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The Philippine peace agreement: let’s maintain diligence

Last year, the Philippine government struck a historic peace deal with the Islamist rebels. But the devil is in the details, which have yet to be agreed upon. Who will make sure they create a just and lasting peace, and how?

S. Francesca Po
1 May 2013
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Protesters call for continued peace talks in Davao City, Southern Philippines.Demotix/Eli Ritchie Tongo. All rights reserved.

It has been about seven months since the signing of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF or ‘Islamic Front’), and while both sides continue to work through details, it is reassuring that peace has held. In the context of some personal insights on the People Power Revolution, and recent events in Malaysia, I hope to offer suggestions on how this peace agreement can reach its full potential.

Initial suspicion

When I first heard the news of the agreement, I naïvely rejoiced and immediately told my parents. My parents however, received the news with suspicion.

‘This is not news; this peace agreement is always on and off. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is broken yet again’, my father immediately replied. I am a second-generation Philippine-American, and my parents, having both lived most of their lives in the Philippines, knew the situation much better than I did. They have seen how peace between the Philippine government and various incarnations of the MILF has been attempted and lost numerous times. They have become desensitised by the seemingly hopeless project.

The MILF was formally established in 1984, but its primary motives – that is, greater autonomy for the Bangsamoro (‘Moro’) people of southern Philippines and parts of Sabah in Malaysia – began as early as the sixties. Then, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) formed as a response to a mass killing of Moro people, supposedly by the Philippine government. The details of the events of this mass killing, known as the Jabidah Massacre, continues to be widely debated, but nevertheless is a narrative that continues to be told to explain the violence in the geographical regions of the Moro people. Since the sixties, numerous agreements have been attempted by the Philippine government and various incarnations of Moro militia, including offers of autonomy, but none of them being completely successful or lasting.

Going back to my parents, it is good to note that they are not your ordinary citizens; they were a couple of the very first civilians who helped the rebel soldiers at Camp Aguinaldo during the People Power Revolution of 1986. To this day, my parents remain social and political activists in the Philippines as well as the United States. So to hear these two people – figures I look up to for their socio-political idealism – express suspicion towards the new peace agreement opened my eyes to the complexity of the current situation.

"This one is different"

Tim Wallis, Executive Director of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which has played a role in the agreement, is more hopeful. ‘This is different’, he says in his piece in October entitled ‘Philippines Peace Agreement—Why This One is Different’, because of the presence of the Nonviolent Peaceforce on Mindanao.

The Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is a group of international unarmed civil society personnel trained in peacekeeping at a grassroots level. Wallis explains that leading up to the peace agreement,

"[NP] had been quietly working away on the island, building relationships with both sides of the conflict, establishing their credentials as a neutral, independent, impartial actor willing to help both parties to find solutions to practical problems they faced on the ground—like how to avoid unnecessary bloodshed without appearing to be weak or to be seen to be backing down; how to ensure safe passage for civilians caught in the crossfire without losing ground militarily; how to maintain contact with the “enemy” and avoid misunderstandings while at the same waging a war against them; how to put out feelers for a ceasefire without appearing to give in…"

Furthermore,

"[NP] helped both sides of this war to be more civilised and more respectful of civilians and as a result, when a ceasefire was finally agreed, both sides asked NP to play an official role in the ceasefire mechanism that would hold both sides to their commitments and obligations under the ceasefire. It is not that unusual for two sides to appoint an intermediary to monitor a ceasefire. Often the United Nations plays that role, other times another country or set of countries will be invited to do it. But never before in the history of war has a non-governmental organisation made up of unarmed civilians from civil society been asked to play a role quite like this. This was – and is – historic, and is why the peace agreement just signed in the Philippines is also historic."

Wallis argues that this agreement is different not just for the Philippines, but for the world, because NP involves peacekeeping at a grassroots level, where all parties involved are willing participants. Historic and different it is indeed, but is it enough?

Peace movements in the Philippines

The People Power Revolution, though it may have been a completely different situation from that of the government and the MILF still provides insight into maintaining the success of the agreement in the latter context. Two things bear inspection: (1) what made it successful, and (2) what were its shortcomings.

Successes

From the perspective of my parents, what made the People Power Revolution ‘work’ was the religious nature of the Philippine culture. (Note that this is a culture where the Angelus is broadcasted and prayed collectively in public metropolitan spaces, like shopping centres.) Led by Jaime Cardinal Sin, the people were encouraged to engage in Christian altruism by supporting the military rebels—the focus was peace, not politics. What started off as just the few like my parents and their friends then multiplied into a mass movement all over EDSA and throughout the nation. The masses also prayed together. Additionally, my mother would often recall that the soldiers from Marcos’ military were so inspired by the religiosity of the masses that they could not find it in their hearts to shoot or trample or bulldoze their tanks over them, despite their orders.

Because religion is such an imperative aspect of at least one side of the current peace agreement, and because the Philippine culture in general is such a religious one, the spiritual component should be made more explicit for the maintenance of peace. Religious leaders on both sides, of all religions, should engage in leadership like that of Cardinal Sin’s, encouraging the people towards continuous collaboration toward the goal of peace. They could, for example, engage in interfaith dialogue among themselves, and lead their constituents by example.

Shortcomings

Critics of the People Power Revolution point out that although it was successful in overthrowing Marcos’ dictatorship, it was unsuccessful in overthrowing the corruption of the government in general, and the nation still struggles to establish a working democracy. The People Power Revolution was too fixated on overthrowing Marcos and thus failed to address the underlying problems: a culture that allowed corruption in the government. This is where I see a blind spot in my parents’ ideology: they, like many Philippine citizens, still see the People Power Revolution as a success story, and fail to see that there could have been an opportunity in the revolution to end government corruption.

Now because NP works at a grassroots level, it is better able to stave off the potential for a break of the agreement. Civilians, military leaders, and government leaders alike are all involved in the process of peacekeeping. Yet, at the end of the day, I hold a similar position to my parents on the current events. In the same way that the People Power Revolution was actually a limited success, I see a potential danger that the signing of the peace agreement might be perceived as an end-all task that will by itself solve all the political issues between the Philippine government and the MILF. I suggest that civilians, military leaders, and government leaders maintain diligence with the current collaborations for peace until both sides reach a level of unity—the day that both sides can almost forget there was even two sides to begin with is the day the peace agreement has fully found it success.

Last month, a standoff in Malaysia has shed light on an even more complex layer regarding the peace agreement. Up until this point, the peace discussions were only between the MILF and the Philippine government, but not the Malaysian. What the people behind the peace agreement failed to recognise were that the Moro people are not only inhabitants of southern Philippines, but also Malaysia, and that the peace agreement would also be beneficial for this extended population. Fortunately, these events have brought Malaysia into the discussions on peace. Unfortunately, the casualties that did happen during the standoff might have been prevented if these considerations were taken alongside the initial discussions last autumn. This event in Malaysia only shows to prove that though the peace agreement is a positive step forward for relationships with the MILF, there is still much work to do.

It is different, but it’s not over yet

The current peace agreement, as Wallis had pointed out, is an historic one for the Philippines as well as the world. It is also different, specifically in its application of methods like NP. However, seven months since the signing of the agreement is nowhere near time for celebration. Religious leaders, in addition to the already active and involved population of civilians, military leaders, and government leaders, should offer their explicit support and encouragement towards a lasting peace. Other extended relationships connected to the MILF should also be considered. People in general should remain diligent in seeking even more creative ways to make this peace agreement a lasting one.

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