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Mindanao: The Way Forward, One Year Hence

February 3, 2010

Now that the Philippines is gearing up for the May 2010 general elections, and Mindanao looms large as a policy issue, it is worthwhile to look back over the year and examine discussions that took place in 2009 in light of what subsequently transpired. A year ago, ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) gathered newsmakers concerned with Mindanao together for a forum in Davao. ANC broadcast “Mindanao: The Way Forward,” with support from The Asia Foundation and the Embassy of Canada, as a 3-hour special in two segments on February 6 and 7, 2009.

Viewing the show a year later, one is immediately struck by the cruel irony in a comment that Congressman Pax Mangudadatu made at the beginning of the forum that peace and order is not a problem in his province of Sultan Kudarat in Mindanao. On Nov. 23, 2009, it was his family that was the primary victim of the massacre in the neighboring province of Maguindanao when his nephew Esmael Mangudadatu attempted to file papers for his candidacy for governor. Fearing trouble, he sent female relatives, including his wife and journalists, to actually deliver the papers; they were waylaid and more than 50 slain.

That is the sort of image that haunts Mindanao – of violence stemming from many different causes. A focus of the discussion in early 2009 was the aftermath of the failed agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which the Philippine Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional. In the wake of the debacle, attacks occurred on civilian communities, the Armed Forces of the Philippines pursued the attackers, and the International Monitoring Team (IMT) policing the previous cessation of hostilities withdrew. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were internally displaced, straining the resources of both Philippine and international agencies. One year on, some internally displaced persons (IDPs) had returned to their homes, but there were still around 170,000 displaced persons in Maguindanao. As IDPs continue to leave the camps, some questions remain outstanding: Did they actually return to their places of origin, given that some of these places remain unsecured? And do they still have lands to go back to, and resources to rebuild their homes and livelihood? There are also nagging questions about how effectively the national government, aid agencies, and local governments provided relief. Just keeping track of the total numbers was a challenge (different entities provide differing figures at any given time), accusations of food blockades were bandied about, and a spokesman for the military labeled IDPs as “enemy reserve forces” because a portion of relief goods found their way into MILF camps.

In this discouraging light, it is heartening that the then Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., was correct when he predicted in the ANC broadcast that 2009 would be a “comeback year” for the peace process.  By July, the government had issued a suspension of offensive military operations (SOMO) and a few days later, the MILF responded with a suspension of military actions (SOMA). This paved the way for renewed peace talks, the progress of which continues. In November, the two sides invited countries and international non-government organizations (including The Asia Foundation) to join an International Contact Group (ICG). The ICG was present at Kuala Lumpur talks in early December that led to an agreement to redeploy the International Monitoring Team (IMT), invite new countries to join the IMT, and add a “civilian protection component” that initially includes the domestic Mindanao Peoples Caucus and the international Nonviolent Peaceforce.

After the MOA-AD debacle, the Philippine peace panel got a new chair (Department of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis) and new members. And recently, Annabelle Abaya, a professional mediator with long government service, was appointed as the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

The MILF has retained the same panel of negotiators. Panel Chair Mohaqber Iqbal warned that there are quarters within the MILF that do not believe in the talks, but other negotiators have been able to prevail upon these quarters to give the peace process a chance. The MILF has actively consulted with its stakeholders, including their commanders, political committees, and general communities.

Schoolgirls pass through a border checkpoint of MILF camp in Mindanao. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Schoolgirls pass through a border checkpoint of a MILF camp in Mindanao. Photo by Karl Grobl.

The two sides have vowed to reach an agreement as soon as possible to avoid distractions from the upcoming May 2010 election campaigns. A meeting to exchange draft agreements was held in Kuala Lumpur on January 27 and 28, and while the two sides agreed to meet again in three weeks, the issues remain contentious. The government stressed that its draft, containing executive “doables,” was compliant with the Philippine Constitution (to avoid another ruling such as that in 2008). The MILF, for its part, complained that this meant that the government’s draft “had nothing new to offer.”  So, reaching an agreement will be far from easy.
Still, what is striking is how many different groups worked during 2009 to make it a “comeback year” that set the stage for renewed progress. The Bishops-Ulama Conference backed a group of independent academics to conduct Konsult Mindanaw, which involved over 300 group discussions and almost 5,000 people. The Mindanao Business Council went around the island gathering the insights of local chambers of commerce on how peace and economic prosperity could be renewed – culminating in the November 5 “Mindanao Investment Forum” in Manila, co-hosted by the Management Association of the Philippines.

A group gathers in Mindanao for an Asia Foundation training workshop on mitigating election violence. Photo by Karl Grobl.

A group gathers in Mindanao for an Asia Foundation training workshop on mitigating election violence. Photo by Karl Grobl.

These efforts, while based in Mindanao, do try to reach out to the citizenry and policy-makers in the larger Philippines, including Metro Manila. Gus Miclat, executive director of Initiatives for International Dialogue, put it well when he remarked that there were many vibrant efforts in Mindanao, but maintained that “we need to have a constituency outside of Mindanao that believes in Mindanao.”

It did seem that Mindanao was to finish 2009 with brimming vibrancy en route to an election year that promises to be an opportunity for Mindanao citizens to make their voices heard. The Mindanao Women’s Conference (February 4-5) is the latest example of an effort to ensure that these concerns are heard nationwide.

The nationwide shock over the November 23 massacre in Maguindanao has tied Mindanao governance back to national issues. The phenomenon of “warlordism” is not unique to Mindanao, and as a result, the outrage over the event has helped spark a broader debate. General reforms nationwide in governance, justice, defence and security, and elections, among many others, have been bravely raised as part of the ripple effect coming from the massacre.

In the end, the way forward for Mindanao is inextricably intertwined with the future of the Philippines.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations and  Crisanto Cayon is a Program Officer in the Foundation’s Conflict Management Program in the Philippines. They can be reached at srood@asiafound.org and ccayon@asiafound.org, respectively.

View all posts by Crisanto Cayon

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