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.”