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Precarious Peace


From left to right: MC Canada General Secretary Robert J. Suderman, Irene Suderman, General Ferrer, and MC Canada Executive Secretary Janet Plenert.

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September 10, 2008
- Janet Plenert

MINDANAO, Philippines — “War is easy. It can happen right now. All it takes is a six peso phone call [15 cents Canadian] to say ‘start fighting’,” said General Ferrer, leader of the 6th division of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

With 5000 troops and 6000 paramilitary personnel under his command, General Ferrer’s remark was humbling to me and to the others meeting with him as members of a Mennonite delegation from Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite World Conference Executive Committee on August 7, 2008. Ferrer went on to make it clear that despite his readiness, he does not want war. “What we want is the peace process to resume.”

Two days earlier, the Philippine Supreme Court blocked the signing of an ancestral domain agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a key rebel force in the Philippines. The agreement could have paved the way for the peace process to continue, potentially ending more than four decades of conflict in the south Philippines. Its delay only served to fuel tension.

We asked how the General, as a graduate of the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute, put his peace training into practice. The Institute was supported until recently by MCC and is now part of the ministry of MC Canada through Daniel and Joji Pantoja.

“I learned to listen and not just hear,” he said. “I also send my men to train there and it has given them other ways to think about conflict. I can only send three or four of my men to Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute a year but I wish I could send more.” When he was asked how his soldiers respond to the training, he indicated that they were often hesitant. “They wondered how a warrior could also be a peace builder. It has created a bit of conflict within them.”

General Ferrer confirmed reports that at 10 am that morning, the government gave rebels 24 hours to end skirmishes in the region or face intervention from government forces. He was clearly frustrated by local petitions which delayed the signing of an ancestral domain agreement. He also expressed uncertainty about what immediate effect the government order would have on regional conflict.

Just three hours before meeting with General Ferrer, we sat with leaders of the MILF, who are members of the Mindanao Alliance for Peace, as they determined strategic reactions to the stalled agreement.

MILF leaders clearly expressed their appreciation for our visit, saying, “We heard you were coming and we wanted to meet you because we want peace as we think you want peace. We need your help to give this conflict more awareness internationally.”

MILF Vice Chair Gazali Jaafar had intended to meet with us as well, but because of the crisis he was in the field “calming soldiers and explaining the situation.” He phoned us to ask our forgiveness for his absence and to express his appreciation for our visit, and for our relationship with the Peacebuilders Community, a ministry MC Canada supports.

Robert J. Suderman, General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, noted that both sides of the conflict had similar responses. “They both expressed genuine desire for the peace talks to resume. They both want a negotiated political solution, rather than a military solution. They both are frustrated by the Supreme Court Temporary Restraining Order which caused the signing to be called off. They both have a measure of confidence in the leadership of the opposing group. They both acknowledge that those ignoring the ceasefire and causing skirmishes are renegades acting outside of the authority of their groups. They both want peace.”

General Ferrer was asked, ‘If you could already write tomorrow mornings newspaper headlines, what would you write?”

His response was heart-wrenching: “General Ferrer ready for war.”

When asked to clarify his comment, Ferrer explained that the headline would let renegade MILF members know the army is serious, ready and organized, potentially halting further rebel assaults and reinstating peace talks.

But Ferrer’s headline didn’t make it into the paper the next day and he did not have to make the six-peso telephone call to launch war. The MILF, at least for the time being, had begun to pull back its troops.

Participants in the delegation included MWC Executive Committee members Naomi Unger (MC Canada), Peter Stucky (past President of the Mennonite Church of Colombia) and Markus Regier (moderator of the Mennonite Church of Switzerland), Robert J. Suderman (General Secretary, MC Canada)and his wife, Irene Suderman, and Janet Plenert (Executive Secretary, MC Canada). Plenert led the delegation.

Since the Mennonite delegation visit with General Ferrer on August 7th, peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have stalled. Serious fighting has resulted and as many as 160,000 people have fled their homes and villages for safety. Peacebuilders Community, with support from Mennonite Church Canada Witness, is working to provide food for some of those displaced families.