Fragile states

Peace for Muslims, Christians and Lumads

War has been raging in the south of the Philippines for 35 years. Sometimes there are skirmishes, at other times full-scale clashes between the Philippine army and various liberation fronts. Motives are political, but simply criminal too. On top of that, Americans have been hunting Islamist terrorists in the Southeast Asian archipelago since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. In this difficult context, Germany’s Protestant Church Development Service (EED) is supporting civil-society peace initiatives. Success depends on reaching all sections of the people.

[ By Hannelore Börgel ]

The shots resound only briefly. Every 30 minutes, soldiers from the Philippine army shoot into the air from a palm grove. On Saturday, 3 February 2007, the fragile ceasefire between the regular troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is close to collapse. There was already one casualty at night. The region around Midsayap on Mindanao lies in the centre of unrest. After two hours, the soldiers move on to crossfire, the military patrols the streets.

This is when civil-society activists in the villages and outlying areas reach for their “weapons”, mobile phones. They describe the situation of the besieged settlements in their SMS. The chain of peace activists reacts immediately. The demand for immediate crisis talks reaches the MILF quarters as well as politicians in Manila. Unless the ceasefire is restored immediately, peace talks, which have progressed relatively far, will fail.

Two days later, the guns are silent. Even in the night from Saturday to Sunday, no shots are fired, and from Monday on, calm prevails. In the meantime, the International Monitoring Group, led by Malaysia, has arrived in Midsayap and went between the enemy lines. Negotiations go on, with members of civil society constantly making sure they keep doing so.

Confusing scenario

On Mindanao, the Philippine government and its regular forces are fighting the MILF. However, there is also a large number of armed groups who thinly disguise their criminal nature with political demands. There are various Communist, Maoist and Islamist factions and even terrorist groups like the internationally known Abu Sayyaf.
Sometimes the local police or mayors are involved in the wheeling and dealing of such gangs. Some people in positions of official authority hire private protection forces, and those are better equipped than the regular police force. Private forces are employed to assert “claims” of corrupt politicians and influential extended families. The local tradition of blood revenge, known as “rido”, adds to the problems.

Members of the Muslim minority, called “Moros” or “Bangsamoros”, have been fighting for autonomy – and even independence – in the south of the Philippines for more than 35 years. The two largest liberation movements are the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the MILF. The conflict and numerous uprisings by Communist groups have claimed 160,000 lives so far.

Since the Philippines gained independence in 1946, Christian settlers from the northern islands were encouraged to move to the resource-rich south. Traditionally, Muslims made up the majority population in the south, but they have become the minority as a result of internal migration, primarily by Catholic Christians. In the late 1960s, Muslims began to demand their rights.

In 1972, President Marcos imposed martial law across the country. Some Muslim activists opted for armed combat in the MNLF; they brought large parts of Mindanao and neighbouring Sulu island under their control. In an agreement in 1976, the government granted the MNLF 13 provinces for an autonomous region of Muslims in Mindanao (ARMM). Yet after the agreement was signed, a radical group split from the MNLF to found the MILF, which interprets Islam more strictly than the MNLF and, from the outset, has been demanding an independent state. War raged on.
Only in 1996 did the government conclude a peace accord with the MNLF. At the time, the MILF commanded some 12,000 armed rebels. The following year, the government started peace talks with the MILF. These talks have been in a decisive phase since 2006. The focus is mainly on land issues. The MILF wants to regulate as much as possible in detail – not least because of the MNLF’s experience with the first peace agreement. The government has acknowledged the Moros’ right to self-determination, which provides for autonomy but not independence.

In defence of special interests

Meanwhile, widely varying interests threaten the peace process. Locally influential Muslim clans control entire municipalities and lucrative offices of state. Some of them have entered into alliances with local army commanders against the MILF leadership and the peace process, in an attempt to defend their interests.

Lumads – non-Islamised traditional inhabitants of Mindanao – do not feel adequately represented by the MILF. However, the MILF claims to speak for all the traditional inhabitants of Mindanao.

Time and again, the International Monitoring Group (IMG), which is under Malaysian command, has quickly intervened, bringing skirmishes under control. Private militias often disappear from villages as soon as IMG soldiers turn up. But the conflicts are tough. Disputes are usually over land – and even if a case appears to be settled, it may well flare up again a year later. In some cases, IMG soldiers have had to repeatedly protect harvesting farmers. Skirmishes generally rage over small tracts of land; for large estates, matters seem to be “settled”. Big landowners in the Philippines have ways to make their influence felt.

Christians are not always sitting unlawfully on their few hectares. Some bought the land from Muslims many years ago, but often there are no clear documents. Not everything was recorded in writing; sometimes a handshake was trusted.

Civilian mediators

In this confusing and dangerous setting, a number of peace initiatives have emerged in civil society. Most were founded at the end of the Marcos era, others have their origin in the fight against Marcos. A fair number were originally Communist or ecclesiastical resistance groups, which often cooperated with one another. Many people who were Communist activists in former times gave up on revolution in the 1990s. Evolutionary development without violent friction seemed more promising.

When the conflict on Mindanao escalated again under President Joseph Estrada, the Mindanao Peoples’ Peace Movement (MPPM) was formed in 2000, based on all sections of the population: Lumads, Bangsamoros/Muslims and Christian settlers. Today, MPPM is established on five southern islands of the Philippines. More than 100 organisations have joined.

The MPPM Council is made up of 20 members each from the Bangsamoro, the Katawhang Lumad and the Mindanao migrants. As early as 2002, the alliance called for a referendum supervised by the UN to solve Mindanao’s problems. The idea was to let the Bangsamoro decide in their areas of settlement on Mindanao and Palawan, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi whether to remain a federal state in the Philippines with an administration of their own, or to become independent. Only in 2006 did the Philippine government recognise the right of the Bangsamoros to self-determination, proposing a referendum on its part.

Achievements of the peace movement

A major success of the MPPM were peace talks on Sulu in 2005. Civil society had invited the movement to mediate. In November 2005, the army hunted Abu Sayyaf terrorists on this island – without considering that doing so was calling into question the peace agreement with the MNLF, which had their troops in this area. Bombs were dropped, people were shot from helicopters and soldiers looted goods – even though the MNLF, the local communities and local government clearly condemned Abu Sayyaf’s criminal activities. At the same time, civilians were surprised at the presence of Americans, who were involved in civil-military projects at the request of the Philippine government. Sections of the Philippine army didn’t trust the civilian population, the majority of whom, for their part, wanted the troops to withdraw.

The problems in Sulu were finally resolved by involving traditional structures, the councils of elders. All ethnic groups have such councils. On Sulu, moderated by a group of 11 MPPM delegates, these councils, representatives from government, the Philippine army and the US military negotiated with each other. Afterwards, local groups formed to promote the peace process and economic development.

In some communities, the council of elders is considered the nucleus of democratic development. Some councils involve several ethnic groups. And not only old men are members. Women and – despite the traditional name – young people are also included. On Lebak and Sulu, these councils have a say in local planning. Their members are trained by committed non-governmental organisations.

Education programmes in schools and universities support the peace process on Mindanao. Leading the way in combining theoretical education with practical application in Midsayap is the Southern Christian College (SCC) of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. The SCC established an institute for tri-partite groups, which include the Lumads, Bangsamoros and Christians. Among other activities, it organises an annual summer school with 30 participants from all three groups. With some support from the German Development Ministry (BMZ) Germany’s Protestant Church Development Service (EED) is promoting the SCC and related initiatives. Teachers and students from SCC are working with all three population groups as well as non-governmental organisations in the villages. The focus is on organic farming.


Peace-oriented programmes can be implemented in the difficult environment of Mindanao. The presence of community workers in conflict-prone villages and formal agreements of the villages with the SCC are instrumental to help to prevent crises. The approach of involving various communities in development concepts, dialogue programmes, networks and political lobbying has proven worthwhile. Early warning systems and political mobilisation serve to reduce the potential for violence. Poverty is combated at the same time, through agricultural programmes and consultation.

To make efforts succeed, government agencies and non-governmental organisations must be tied in for the long term. The SCC is providing useful impetus, by offering training programmes with practical experiences in the villages. The College’s cooperation with the MPPM is extremely useful.

Overall, peacekeeping programmes are most effective in the immediate area of measures’ implementation. The overarching political environment in the Philippines, however, sets limits to fight poverty on a large scale and stabilise peace sustainably.

Former freedom fighters who set up and head local governments without prior administrative experience deserve support. However, Philippine elites’ understanding of democracy (or outright democracy deficit) is a factor still to be reckoned with.

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