Voices from conflict’s ground zero

Late last year, the ArtofPeace Group (APG), Nonviolent Peaceforce Philippines (NP) and several community-based NGOs partnered to converse directly select Bangsamoro communities in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte on the topic of “security”. This partnership was moved by the sense that while the “big” and “powerful” actors talk about the “security” of the people and their communities, ironically the people themselves  – the very object and “prize” sought by the “big” actors – have not been directly, systematically and deliberately asked these questions.  While everyone – Government, non-state armed groups, civil society organizations and international organizations work for and behalf of the people, they have not been given adequate opportunity to be asked directly, to be listened to and be heard. Thus, the idea was hatched to give ordinary farmers, fisherfolks, mothers, community leaders the opportunity to be heard. We know that the people have a lot to say about their “security” in addition to what Government or the MILF are saying.

RECOGNITION. We designed the conversations on security according to the principles of free, open and democratic space. We were aware that all that is needed from us, the organizers, was to provide the space and the people themselves will use that space to engage in meaningful dialogue. There was no need for further intervention. Thus, as opposed to the usual consultations where organizers set the agenda and frame the conversations, no prior agenda was set by the organizers and only a broad theme was given and that was: “how do we design safe and secure communities.” For us, in APG, it was crucial that no prior agenda was set. This was necessary for buy-in and legitimacy. Conflict is due partly to lack of recognition of the other and in this small event we wanted recognition to be fully accorded the ordinary people. The results were astounding. The people could have talked all day! They talked about the things they were passionate about, about the things that concern them most, about their fears and hopes. While the issues presented were not “new”, the optimism and the courage to seek a better way was evident and the solutions offered were new.

DEMOCRATIC PARTICIPATION IN THE TALKS. The conventional thinking is that the people are interested only in the outcome of peace and that the details should be left to the leaders and the “big” actors. This was clearly not so. The people do not want to be left at the margins of decision-making.  They want to have a direct hand in the negotiations. It is there future that is being negotiated. Thus, for them, the peace process cannot be left to the hands of National Government and the MILF alone. They, the people, have a lot to say and a lot at stake. They want to be proactive actors and not just recipients of agreements or even of aid. Ironically, for most of the people, the current process – with its structures of secrecy and cycles of impasses, delay and hostilities – creates uncertainty. The current peace process has, in fact, become for them, ironically, a cause of insecurity. The events, for example, that happened in August 2008 after failure of the parties to sign the significant agreement on ancestral domain was seared in their minds. They know fully well that if the talks were in peril, their lives were in peril as well.

IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP. It cannot be denied anymore that there is an increasing and growing consciousness on the part of the people as being Bangsamoro – of belonging to a nation different and distinct from the mainstream Filipino nation. This sense of being distinct is echoed in the call for greater recognition, freedom and self-determination. Clearly, the train of “integration” into the so-called “one country, one people” has left the station a long time ago and there is a need to re-imagine and redesign what Philippine citizenship means in the light of being, at the same time, Bangsamoro.

RESILIENCE. The communities are naturally resilient. They have devised creative ways, processes and structures to deal with their problems and survive. In fact, they need not be taught how to build resilience. They have seen and suffered the pestilence of armed conflict, rido, corruption, malgovernance, flooding and other natural calamities, violence  – for hundred of years – and yet they continue to survive. They cannot be denied.

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MY VIEW. There is a need to redesign and reimagine the peace process, especially now that it is entering a crucial stage. Firstly, there is a need to enlarge the “substance” of the talks by framing the peace talks as a joint problem solving exercise of persons of good will who seek to design clear outcomes for all peoples in the conflict area. I am sure that the parties will agree that the purpose of all of these is to secure for the people, irrespective of political beliefs, culture or creed, freedom from fear, hunger and oppression. Proposals on the table must then be scrutinized and tested in the light of these avowed outcomes. Secondly, the Government and the MILF cannot negotiate alone. The people, as a third independent party, must be involved. The talks must be transformed to a tripartite talks. How to have direct participation by groups who are not pro-MILF or pro-Government is going to be challenge as it in the nature of conflict to make sure that people are polarized to be part of one party or the other. But it can be done and needs to be done. Lack of imagination is not an excuse for this not happening. People’s direct participation can clarify and support the formal peace negotiations. It also strengthens the negotiations and gives it legitimacy. The formal parties need not be threatened by a direct participation of the people. Thirdly, we need to vigorously seek the help of “friends of the peace process”, i.e. those in the International Contact Group, like the UK, Japan, Turkey, CHD, C-R, TAF, Muhammadiyah and other international actors. They bring influence and energy to the talks. Like the train of integration into “one country, one people”, the train of treating the conflict in Mindanao as a purely domestic issue has also left the train station a long time ago. And to ask for help from other countries and international actors does not diminish in anyway, whatsoever our so-called “sovereignty”. It is time.

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Author: Bong Montesa

I teach children how to think. I am engage in the work of ending armed conflicts and bring about a just, inclusive and sustainable peace in the Philippines and in the world.

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