Notes from the Field

Philippines Conflict Provides Lessons for Achieving Future Peace in Complex Settings

June 20, 2012

For the first time in my life, I am visiting London. Everybody tells me how unusual is the glorious weather we’re enjoying, and that my infatuation with the city might not be as strong if the weather were more normal – gloomy and wet – but I plan to take these first impressions as fixed. And besides, rain failed to dampen the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Of course, I wasn’t here to sightsee. With the support of The Asia Foundation’s partnership agreement with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) which supports conflict management programs, I have for the past year participated as the Foundation’s representative to the International Contact Group (ICG) for peace talks between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Together with Conciliation Resources (which has a similar partnership with DFID), another international NGO on the ICG, we thought it would be worthwhile to undertake a road trip to explain how the ICG works for the GPH-MILF negotiations. The UK Embassy in the Philippines (also on the ICG) enthusiastically agreed, and this visit (coming just after the visit of President Aquino to the UK) would raise British government awareness of what was being accomplished on the other side of the world.

The core message of our meetings with DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – and of similar meetings in Brussels with European Commission offices and NGOs – was that what had evolved in the GPH-MILF peace process was an innovative hybrid model that brought together both states and non-state actors. This was not a well-planned implementation of some brilliant design, but an organic response to the crises of a prolonged peace process (beginning in 1997) that also attempted to learn the lessons of problems in implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front. MILF founding chair Salamat Hashim is quoted as referring to the hadith, “A believer is not bitten from the same hole twice” – an injunction to learn from experience.

Thus, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo instituted in 2001 a policy of “All Out Peace” after the “All Out War” of her predecessor Joseph Estrada, the cessation of hostilities included “local monitoring teams.”  When these failed to contain an outbreak of violence in early 2003, in late 2003 there were instituted International Monitoring Teams. These, and other peace process mechanisms, failed to prevent the upsurge of violence in late 2008 after the August debacle of the failed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain  (MOA-AD) – so the resumption in mid-2009 involved further innovations.

First was the International Contact Group itself, composed of four countries (UK, Japan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) and four international NGOs (The Asia Foundation, along with Conciliation Resources, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and Muhammadiyah) applied and were accepted. The MILF sought more “guarantees” of any agreement since they felt the Philippine government had failed to uphold its side of the MOA-AD bargain, while the then-Arroyo administration wanted to increase international involvement partly in response to perceptions that Malaysia’s facilitator role (begun in 2001) was biased by the Philippines’ official territorial claim over the island of Sabah, containing two states of Malaysia.

We argued that this hybrid contact group (the first time worldwide that states and non-states were officially together in this capacity) was a valuable response to the growing complexity of long-running conflicts. In Mindanao, aside from the MILF there is the MNLF, communist rebels, private armed groups and the ever-present threat of persistent clan conflict (rido) in local communities. The experience of several international NGOs on the ground in Mindanao means they can be valuable in their role as “bridges” between the formal peace talks and stakeholders in Mindanao. International NGOs, for their part, benefit from the added legitimacy and clout afforded by officially being teamed with governments that have bilateral ties with the Philippines and therefore access at the highest policy-making levels. The state members of the ICG, on the other hand, would naturally be interacting in their ongoing diplomatic role with government and non-government stakeholders throughout the Philippines, but having regular systematic contact with a select group of international NGOs reduces the “white noise” in communications to help them maximize their understanding of the issues involved.

A similar innovation came when non-government organizations were invited to comprise a “Civilian Protection Component” of the (again Malaysian-led) IMT so that if nation-states pulled out their monitors (as was the case in 2008) at least non-state actors would help reduce the threat to local citizens. Again, giving members of the IMT (mostly members of the military) regular official, confidential, and ongoing access to civil society actors in a formal partnership means that the monitoring mission has reams of information that is needed to understand and respond to reports of incidents of various kinds. Furthermore, the innovation here includes local NGOs (Mindanao People’s Caucus, Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, and MOGOP) as well as an international group, the Nonviolent Peace Force.

Another innovation that continues to gather strength in the GPH-MILF peace talks is addressing gender concerns. The government has long had women involved both on the peace panel and as the cabinet member overseeing peace agreements, the Presidential Advisor on Peace Process (current Teresita Quintos-Deles, previously under the Arroyo administration Annabelle Abaya).  The MILF now regularly includes a female lawyer in its consultants at the negotiating table. More generally, the Philippines was the first country in Asia to adopt a National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. Currently, the government is pushing ahead with more localized action plans in regions of the country that are affected by conflict.

Of course, innovations such as these require that parties to the conflict (in this case the government and the MILF) need to be both open to experiment and flexible – which raised the question in our meetings of how applicable the hybrid model might be to other conflicts around Asia and the world. We stressed that the ICG does not think that we have a model that needs to be followed everywhere – particularly as the hybrid nature of the ICG and the IMT grew organically out of crises in the peace process and in response to local context and dynamics. What we did say, however, was that given that many other conflicts in the region have long durations (we calculate an average 34 years based on the Uppsala Conflict Data Program) that the opportunities for learning can and must be seized to establish lasting peace and development.

Editor’s note: this piece has been edited slightly from the original version.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Suharto Abas:

    As the MILF Chief negotiator expressed in one of the conversation sessions with him ” As a revolutionary, we are likened to a candle spending itself until fully burnt while giving light to others”. The Bangsamoro experience on peace process is indedd a unique but difficult one. While blazing the other unique trail to achive peace, peace within itself (Mindanao) is still uncertain. Congratulations Sir Steve for the comptehensive analysis of Mindanao pece building experience. Suharto Abas- Area Manager – GoP-UN ACT for Peace Programme (2005-2010), Project Officer – Early Recovery and Rehabilitation Project in Mindanao. (GPH-UNDP-EC)

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