Notes from the Field

Energy for Change Surges in Southern Mindanao

July 11, 2012

In the past two weeks, I have been privileged to attend two very different events that are both aimed at the same outcome: bringing peace to Muslims in Mindanao. In the rural town of Butig, Lanao del Sur, the Pinagundo Clan gathered to launch their officially compiled genealogy, or Salsilah. Several hundred people gathered to listen to their clan and sub-clan elders speak, and watched the distribution of a 250-page book on their genealogy.

July 7 Bangasamoro Leaders Assembly, convened by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Darapanan. Photo: Zainudin Malang

This endeavor was along the lines of what The Asia Foundation’s partner, Reconciliation Initiatives for Development Opportunities, Inc., has accomplished with other clans. Begun as a celebration and strengthening of Meranao culture, the compiling of genealogies has proven useful in helping to solve persistent clan conflicts (rido) among communities in Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte.

The launch of the Salsilah happened on July 1 – the first day of a “gun ban” in the region as a general re-registration of voters in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is taking place from July 9-18 (just before the beginning of Ramadan). Thus, traveling through rural Lanao del Sur there were police checkpoints to prevent the normal practice of carrying guns in that region. At the launch itself, the only gun I saw was a revolver worn by the policewoman who had joined our vehicle as our guide and security. That is, until several men of various ages filed in and sat at the back – all carrying rifles of various types.

It was explained to me that those were members of the clan from the nearby camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and this was confirmed when one came up and explained that he had seen me a couple of weeks earlier at the inauguration of a new building for the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute. So, one point of this particular genealogical launching was that the genealogy embraced civilians, members of the Philippine security forces (the policewoman was indeed a member of the clan), and the MILF. As the peace talks between the government and the MILF begin to take up the issue of “normalization,” the ability to bring together all members of a clan is potentially a very powerful tool.

A week later on July 7, the situation could hardly have been more different. A Bangasamoro Leaders Assembly had been convened by the MILF in their main camp Darapanan. Crowd estimation is always an inexact science, but a Philippine government military man, a Moro NGO leader, and I all independently arrived at a figure of 200,000, so that’s the figure I’ll stick with. There had been coordination of such a vast gathering with the government and MILF Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, and people were arriving from all over Mindanao literally by the truckload. The 6th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, which covers the area of central Mindanao where the camp is located, had helped transport participants, and had signs welcoming them to the gathering.

Dignitaries at the front included participants in the GPH-MILF peace process: the Malaysian Facilitator, a representative from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the International Monitoring Team, and the International Contact Group. Mindanao leaders included several members of the national Congress, representatives of governors, and local officials from around the region. Interestingly enough, there were two representatives from different factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (from which the MILF split 30 years ago) – both of whom were looking to help “convergence” between MNLF and MILF efforts at peace and development.

MILF Chairman Murad spoke, giving a speech in English and then summarizing in Maguindanaon – both segments being interrupted 10 times by cheers of Allahu Akbar! (god is great). Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process Teresita “Ging” Deles also spoke, recalling a 2005 speech at a similar gathering as recorded on You Tube. She was also interrupted four times by shouts of Allahu Akbar – MILF adherents being of a mind not to applaud but rather to shout their approval.

Despite their dissimilarities, there was one important link between the two gatherings. In my remarks in Butig I offered my condolences for the recent passing away of MILF vice chair Mimbantas, noting that when MILF peace panel head Iqbal made his opening statement in the late May round of talks he had become very emotional at the loss of his long-time comrade. Some of the Maranaos at the clan gathering (whether or not MILF) were worried that his replacement as vice chair would not be a Maranao. A week later, in Camp Darapanan, repeated reference was made to “2nd Vice Chair Pangalian” – Aleem Pangalian being indeed a Maranao and former head of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (the MILF’s armed wing).

As I checked out the next morning, the hotel (as were all hotels in Cotabato City, for that matter) was full of Muslim leaders from all over Mindanao, of all stripes (certainly beyond just those associated with either the MNLF and the MILF) who were going to another day of consultations (this time without the presence of non-Muslims).

At the same time, there was a flood of Commission on Election (COMELEC) officials and equipment from all over the Philippines descending on the ARMM to accomplish the general re-registration of voters in that region.

Electoral reform in the ARMM can be the subject of a different post, but the confluence of 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.

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.

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