among the Christian majority, especially those living within or in close proximity to the Muslim-populated areas of Mindanao. These issues have been thoroughly discussed by both the GRP and MILF panels, and an agreement on what constitutes Bangsamoro territory may soon come out of the talks.

Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez, senior research associate for the Philippine Facilitation Project, Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution of the United States Institute of Peace argues in her study, "Ancestral Domain in Comparative Perspective," that what is happening in Mindanao has also happened in various parts of the globe where so-called ethnic minorities who fought for their claims of self-determination eventually reaped the benefits of their struggles and efforts.

The "double vision" requires looking at the general movement of the forest and the specific movement of the trees as a metaphor that applies to the monitoring of discrepancies between what is said on the formal negotiating table and what is being done on the wider ground or geographic landscape level by the forces of the top negotiators.

Cotabato and Maguindanao, where a sizable number of Christian settlers may also be found, have now become the theater of operations of both the government military and the MILF combatants. The MILF panel chair issued a statement that the 6th Infantry Division is "willfully violating the ceasefire," that led to the near collapse of the truce. The international monitoring teams have filed their respective reports, and countries providing assistance to Mindanao have threatened to withdraw their support if war continues.

Pro-Christian militants defended the action of the military by referring to the attacks of armed men in North Cotabato whom they tag as part of the MILF force in the region.

'Inter-deterrence'

Peace from a global perspective is synonymous with security. The attainment of peace does not come offered on a silver platter. Billions of dollars are spent each year by advanced countries just to secure their borders from internal or external attack.

For years, the Autonomous Regions in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have become relative peace zones because conflict-affected areas brought about by family feuds, land ownership squabbles, or even crimes have not escalated on a region-wide scale due to the presence of armed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members in specific areas of the ARMM, and armed MILF combatants in predominantly Muslim-populated areas. The MNLF signed a Final Peace Agreement with the GRP in 1996, and the MILF is slated to sign a similar pact this year.

Recently, in a forum in Iligan City where MILF Peace Panel members Atty. Musib Buat and Robert Maulana Alonto updated the civil society and the press, they confirmed the presence of about 700 fully armed MILF combatants passing through the city and heading towards the hinterland close to the boundary of Lanao del Sur. Reportedly escorted by AFP soldiers, the purpose was to check on cattle rustlers, poachers, and roaming armed groups that terrorize residents as part of their "peace advocacy" campaign. The rationale is that if the MILF could secure the so-called Bangsamoro areas, their Christian counterparts could also find solace in the presence of the government military forces — the army and Marines. Thus, a form of "inter-deterrence" should add to the confidence-building and peace-building measures of both parties, especially if the GRP grants self-determination to the MILF and the Bangsamoro.

But in relation to the ongoing talks, since expectations are high that 2007 might be the time of the signing of the compact, some analysts view the GRP as trying to downgrade the military might of the MILF so that it could achieve a stronger bargaining power at the negotiating table in the next round of talks in Malaysia.

Whether the "military option" initiative comes from the ripples of the powerful international community, or from the heart of the national leadership is a matter of conjecture. Analysts agree however that the theater of war operations needed to be fully dressed into the components of a production outfit or "war props" that are acceptable to the psychology of the international community. Such "theater" could attract further international attention to create an image that the weight of development assistance would be imperatively greater in the aftermath of the armed conflict.

Post-Peace Pact

The GRP and the MILF are locked in a battle of ideas, interests and strategies that could either end up in a peace settlement, or in a breakdown of the peace talks. But since so many years have gone by (500 years of conflict, in the estimation of the MILF peace panel), so many lives and so much property destroyed, the cost of conflict has far outweighed the benefits of coexistence. So the best option is to sign a peace agreement.

Today internally displaced persons in war-torn areas are being served by civil society groups and NGOs designed to enhance-confidence building and peace-building, before the reconstruction-rehabilitation-development aspects of post war take place. VSO PEACE Mindanao's Billy de la Rosa indicates that there are now 13 foreign volunteers deployed in the Lanao areas. However, their presence will end in 2010. Oxfam just surveyed Cotabato in March 2007. Will there still be wars in Mindanao after the signing of the peace pact between the GRP and the MILF?

Ted Khan R Juanite is managing director of PSK, a Mindanao-based NGO, and the convenor of the Peace Alliance Consortium for Transformation (PACT). He has been in Mindanao for 19 years and covered a number of events for national and local media outlets like Philippine Graphic.

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