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The drums of war are sounding. Even a shallow monitoring of local media would show the dominance of the “pro-war” faction, and of the public anger roused by the killing of, initially, 19 soldiers in Basilan and then even more troops in subsequent encounters in Zamboanga Sibugay.

Even more palpable is the public ire at P-Noy’s initially “mild” reaction to the news of the soldiers’ deaths. Former President Joseph Estrada even declared the President’s statement as indicative of his “soft” stance toward the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while other senators urged the President to “act swiftly” on the incident, implying the need to wage an “all-out war” against the Bangsamoro.

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Call-in and text-in comments to radio stations are also overwhelmingly in favor of running after the MILF and Abu Sayyaf forces responsible for the armed encounters, and as a consequence, abandoning the peace process set in place in earlier covenants between the government and the MILF. Commentators have even pointed out that it was the “fault” of the painstaking system of coordination, investigation and reporting that led to the deaths of government troops, urging the government to abandon this process altogether.

But this arrangement was achieved only after a painstaking process of negotiation between both camps, and contained in an agreement signed by representatives of both government and the MILF years ago. Should the Aquino administration renege on this arrangement, which has held firm despite many challenges, what are the Bangsamoro leaders (as well as the National Democratic Front who are undoubtedly closely watching these events) to make of the government’s word?

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While local media seem intent on stoking the fires of grief and rage over the killing, it seems that foreign observers are taking a more sober approach, focusing on the primary need for achieving peace.

One of these is British Ambassador Stephen Lillie who said that while he is “seriously concerned by the reports of ambushes by MILF members in different parts of Mindanao,” he  believes that “meeting violence with violence will not solve the conflict in the southern Philippines.” On the contrary, he said, “it is only likely to lead to a downward spiral of killing, with untold misery and suffering for innocent civilians. The last time violence broke out on a wide scale, some 600,000 people were forced to flee their homes. The people of southern Philippines deserve better than that.”

Expressing his condolences toward the families and comrades of the killed soldiers, the ambassador said he firmly believes that “the President is right to reject the call for an all-out war. At the end of the day, the way forward must be via the negotiating table and the continuation of peace talks.” Although he added that “for this to happen, the violence must stop.”

The British diplomat stressed that the “onus is now on the MILF leadership.” He said: “I think the MILF need to reassure public and political opinion that they too remain committed. The current spate of ambushes must stop.”

By way of background, the United Kingdom is one of four governments in the International Contact Group (ICG) supporting the peace talks. As an ICG member, Lillie added, the United Kingdom remained ready to assist the peace process “in whatever way the two parties thought would be most helpful.”

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Of all the parties embroiled in the conflicts, the most committed to peace, I would think, are the ordinary Filipinos who live in conflict areas. Their lives and safety are put at risk whenever fighting breaks out, forced to evacuate and abandon their homes and fields, and deal with the aftermath of the fighting, including lingering animosities within their own communities.

This was brought home to me during our recent visit to Pikit in North Cotabato. It was here where an alliance of seven contiguous barangays (and 40 sitios) decided to band together into a “Zone for Peace.” Their acronym is GiNaPaLaDTaKa, the first initials of their barangay names, otherwise known as the “G-7.”

“There has been conflict in this area every three years,” noted a local woman leader instrumental in the formation of the Zone for Peace. Each time fighting broke out, especially with the takeover of Camp Abubakar in 2000, and the bombing of the Bulyok Complex, massive evacuations took place. Local authorities and community leaders would scramble to meet the evacuees’ needs, including relief and rehabilitation for Muslims and Christians. Grass-roots leaders initiated talks with both MILF leaders and the Armed Forces, including line agencies of government. In 2004, the “People’s Declaration” creating and enforcing the Zone for Peace was signed.

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“We need to believe in the good of everyone,” said the local leaders. And from their experience in holding all the parties to respect their Zone for Peace, they said, they have learned that “dialogue is always possible.”

In the meantime, support has poured in from both national bodies and foreign government for their efforts to deepen the impact of the Zone for Peace on the folks of Pikit. The Japanese government, for instance, donated funds for the construction of seven buildings “to be considered neutral ground for conflict resolution.”

“We don’t want to be called victims anymore,” the leaders declared, underlining their determination to embark on reconstruction, and not just of physical structures, but more important, of “relationships within families and our communities.”

I’m sure, if anyone bothered to talk to the folk of Pikit, they would overwhelmingly favor the pursuit of the peace process, having known the impact of conflict, the realities of war, and the dividends of peace.

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TAGS: Government, MILF, Mindanao, peace process, Rebellion
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