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An unlikely alliance


Military antagonist Elwyn Neri and Philippine Army Colonel Pedro Soria met and became collegaues in peacebuilding at the 2007 Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute.

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January 18, 2007
- Daniel Pantoja

Mindanao, Philippines — It used to be very difficult for Elwyn Neri to trust a military officer or trooper.

He has too often witnessed military troops destroying homes and farms of the alleged rebels in the conflicted region of Mindanao, where my wife Joji and I work

Elwyn has been exposed to too many Muslim and Christian families displaced because of military operations. Elwyn grew increasingly antagonistoc. It became impossible for him to work with the people in uniform

Colonel Pedro Soria, the commanding officer of the 602nd Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army, used to think of "peace and order" as mere anti-insurgency.  For him, maintaining peace and order meant "more highly trained military troops and more firepower."

Elwyn Neri is a field worker in our peacebuilding ministry. Pedro Soria enrolled in 2007 Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) in Davao City in May, 2007. 

Elwyn and Colonel Soria went through a personal transformation when they both attended the 2007 MPI.

Elwyn and "Pete" (as Colonel Soria introduced himself in the MPI classroom) learned about the fundamentals of peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and conflict resolution skills.  Pete Soria's thinking was influenced by John Paul Lederach's writings.  Elwyn learned to treat and respect all participants in the Mindanao conflict as human beings and not to demonize the Philippine army.

In his testimony before 700+ Muslim, Christian, and indigenous Lumad civilians  attending a community-based peace conference on December 4th, 2007, Colonel Soria said:

"My understanding of my job as an army officer was to pacify and to neutralize armed rebel elements within my area of operations.  At MPI, I gained a deeper understanding of the dynamics of individual and social conflicts.  Before, when an armed conflict happened within my area of operations, I would immediately send armed personnel carriers and tanks to deal with conflict.  Today, I would seek to listen to all the conflicting parties. I hope they are willing to listen as well.  Though I am very clear about my primary role as a military officer defending the constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, I am learning this complimentary role as a peacebuilding leader...  I am thankful for the peacebuilders in Mindanao who are helping to work together with us in bringing just-peace in our land."

During that peace conference in the municipality of Carmen, Province of North Cotabato, Muslims, Christians and Lumads signed a community-based peace agreement.  Colonel Soria and Elwyn both signed on.  The conference facilitators also invited us – Elwyn, myself, Bill and Marianne Thiessen from Canada – to sign the documents as international witnesses.  We were touched and honoured.

After the peace conference, Colonel Pete Soria invited us  for lunch.  He then gave us a tour of the military base under his command, presenting to us his officers and staff.  Before we left his office, he assured us: “The commissioned officers and the enlisted personnel of the 602nd infantry brigade are your allies in peacebuilding."

It was Elwyn who arranged this appointment with his friend and colleague in peacebuilding.  Elwyn and Pete both agree that they are working as fellow-peacebuilders in the same geographical and socio-political area of operations.

Daniel and Joji Pantoja are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in the land-conflicted region of Mindanao, Philippines. They work to bring Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous peoples together in dialogue and to teach holistic peace-building skills.