Dancing in the Rain: Peace in the Philippines

As our flight from the Philippines descended into Denver International Airport, the pilot reassured us that the smell of smoke was not coming from the plane, but rather the surrounding forest fires, which had engulfed Colorado. For the next weeks, the fire(s) consumed not only the state, but the news, local conversation and the thoughts of those who live here. While my home remained at a safe distance from the ongoing fires, fear persisted around us. Fear, not of existing fires, but of the possibility of fire; at any moment, lightning could strike, winds could pick up and the place we call home would be engulfed in flame. Having just returned from the Philippines, the underlying feeling of fear was all too familiar.

Mindanao, where Jeff and I lived, is home to a decades-long war between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 60,000 lives. 2 million internally displaced refugees. In 2008, the Philippines had the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (more than Sudan, more than Colombia). As astonishing as the statistics may be, they only tell a small part of the story. Perhaps the war’s most devastating mark has been the culture of fear that pervades the country. Those located in Luzon, the northern part of the Philippines, tend to lump all of Mindanao into one large, terrifying hotbed of armed conflict. The fear is also present throughout Mindanao – mostly in places that are relatively removed from violent clashes. Those who live in Davao are terrified of central and northern Mindanao, those who live in northern Mindanao are afraid of the island provinces, and the list goes on…

During our six months in Mindanao, this fear entered into daily conversations: people surprised that we would choose to live in Mindanao, intense worry from neighbors when they discovered we had just traveled to “delicate” (delikado) regions of the island. Sometimes subtle, sometimes surprisingly direct (one neighbor suggested Jeff arm himself before going to central Mindanao) –the underlying sense of fear wrapped itself around even the most quotidian aspects of life. Interestingly, the fear seemed more intense for those who had not directly experienced violence; their fear was not of existing violence, but of the possibility of violence. At any moment, violence could erupt, a bomb could go off and this place called home would be engulfed in flame. And while this fear is not completely unfounded (small bombs did go off in places we were working) it is greatly exaggerated. One of the major challenges for those working to build a culture of peace in the Philippines is to begin breaking down the culture of fear that exists.

Interestingly, our Filipino counterparts from regions hard hit by the violence were far from paralyzed by fear. On the contrary, they willingly entered into the most precarious situations. One colleague, Deddette Suacito, experienced the trauma of the kidnapping of her coworker. After months of sleepless nights and high anxiety, she was able to broker a release. Deddette continues to work in highly delicate situations in Basilan, a province that has been particularly hard hit by the war. When asked why she chooses to continue her work after experiencing, directly, what so many others fear she responded, her eyes welling with tears, “At the end of the day, when I look at their faces I see people, like me. I have to help them. We are all human.” Much later, as we began to say our goodbyes, Deddette joked with us about coming back to the Philippines with children. “Next time, you come with your 5 children to Basilan. I will show them the beauty of our island. I will show them our white sand beaches and crystal blue ocean. I will teach them how to dance in the rain.” While her intention was nothing more than a joke, the profundity of the statement struck a chord deep within me that continues to resonate: I will teach them how to dance in the rain.

Deddette is not alone. I met dozens of peace practitioners – many directly affected by the war – who carry with them a capacity to dance in the rain. Their joy at times seems almost misplaced in the face of devastating violence – and yet it has allowed them to cultivate an effective, strong civil society focused on bringing peace to their land. Today, it appears that they are on the cusp of making their dream of peace a reality. A report recently released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) found that in the last 6 months, there were zero armed clashes between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines. The last recorded skirmish occurred in October 2011 in Basilan. This week marks a particularly important milestone for the Philippines as the GPH and MILF peace panels completed another successful round of peace negotiations, (despite efforts from a radical fringe group to thwart the peace talks).

On April 24, the GPH and MILF peace panels signed a framework for the final peace agreement. The “GPH-MILF Decision Points on Principles” provided a major breakthrough for the national peace talks, which many thought might stalemate just one month earlier. The mutually agreed upon decision points demonstrate both groups’ authentic desire to sign a peace agreement. During the July session of peace negotiations, the two panels made substantial progress in identifying concrete and realistic mechanisms towards realizing a New Autonomous Political Entity (NPE) for Mindanao, which further demonstrates the earnestness of the two parties to come to a negotiated agreement. On May 18, I joined the Multi-Stakeholders Caucus on the GPH-MILF Peace Talks, a caucus that brought together civil society organizations across Mindanao to engage with the peace panel members from both the MILF and GPH. At this meeting both Dean Marvic Leonen, chair of the GPH peace panel and Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF peace panel expressed “cautious optimism” for a signed peace agreement between the two warring parties: “I can see a small light flickering at the end of the tunnel…it is not a light I have seen before,” Iqbal asserted during the session, a rather remarkable statement coming from someone who has been part of the MILF peace negotiations for the last 15 years. Of equal importance is the response of the civil society, who quickly developed action points in support of the peace talks. Those who have lived and worked in war-torn countries know that a national peace agreement, while an important step towards peace, is really only the beginning. Successful transitions from armed conflict to sustainable peace are largely dependent on the people on the ground and the strength of the civil society. What makes the potential for sustainable peace a real possibility in the Philippines are the steps being made simultaneously by high-level leaders and grassroots organizations; From the national level to the local level, a sincere move towards peace is being made in the Philippines. Three specific examples come to mind:

  1. On March 8, for the first time in almost 492 years, the Moro (primarily Muslim) tribes of Mindanao gathered together with Indigenous tribes of Mindanao to celebrate their shared kinship. In an earlier blog, we documented the Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony, which brought together 31 tribal elders who chose to reaffirm their shared ancestry and commit to the five pillars of kinship established in the traditional peace pact of their ancestors: cooperation, mutual sharing of information, mutual protection of life, recognition and respect, and mutual obligation to help the needy. These tribes, many who have spent the last decade fighting one another, chose to come together to not only acknowledge their shared ancestry but commit themselves to respect and protect one another. Walee Roslie, a member of the International monitoring Team in Mindanao reiterated the importance of the gathering for the stability of the national peace agreement, “This event confirms the support of the individual tribes for the peace process and is a key factor in stabilizing the region. Without stability, peace cannot move forward.”
  2. On June 5, two Basilan families, known for one of the most violent clan warfares (rido) in Mindanao signed a peace covenant. In the presence of their children, grandchildren and members of the community Mujiv Hataman embraced Jum Jainuddin Akbar, effectively ending the decades of fighting between the two clans and set a new precedent for the younger generations. According to those close the families, Hataman and Akbar had spent a good part of the previous year negotiating and working towards the unity of their clans, culminating in the signing of this peace covenant. “Today, Basilan has become whole again. The Basilan family is now complete. We now have a son,” Mrs. Akbar said. One of the most cited forms of violence in Mindanao is clan warfare, or rido. In February, I attended a caucus with the Ceasefire Monitoring Teams where members of the Local Monitoring Teams cited rido as a significant concern to the ceasefire and success of a potential peace agreement. The significance of the peace covenant between the Hataman family and the Akbar family goes well beyond the borders of Basilan and spoke to the need for reconciliation between clans. “Forget about pride. If you want to have real peace and unity, you must learn to swallow your pride for your children, for your people,” Hataman insisted, encouraging clans throughout Mindanao to follow a similar path towards reconciliation. At the beginning of this month, a similar effort to address rido occurred in Lanao del Sur where the Pinagundo Clan launched their genealogy or Salsilah. According to Steven Rood, an expert on the conflict in Mindanao, these genealogies have “proven useful in helping to solve the persistent clan conflicts.”
  3. Earlier this month, the “Bangsamoro General Assembly” held at the main MILF camp, Darapanan in Maguindanao brought together close to 200,000 participants and observers to listen to their leaders on the MILF peace process. These leaders included the Malaysian Facilitator of the GPH-MILF peace talks, a representative from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the International Monitoring Team, members from the national congress, governors and local officials from around the region. Perhaps most notable were two representatives from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who the MILF historically broke off from and who, until recently, have had strained relationships with the MILF. In an unprecedented effort to strengthen the peace process in Mindanao, the MILF and MNLF leaders met together along with the OIC and expressed their desire to create a Bangsamoro Coordination Forum. While the General Assembly proceeded, officials from the Commission on Election were simultaneously making their way into the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao for a re-registration of voters, a process that many have applauded. As Steven Rood noted in his blog, “the confluence of [these] two rivers of people showed that energy for change is certainly surging in these areas. One can only hope that the energy produces genuine progress towards peace, prosperity, justice, and democracy for Mindanao and the Philippines as a whole.”

While each of these events on their own are not enough to suggest that lasting peace in the Philippines is a real and imminent possibility, the combination of these events certainly points towards a bright future for the Philippines. One cannot help but feel a surge of hope in the midst of this continued “energy for change.”

Of course much is still needed for a signed peace agreement. The next round of peace talks, scheduled for the end of August, will continue to identify mechanisms to implement the 10 principles; from power and wealth sharing in the NPE, to strengthening the Shari’ah judicial system, to upholding basic human rights—including the right of women to meaningful political participation, the road towards peace is still long and tedious. But hope is beginning to poke its head through the cracks where fear is slowly eroding.

Today, as I watch the rain pouring down on the dry Colorado mountain tundra; the valley below my home slowly changing from gold to green, I can’t help but dance in the rain.


Witnessing History: Mindanaoan Tribes Unite for Peace in the Philippines

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“Today we are writing a new chapter in the history of Mindanao.” Filipino historian Rudy Rodil cannot contain his excitement as we enter the Talaandig tribe’s Ancestral domain, located in Mindanao, Philippines, where the decades-long armed conflict continues to affect the lives of its inhabitants. The winding red dirt road leading to the “Hall of Peace” is lined with flags honoring each of the tribes of Mindanao; Tribes who have come – some traveling more than two days from the far islands of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi – to participate in a Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony between the Muslim tribes of the Bangsamoro and the “non-islamized” Indigenous tribes. “This is a historical event, that no historian should miss.” As a historian and a former member of the peace panel between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Professor Rodil knows, intimately, the significance of this historic event. The Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony, with over 1,000 representatives from the 18 major indigenous tribes of Mindanao and the 13 ethno-linguistic Moro, is a remarkable step towards sustainable peace in Mindanao; One that deserves recognition from the wider international community.

The ceremony comes at a critical time for the Philippines.  The Aquino administration, engaged in ongoing peace-talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed insurgency in Mindanao, find themselves on the cusp of a signed peace agreement that recognizes a Bangsamoro Sub-State and autonomy within the region. Similar negotiations have failed in the past due, in part, to the animosity between the Indigenous and the Moro tribes.

But today, we are witnessing for the first time in over 400 years the re-joining of these tribes, who have chosen to lay down their arms and unite as kin, upholding a traditional peace pact that their ancestors made centuries ago. They are preparing the way, not only for a signed agreement between the GPH and the MILF, but also for sustainable peace in Mindanao. “We must reaffirm our kinship, which has not been nurtured in the past. We have seen the cracks in the past between our tribes,” explains Attorney Raissa Jajurie, one of the only female consultants to the MILF peace panel, “Today, we want to see equality and mutual respect. It is time to heal the wounds of our past.”

One by one, the elders come forward to retell the history of their tribe and reaffirm their shared ancestry with all of the tribes of Mindanao. Each one signs their name to a new covenant of kinship, based on the ancient history of their ancestors. The covenant upholds the 5 pillars of kinship: co-operation, mutual sharing of information, mutual respect and recognition, mutual protection of life and mutual obligation to help the needy. “This is not just a ritual, but a call to action,” Datu (Chief) Antonio Kinoc, a member of the MILF peace panel remarks as the ceremony comes to an end.

The hope for peace is palpable and for the first time seems to be within reach of those present today. “This event confirms the support of the individual tribes for the peace process and is a key factor in stabilizing the region. Without stability, peace cannot move forward.” The words of, Walee Roslie, a member of the International Monitoring Team, remind us of the importance of this ceremony and the continued need for stability in the region. Though the ceremony marks a historic step towards peace, the road to peace is long and relationships are still fragile.

This new union, between the historically marginalized tribes of the Moro and the Lumad (indigenous) requires support and recognition, not only from the people of the Philippines, but also from the wider international community. We, too, can play a role in promoting lasting peace in the Philippines, by acknowledging the courageous work of the people of Mindanao to bring lasting peace to their country. In the words of Sister Arnold Maria Noel, “We have the responsibility to tell this story, to spread this story to the international community. We must allow the truth to come forward.”