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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: BARMM: Still waiting for Godot? 

27mindaviews sojourners

REVIEW: Conflict’s Long Game:A Decade of Violence in the Bangsamoro

Editors: Francisco J. Lara Jr. and Nikki Philline C. dela Rosa

International Alert 2022

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 15 August) — An innovative play, written by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett and published in French in 1952 (and first produced on stage in 1953), Waiting for Godot  has become a classic play performed by the most prestigious theatre groups around the world. It is the Theatre of the Absurd’s first theatrical success which explains its popularity until today.

The play consists mainly of conversations between two characters who are waiting for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who continually sends word that he will appear but who never does. While waiting, they discuss the problems they encounter in their lives thus revealing the depths of their misery. They wonder that given such tragic lives, if there is a point in their existence. Thus, they look forward to the arrival of Godot who they hope can give them enlightenment. Because they hold on to their hope for meaning and direction, they acquire a kind of nobility that enables them to rise above their futile existence. In the end, Godot never arrives. 

Waiting for Godot might as well be the theatrical production most relevant to those whose lives have been lived precariously in this territorial enclave in Mindanao, now known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). In the midst of a conflict that had persisted for centuries, their ancestors had held on to the hope as to its resolution. And today, their descendants, along with their children and grandchildren continue to wait for Peace – their metaphorical Godot.  

After a long process of negotiations following violent outbreaks between rebels and government troops both in the battlefields as well as in town centers resulting in thousands of civilians packed as bakwits in refugee camps, a series of ceasefires was agreed upon. Peace initiatives leading to peace talks temporarily halted the fighting at various junctures of contemporary history. Eventually, a more comprehensive peace agreement was reached which led finally to the setting up of BARMM.

The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed under the Aquino administration on March 27, 2014. President Rudy Duterte, who merely inherited that peace agreement from President Aquino, signed on July 26, 2018 the Organic Law for the BARMM (R.A. 11054) passed by the two houses and ratified in January 2019. BARMM was inaugurated on March 29, 2019.

Except for occasional skirmishes that threaten to disturb the accord – given the fact that there are still renegade groups asserting their presence in BARMM – the elusive peace seems to hold for the moment. While international, national and local news covering BARMM have dwindled in the past years – partly owing to the impact of the two-year pandemic – questions continue to persist.

Will this peace be sustainable? Will the MILF forces be able to keep discipline within their ranks and refrain from violating the people’s basic human rights? How about the rights of the indigenous peoples to their ancestral domain – especially the Tedurays?  Will this be respected through the recognition of the validity of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act within the BARMM?  Can there be just and fair representation of all ethno-linguistic groups and citizens’ groups through adequate number of seats in the Parliament? Can BARRM stop the rise of political dynasties that could easily turn into traditional politicians engaged in patronage politics? As elections are taking place in 2025 – and President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has already asserted there will be no more extension – how to assure that those elected are the right people to implement BARMM’s vision?

Will the renegade groups continue to bedevil the continuing efforts to maintain peace? How are the developments that seem to have led to the upsurge of  jihadist group Islamic State (more popularly known as ISIS) especially in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan  going to impact BARMM? How will BARMM be able to provide resources for the ambitious development plans that have been lined up?  Can the poverty situation of the majority of its citizens finally be alleviated?

These questions demand answers and – for the sake of maintaining the peace – the answers might be favorable to the lives of the majority of BARMM residents. There is need for all stakeholders – the national government, BARMM authorities, their partner civil society organizations (especially long-term peace advocacy groups)  and others to continue collaborating together towards sustaining the peace and development efforts. Basically still in its infancy, the BARMM initiative needs all the support it can muster, including full cooperation from the citizenry.

However, it will take years of dogged determination to overcome the repercussions of the long-pestering conflict. Here is where knowledge production, reproduction and popularization can play such an important role, along with educational campaigns to better understand the roots of the conflict and how these roots can be uprooted giving way  to the programs that can alleviate poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, landlessness and lack of social services for the inhabitants.

Through the  years, there have been many books, publications and media write-ups on the situation of the Muslim Mindanao covering various historical, economic, anthro-sociological and cultural realities of this region. Some are well-researched and help the reader understand better this reality. But there have also been those that reinforce the myths of a primitive and violent territory with general conclusions thereby revealing the author’s ignorance of the real facts. These also clearly manifest lack of extensive research at the ground level. The more foreign the author, the greater has been the tendency to fall into generalizations that sustain the myths.

There is then the advantage if such publications went through rigid and rigorous research, and peer-reviewed before publication. This assures the urgent need today – at a time when the country’s powers-that-be are not ashamed about being engaged in historical revisionism – of factual reporting and truthful knowledge production that will stand the test of time. It is also assured if a books’ authors are adequately familiar with the territory and its people they are dealing with.  Even better if they are from that territory themselves and can speak the language of its inhabitants.

It is from this frame that we review Conflict’s Long Game, A Decade of Violence in the Bangsamoro, published by the International Alert and edited by Pancho J. Lara, Jr. and Nikki Philline C. dela Rosa. Even on first glance while holding it – given that it is a thick (260 pages) and heavy book (owing to the type of paper used) – one can easily be impressed. Scanning through the pages, one can immediately regard it as a highly academic and scholarly publication with all kinds of maps, tables and illustrations to make sense of the voluminous statistical data cited in the manuscript.

What provides a counterpoint to the technical language – that could cause a nosebleed to those unfamiliar with the language of the academics – are the photos of varying sizes including full page reproductions.  The photo editors must have scanned a thousand available photos from various sources because the ones included in this book’s pages are very well-selected for their content and quality.

But naturally, the best feature of this book are the articles themselves. There are ten chapters all in all (including the Editors’ Introduction), but with additional side articles and a case study.  To introduce the Chapters, the Editors wrote: “The past decade saw no end to the interplay between conflict cycles, traps and strings. Violent conflict started to rise in 2011, inundating the region in 2016-2017 before slowly receding from 2018, but not at the same level sever years earlier. It is a haunting tale of the relentless yet forgotten war in Muslim Mindanao.

The Chapters in this compendium… delve into the nature and causes of conflict by examining existing factures within society, parsing the dynamics and interests between and among key actors, and examining ruling systems that play  into the persistence of violent conflict in the region. The combined analysis from these chapters point to an enduring pattern of conflict and the likely challenges that peace builders and policymakers will face moving forward.”

Seventeen authors collaborated in writing the ten Chapters. Most are women; they include the staff of International Alert, with their national and international partners.  Most are Filipinos, with the majority having graduated from UP Diliman (ten of seventeen) and five from Mindanao (Judy Gulane, Ever Absolo, Rey Palabon, Eddie  Quitoriano and Nikki dela Rosa). All have had extensive research experiences in the BARMM area through the years. Given this kind of publication, naturally it is expected that the authors would be academic scholars. Clearly, this publication lacks the “local voices” representing those who are native to this territory.

While the book chronicles the decade of 2011-2020, one gets to understand the roots of this centuries-old conflict across Maguindanao, Basilan and the Sulu archipelago. Still the book’s focus is this decade. In Judy Gulane’s “Shifts in Conflict Dynamics,” there is a comprehensive information as to the occurrences of the outbreak of violence, where these took place, its causes and impact on people’s lives. The graphs and illustrations make it clear even for Grade School students.  Within the same decade, Melissa Monsod writes about the human development outcomes and violent conflict within the same timeframe. Horizontal (armed challenges between and among families, clans and tribes) and vertical (rebellion-related) conflicts are also explained.

In the Chapter – “Untangling Conflict Strings,” Nikki dela Rosa and Kloe Carvajal-Yap assert the need for a deeper understanding of how identity, values and socially prescribed norms converge to shape behavioral outcomes, including the use of violence as reprisal for transgressions. In “Patterns of Violence,”  Ever Abasolo deals with the seven conflict types, namely: common crimes, government issues, identity issues, political issues, resource issues, shadow economy issues and undetermined. However, there are also those caused by rebellion, land disputes, rido or clan feuds, identity-based violence, illicit drugs and illicit weapons.

In two Chapters, namely Eddie Quitoriano’s “Violence in Borderlands,” and Jilliane Oria, Rey Palabon and Ruel Punongbayan’s “In Search of Peaceful Solutions: Land Conflicts and the Plight of the Non-Moro IPs,” violent land conflicts are discussed in the context of the interface of various clan formations and ethno-linguistic groups across the BARMM. In the former, the author traces tensions within the borders of the BARMM territory, showing the causal links between violence and geography, and management of collective identities and identity claims influence violence intensity per unit of time. In the latter, the authors deal with the long and hard struggle for the recognition of the Tedurary and Lambagan ancestral domain and how this issue could trigger another cycle of violence if left unresolved.

The politics of identity is also dealt with in Phoebe Dominique Adorable and Nicole Angelie Policarpio and Saba Hussain’s “Women and Conflict: A Gendered Analysis.”  How social media played a role in this context is provided a profile in Daniela Luisa Tan, Maureen Arithea Lacuesta and Deanie Louise Capiral’s “Voices for Violence: Social Media in the Time of Mamasapano, Marawi, and Maguindanao.” A Case Study is provided on how the media campaign led to the approval of the Compensation Act for the Marawi Siege Victims. 

Lastly, James Putzel’s “Bangsamoro Autonomy and the Political Settlement,” which provides a challenge for the BARMM authorities, namely, being engaged in “consolidating political power…(that)…. requires building alliances not only between former opponents among the Bangsamoro but also winning over to the developmental agenda some of those who command economic power in the region… (which involves)… a new contest in the political arena with the considerable economic and political power wielded by traditional elite families and their allies in the central state.” Putzel makes this disturbing comment: “There is little sign, so far, that this struggle has been engaged.”

Which really means that Godot (aka Peace) has not fully arrived yet in BARMM. The people of this region continue to wait for Him/Her. As in Beckett’s play, will he/she fail to arrive in the fullness of time? Will there ever be a  people’s deliverance from the cycle of violence that for the moment has been grounded to a halt? Only time will tell if  BARMM’s narrative  will have a happy ending when conflict’s long game makes peace win in the end!

(N.B, Copies of this book are not yet available for sale. Hopefully it will soon be published and be available for sale. Limited copies, however, are being made available to various stakeholders and  institutions).

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University.  Gaspar, Mindanao’s most prolific book author, writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]

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