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IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: The hard work that is peace

(Note from author: This article was written with the purpose of showing the Malaysian public a glimpse of the peace proces as a whole. Parts of this article were used by the New Straits Times in their news article entitled “Contributing to peace building, October 12, 2012.)

PENANG, Malaysia (MindaNews/14 October) — Our small initiative of establishing a Mindanao Peace Program at the USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) started in 2003. At that time, the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were on an “on and off” mode. On one hand, the negotiations were ongoing, on the other, regular armed confrontations and mis-encounters between the two forces were happening in several places in Mindanao.

This resulted to the regular evacuations of internally displaced peoples (IDPs), children’s schooling had to be stopped and re-scheduled, and people’s livelihood and sources of income had become more difficult to achieve. It also brought illnesses, psychological trauma, and more physical suffering to the young and old, and the ultimate loss of lives of those who have been killed in the conflict or who have become victims of stray bullets and aerial bombings during the armed violence itself.

We had a peace process then, but it was a very weak one. Each time there was a major armed conflict, at least 500,000 and more people will be internally displaced. When there are minor ones, hundreds will be displaced. But in many cases of the conflict, not only the conflict areas are affected but this has also indirectly caused the general insecurity in the nearby towns.

There were many people who continue to talk about peace…peace here, peace there, but for those who were very tired of the violence and conflict, peace was just too far a reality for them.

This situation has inspired us at USM to find ways how to contribute to the peacebuilding process in Mindanao. The program was designed to reach out and network with Malaysian individuals and groups and many others within the Southeast Asian region who are interested in the exchange of ideas and in building solidarity with the peoples in Mindanao and in the Philippines. Among its work include the monitoring of the situation in Mindanao, research on various issues, the organization of trainings and conferences, and participation in some of the activities of the civil society groups in Mindanao and in Manila.

The Malaysian government started to accept its role in 2001 as the third party facilitator, many ordinary Malaysians did not really understand how important this role was, and how more important it would be today.

Certainly, the peace talks were occasionally published in the newspapers, but because of the nature of the highly confidential meetings, not much can also be divulged in public. Yet, in spite of the peace negotiations being held in Kuala Lumpur, the threats of violence and conflict continued in Mindanao.

This has led the civil society groups (Bangsamoro, Christians, Indigenous Peoples, together with other international organizations, like the Southeast Asian Conflict Studies Network that is headed by REPUSM) to unite and persuade the Philippine government to establish an international peacekeeping mission. And since Malaysia was already playing the facilitator role, it made sense that it should also play the “referee role” and lead the international peacekeeping mission. This initiative by the civil society groups was welcomed by the Philippine government and MILF peace panels, thus, the International Monitoring Team (IMT) was born.

The IMT was initially composed of the Malaysians, the Bruneians, and the Libyans. In the year 2002, the recorded ceasefire violations/armed confrontations between the Philippine military and the MILF forces were recorded at 698, and by the following year it was at 569. When the first IMT reached Mindanao in 2004, on that same year, the violations drastically dropped to 16,  to 10 in 2005, 13 in 2006, 8 in 2007. In year 2007, the IMT expanded to include its Japanese members and play the role of being socio-economic monitors. It was the presence and work of the IMT that has positively contributed to the temporary peace (decrease of violence) that we have in Mindanao.

This naturally provided a better environment for the peace panels to continue and concentrate on their work of peace negotiations. But just as the peace panels appeared to be negotiating well and agreed to sign the Memorandum of Ancestral Domain Agreement (MOA-AD) in August 2008 at Putrajaya, there were negative reactions by politicans and other groups and they went to the Supreme Court to stop this agreement signing.

The non-signing event led to frustrations and violent reactions among some of the MILF forces…and this has also led to more confrontations between the Philippine military and the MILF forces down the line. On that year, the ceasefire violations was recorded at the height of 218. The following year, the whole peace process was still very unstable, the violations was recorded at 115. On this same year, the IMT was pulled out due to the non-resumption of the peace negotiations. By the time that the peace panels were again talking to each other, the IMT re-started its mission in Mindanao. In year 2010, there was only 1 recorded ceasefire violation, in 2011, there were 4 ceasefire violations.

Often, it is easier to view the peace process by looking at the peacemaking (peace talks) and the peacekeeping side of it. These two are both top-level approaches of the peace process. But the many events and activities of various civil society groups, including the academe, the NGOs, the religious sectors, community leaders, and including the international community, is what forms the “peacebuilding from below”, and that strengthens the whole peace process.

When peace talks are threatened and the government and MILF panels have stopped negotiating, many NGOs and other sectors in Mindanao and in Manila would come together and conduct problem solving workshops in order to persuade the panels to continue talking. In some occasions, REPUSM, together with our partner, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), have hosted some of these conferences.

More people to people (of various interest groups) negotiations actually happen in Mindanao and in Manila as part of this peace constituency building. In some occasions, working together have proved to be very difficult, and sometimes, even conflicting. But for many of the people who have been long part of this story of bringing peace to Mindanao, it is clear that peace can never be achieved through more violence. Peace can only be achieved through negotiations and by resolving the roots of the conflict.

While the framework agreement that is to be signed this October 15 shows a good roadmap in resolving the roots of the conflict, the peacebuilders and the parties themselves—the Philippine government and the MILF, and the Malaysian government as the third party facilitator, together with the rest of the international community, only know fully well that the following months until 2016 will be more challenging in bringing this agreement to reality. As this peace process has shown, peace is really a lot of hard work. However, the work does get lighter knowing that there are many who willingly participate in this noble effort.

((“In the Neighborhood” is Ayesah Abubakar’s column for MindaNews. She is the Mindanao Peace Program Coordinator of the Research and Education for Peace Universiti Sains Malaysia (REPUSM). She is a Bangsamoro and a Filipino.

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