Peace process in Mindanao

How does conflict transformation work? Peace advisers have a particular range of skills which must be adapted and applied to circumstances that are always unique. But even where local, national and international ngo’s are involved, the transformation has to be brought about by the people themselves

Paul Clifford
12 January 2010

The work I undertook in Mindanao in the Philippines, begun in 2003 and ongoing today, is a good example of many of the issues raised by Diana Francis in her article, Beyond stalemate.

 Looking for a peace adviser

I was approached by the German Development Agency (DED) in 2003 to see if I would act as a ‘peace adviser’ in Peace Talks between the Philippines Government and a revolutionary Communist group who had been fighting each other, in one form or another, for over 30 years. The leader of the Communist group had approached the mayor of one of the large towns to see if the Government would be interested in Peace Talks. The mayor, who had the ear of the President, had got government agreement and the government had created a Peace Panel, with the mayor as its chair, to negotiate with the Communist group. The mayor and the Communist leader had approached the well known and respected director of a local development NGO to head the secretariat for the Peace Talks. The NGO approached DED to help find a ‘peace adviser’. DED’s country director contacted a colleague in their head office, who contacted someone he knew, who knew me.

The NGO was a development NGO and had no experience of Peace Talks. They thus wanted someone with that experience (which I have) to help them with the process, or in their words ‘to accompany them on their journey’. The leader of the NGO had been chosen because he was trusted and respected by both sides. It is possible to buy in expertise, but not trust. Thus my first task was to build trust between myself and the three key ‘principals’: the mayor and chair of the Government Peace Panel, the Communist leader, who would act as adviser to their Peace Panel, and the director of the NGO. Trust was built through a series of formal and informal meetings both separately and together and was certainly helped by shared meals over a glass or two of beer.

What became clear to me very quickly was that these were no ordinary Peace Talks, which focus primarily on some kind of political settlement. The Communist group were setting to one side (but not abandoning) their political agenda, and focusing on bringing development to the most needy in the communities where they operated. Also, they did not want to impose this on the communities. They wanted the communities or ‘barangays’ to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be part of this Peace Process – to try and create a genuine ‘bottom up’ approach rather than the normal ‘top down’ approach, where the government and those whom they are in conflict with, sit down and forge an agreement while ordinary citizens are excluded from the process.

Creating a framework for a peace process

The initial focus was on trying to create a ceasefire agreement and three formal documents that would be signed, to create a framework for the Peace Process.  The first document was a joint commitment to pursue peace and development. The second concerned the rules of conduct for the formal Peace Talks and the third concerned the rules of conduct for the local consultations with the barangays who wished to participate. Work on these documents was carried out in informal talks between the two sides. Only when agreement had been reached did the formal Peace Panels meet in order to sign the documents.

It was not possible to agree a formal ceasefire, or a ‘Cessation of Hostilities’, but, in reality there was a de facto cessation of hostilities on the ground between the two sides. We were thus able to press ahead with the other three documents and reach agreement on those. The development NGO, acting as secretariat, created three teams to undertake this work: a Political Settlement Team, comprising lawyers from the alternative sector, who advised on legal issues and helped draft the legal documents to be signed; a Development Component team, who would organise and conduct the barangay consultations; and a Technical Support Team, who coordinated and organised the Peace Talks and undertook the necessary administration. My role as ‘peace adviser’ was to advise on the process, share my experience of other Peace Processes, provide documents from those processes for them to consider, and to conduct training as requested for the two sides.

The chair of the Government Peace Panel asked me to provide training for his support staff (who were conducting most of the informal talks) in conflict analysis, negotiation and mediation skills. The request from the Communist group was for me to participate in discussions they were having among their members about the Peace Process. As is often the case, there were some members who supported the Peace Talks and others who believed that the armed struggle should continue. The leadership obviously wanted to take their membership with them, so had organised these discussions to try and reach consensus. The input I was asked to make was on my knowledge and experience of armed groups in other areas who had decided to engage in the political process rather than continue solely with an armed struggle. The two examples that were of most interest to them were Northern Ireland and the attempts to form a power sharing government, and Palestine where Hamas had recently announced its decision to participate in elections. I stayed with them in one of their camps for two days and we had some lively and informed discussions. We were protected by armed guards, not from the threat of Government attack but from the very real threat from a rival Communist group who had denounced the Peace Talks as ‘betrayal’ and had threatened to kill the leadership of the group I was working with – a threat they took very seriously.

The outcome of these discussions was that the Communist group decided to remain in the Peace Talks, whilst retaining the right to resume the armed struggle should the Peace Talks fail.

The issue of language

The issue of language is often a critical one. Where those participating in the Peace Process use different languages, what language will be used for communication or will there be a need for interpreters and translation of documents? Language can also be a political issue: the ‘minority group’ may be able to speak the ‘majority group’ language but may choose not to, as a statement of their own separate identity.

In this situation, all of the Government Peace Panel and support staff could speak and write fluent English so I had no problem communicating with them. Many of the Communist group could also speak and write good English. For those who were more comfortable speaking their own language, Visayan, they did so and translation was provided for me by one of the NGO’s Technical Support Team. For the Peace Talks themselves, all documents, by agreement, were written in English. For the informal and formal talks between the two sides, the issue of language was more complex. The main language spoken in the Philippines is Tagalog, which was spoken by the Government Peace Panel members and support staff from the capital, Manila. They could not speak or understand Visayan. The Communist group could speak and understand Tagalog but chose to speak Visayan during the talks, meaning that translation was needed both for me and the non-Visayan members of the Government team.

The ‘bottom up’ approach

The process of identifying the barangays which would participate in this process was also an interesting one. Each barangay had an elected leader or ‘captain’ who was respected within the community. They called meetings to discuss whether they wished to participate in the process. The hope of development was a strong motivating factor, so many barangays wanted to participate. It was agreed that there would be one hundred barangays in the ‘first round’. If a barangay was involved in the process, the idea was that it would become a ‘Peace Zone’ where both the Government and the Communist group agreed that they would not carry arms and fight. The Government was concerned that this should not be used as a cover for building up anti-Government forces and so a process was set up whereby the names of barangays who wanted to participate would be submitted to the Philippines Armed Forces, who would have the power of veto if they had real security concerns about the area. This was a bureaucratic process which slowed the process down; but eventually a number of barangays were agreed and the consultations proceeded.

The consultations were carried out by the NGO’s Development Component Team, with Government and Communist group representatives. I was able to witness one of these consultations. They used classic Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods in working with the communities to help them establish their own priorities for development. This participatory process took place over 2-3 days. On occasions there were attempts from the rival Communist group to disrupt the process and threats made against barangays who participated. Sadly, following one of the consultations, three people were killed. It is one of the unfortunate realities of peace building that those seeking peace can be targeted and killed by those who wish to see the violence continue.

Following the consultations, the NGO staff wrote up the outcomes of the PRA consultations as formal proposals, which would be submitted to potential donors at a Stakeholders Conference. Many of these proposals have been agreed, funded and implemented and the barangays have seen their ideas come to reality. The process, which started in 2003, continues to this day. It has all happened much more slowly than people had hoped, but it is still proceeding. The de facto cessation of hostilities between the Government and the Communist group has held throughout this time. The development NGO has transformed itself into a Peace and development NGO and has built a large residential Peace Centre where it holds courses and hosts conferences and seminars. When I was last there in May 2009, I was asked to contribute to a training course which they were running for Philippines Armed Forces personnel in conflict resolution.

This is thus a very interesting example of a Peace Process that has been built from the ‘bottom up’ with genuine participation from ordinary community members, local and international NGOs, the Philippines Government and international donors. It has taken much courage and a lot of perseverance and patience from all those involved. The process is not yet complete, but the fact that so much has been achieved and that the process still continues is a testament to the commitment, vision and courage of all those involved.






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