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War in the Philippines
September 12, 2008
DAVAO, Philippines — Ongoing conflict in Mindanao, Philippines escalated into war in early August after the Philippines’ Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on the official signing of a territorial agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Since that time, Peacebuilders Community Inc. (PBCI) in Mindanao, an organization supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness, has been working at a grassroots level to bring relief to about 3,600 displaced families and to rekindle peace talks.
Issues of land distribution in the Philippines between the indigenous Bangsamoro People from whom the MILF arose and migrants to Mindanao from the Northern Philippines have resulted in almost four decades of violence. The Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the MILF and the GRP was initialled on July 27, 2008. It was intended to increase an existing Muslim autonomous zone and enhance peace talk efforts. The agreement was suspended following complaints from lawmakers in the region who said they had not been adequately consulted.
After the MOA-AD stalled, the GRP gave MILF rebels a 24 hour window to vacate occupied zones. While some rebels complied, others did not. On Sunday, August 10, government troops began their attack. To supplement the troops, the GRP distributed 13,000 arms to civilians acting as auxiliary police.
The entire contingent of eight PCBI staff members and numerous volunteers have been working around the clock to raise support, gather resources and distribute relief to displaced people in the two regions primarily affected by the conflict, Christian North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte. A PBCI medical mission August 14-17 treated 361 patients. From August 20-28, PCBI was able to provide relief to 478 families. However, the number of displaced families is on the rise, increasing the demand for relief.
“The situation reminds me of how poor I was in my childhood days and this is a way of giving back all the blessings that God has given me,” says Kriz, the Mindanao Coordinator for PBCI.
While PBCI staff seek to assist displaced families, MC Canada Witness workers and PBCI founders, Daniel and Joji Pantoja, are in the field attempting to re-establish relationships and ceasefire mechanisms eroded by the controversy surrounding the MOA-AD.
The Pantojas were asked to facilitate meetings between a delegation from Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict Southeast Asia and various parties involved in the conflict. The delegation successfully urged the MILF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to invite the International Monitoring Team to continue its work as an observer, rather than pulling out on August 31 as previously planned.
The Monitoring Team’s role involves close scrutiny of the implementation of ceasefire agreements and investigation into skirmishes, holding both sides accountable The delegation’s meeting with North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmauel Piñol corrected the media’s interpretation of Piñol’s position: he is not anti-Muslim – he is anti-MILF. Daniel Pantoja reports that Piñol is “encouraging [his] people to arm themselves for self-defence.” He says that the arming of citizens is a dangerous move. “This is Rwanda in the making.”
General Amzah, the Head of the International Monitoring Committee agrees. “Distributing firearms to civilians is very dangerous. They wouldn’t know when to stop using it.”
If the MOA-D had been successfully signed, approximately 20 percent of North Cotabato would be under MILF control.
Despite efforts toward peace, Piñol reportedly says that he believes non-violence is not an option in Mindanao.
As of September 7, reports indicate that approximately 360,000 people have been displaced due to ongoing violence, 69 people have been injured and 58 people have died.
Christina Bartel Barkman, who provided information for the writing of this report, is in the Philippines with her husband Darnell for a 10-12 month internship assignment through Mennonite Church Canada Witness. Barkman has contributed to relief work and while PBCI founders Daniel and Joji Pantoja are in the field engaged in peace building efforts, Barkman is the acting communications coordinator.
In an update to MC Canada, Barkman writes; “We continue to pray for a lasting just-peace in Mindanao. We are thankful that the International Monitoring Committee agreed to lengthen their stay. We are also thankful that the MILF-GRP peace panels have recently returned to the negotiating table…We pray that this war will end.”