Today the Philippines is making the international news headlines, and not for yet another natural disaster, a new episode of tensions with China, or an ambush by the Abu Sayyaf. The Philippines is about to settle one of the most protracted armed conflicts in the world. And the world is taking note.
Be prepared. International organizations, policymakers, politicians, armed groups, and researchers will be analyzing the Mindanao peace process in detail. They’ll be anxious to extract lessons that could be relevant to making peace in Burma (Myanmar), Kashmir, Colombia, the Caucasus and elsewhere. Maybe also Afghanistan.
The field of peacemaking is indeed at a crossroads, constantly searching for new ways to address the thorny issues of old, longstanding wars.
In this debate the Mindanao peace efforts have a lot to offer. This is a process that has time and again reinvented itself when stumbling blocks arose—no mean feat considering the all-out wars declared in 2000 and 2003, and the humanitarian and political crisis that developed in 2008 after the Supreme Court suspended the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.
Civil society organizations have been essential to keep the process alive. The Philippines has developed some of the most sophisticated inter- and intrareligious dialogue initiatives, both at the grassroots as well as higher levels such as the Bishops-Ulama Conference. Several years back the Initiatives for International Dialogue and the Mindanao Peoples Caucus started a Bantay Ceasefire initiative, a bottom-up process for civilian monitoring by people living in the conflict-affected communities. Despite limited financial resources, these grassroots monitors eventually earned the respect of both sides. Other initiatives have been working to provide humanitarian support to “bakwit” (evacuees) and other victims, to develop cross-sector agendas for the negotiating table, and to lead on economic development efforts. Women (often Moro) have played a leading role in these initiatives.
The negotiating panels themselves have also innovated along the way. In order to provide “peace dividends” for the conflict-affected communities, and to train the Bangsamoro in managing development projects, they created the Bangsamoro Development Agency back in 2002. They also agreed in 2008 to establish the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute, which trains new generations of leaders and specialists to improve governance capacities.
The repeated ceasefire violations led the panels to develop an increasingly sophisticated peace-support architecture that is now a source of inspiration for other peace processes elsewhere.
The International Contact Group is the first ever hybrid facilitation support body, in that it has states and international nongovernment organizations working together. It is composed of four states (Japan, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and four international NGOs (Conciliation Resources, The Asia Foundation, Muhammadiyah and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue).
The International Monitoring Team is a hybrid monitoring body that has internationals and locals, civilian and military, states and NGOs working together for peace. It is a joint effort by Malaysia, Brunei, Norway and the European Union, with a civilian protection component composed of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, Mindanao Peoples Caucus, Muslim Organization of Government Employees, and Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Last but not least, in terms of women’s participation, the Philippines is probably the only country in the world that is taking this most seriously, and also actively demonstrating the value of including the perspectives of both men and women in the peace process. Women play a leading role at all levels: in politics, in the negotiations, in business, in the media, in civil society. There is still more that can be done. But this activity is already making a major difference.
The Framework Agreement for Peace indicates the courage and determination of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. With its commitment to accommodate Bangsamoro demands for greater self-rule, the Philippines is following a global trend of increased decentralization in response to the diverse and multiple identity of its people. At the same time, the MILF’s pragmatism and negotiation skills challenge unfortunate prejudice that too often links political Islam to radicalism and violence.
The agreement is not the final step of the peace process. Rather, it signals a new phase by which the government and the MILF now work as partners in the implementation of its provision. But, while they continue to play a vital part, it’s not just about them. The key to successful implementation is local ownership and inclusive, cross-sector public participation in the process. Civil society, religious leaders, the media, the business and security sectors all have a key role to play in making change for the better happen.
Agreement implementation is the most fragile step in any peace process. Expectations for quick change are high, which conflicts with the reality that structural reform takes time. Notwithstanding the need for patience, these are days of which the Philippines can be proud. It ushers in a brighter future for a country in which its distinct people see and appreciate each other in parity of esteem.
Kristian Herbolzheimer and Emma Leslie work on the Philippine program at Conciliation Resources, one of the NGOs in the International Contact Group for the Mindanao peace process (www.c-r.org).