Brussels, novembre 2007
History of the conflict in the Philippines: an overview
A brief look at the decades of conflict that have been present in Mindanao and the whole of the Philippines.
There have been two guerrilla wars going on for several decades. The armed conflict in the North began already in 1946 when an already existing communist army started to fight the Philippine government until 1954. Ca. 1970 the NPA (New People’s Army), the armed body of the newly founded Communist Party, took up the fighting again with the goal to enforce a socialist system with just land distribution. After 1986 the movement split over the issue of strategy. The NPA is also active in Christian areas of Mindanao. The main armed groups in Mindanao however have been Muslim guerrillas who fight for self-determination of the ‘Muslim Nation’ (=’Bangsamoro’) in Mindanao.
The conflict in the South began when a massive resettlement program of Christians on Mindanao caused conflicts around land distribution with the Muslim population that already felt discriminated against by the Christian North. The main guerrilla, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), signed a peace treaty (“Final Peace Agreement”) with the Philippine government (GRP) in 1996. A referendum asked the municipalities and provinces with significant Muslim populations in Mindanao if they wished to join an “Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao” (ARMM) which had originally already been created in 1990. At present five provinces form the ARMM: Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao in Central Mindanao, as well as the islands Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in Western Mindanao. Since the municipalities of some of these regions are predominantly Christian, some of the cities are not in ARMM, including Cotabato City, Maguindanao, which is the headquarters of the ARMM.
MNLF leaders joined then the government structures in Mindanao mainly in the ARMM. MNLF Commander Nur Misuari even eventually became governor of Mindanao before he got arrested in 2001 after leading a failed uprising. He is facing charges for mishandling of funds, and is still in prison in Manila. 12.000 MNLF soldiers were demobilised, about 8.500 of them integrated in the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police.
However the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that had split off in1984 from the MNLF continued the fighting. Ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations with the MILF broke down several times. The last two “all-out wars” happened in 2000 under President Estrada, and then again in February 2003, but already in March 2003 peace talks were resumed. In July, the government signed a new ceasefire with MILF ahead of talks in Malaysia. These negotiations are under way, and are supported by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC).
But violence in the South has been perpetrated by many more groups than MNLF and MILF, including other armed non-state actors (Pentagon in Central Mindanao, Abu Sayyaf, the South-East Asian Jemaah Islamiah etc.), Christian vigilante organisations and criminal gangs (‘Kidnap for Ransom Groups’) and official and semi-official government agencies (human rights organisations have counted at least 50 extrajudicial killings of drug offenders in the city of Davao). Family feuds with an ethos of revenge are also an important issue especially in Muslim areas.
Abu Sayyaf has been accused of a close relationship with El Quaida, and the US army has joined (officially in form of sending trainers and advisors) with the Philippine military in fighting the guerrillas in Mindanao. The Philippines are considered a close ally of President Bush’s “war against terror”.
On 7 February 2005, a new armed conflict erupted in the area of the Sulu islands (Western Mindanao) between MNLF and government troops
All together, between 400,000 and 1 million people have been internally displaced (though most have returned by now) because of the conflicts, and 160,000 died (40,000 in the North, 120,000 in the South).
Generally the armed confrontations have been since 2000 limited geographically to certain areas. The picture of which group controls which area is rather confusing, there are no larger territories in control of one or the other group (unlike Sri Lanka where the LTTE governs its occupied areas, with clear boundaries and checkpoints). There are no visible boundaries or checkpoints in Mindanao, however, it seems that territorialism is strong insofar that either one or the other of the two main Muslim armed groups are controlling certain areas, with little overlap, in Central Mindanao. (This seems to be different in Zamboanga where both MNLF and MILF could be present.)
Civilians are usually not targeted in the conflicts but evacuated before serious fighting begins, and their camps are not attacked (although in Pikit in 2003 a grenade hit by accident the roof of a gymnasium where IDPs stayed). A recent study by the Notre Dame University about the involvement of children in the conflict showed that there is child recruitment although neither numbers nor patterns of such recruitment are really clear.
Although peace talks have often been interrupted between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic National Front (MILF) with some unresolved issues such as the ancestral domain, both parties are generally committed to resolve all the outstanding issues through dialogue and peaceful means. Although, the resignation of Chief Peace Panellist from GRP side created further uncertain atmosphere with respect to the new round of peace talks. There are growing concerns about the implementation of the 1996 Peace Agreement between the GRP and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Civil society in Mindanao is playing a highly commendable and constructive role on its part to not let the ongoing peace process slip into disarray. The ray of hope is a well organised and networked civil society that aims to end the cycle of violence and believes that proactive action can build peace with justice.
The political rise of traditional feudal chieftains (Datus) in the last years in some provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has intermeshed clan conflicts (Rido) with the larger peace process between the GRP, the MILF and the MNLF. Active and simmering Ridos ensure that there is a socioeconomic basis to continuous warfare. Traditional warlords are also significant vote-capturers with implications for national-level politicians. Local Government Units (LGUs), which represent the feudal interests and derive power from their control over paramilitaries (Civilian Volunteer Organisations (CVOs) and Civilian Armed Forces of Geographical Units (CAFGUs)) are now important stakeholders in the larger conflict. In the province of Sulu, the traditional feudal chieftains are not as influential as in other parts of the ARMM. Here, LGUs are less capable of projecting themselves as independent forces with their own vested interests. Besides the mainstream MNLF, which is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, Sulu also has a number of so-called lawless/banned or terrorist groups that have attracted a fairly large US military contingent to assist operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
A ceasefire was announced between the AFP and armed elements of MNLF in the Panamao area of Sulu province. The army captured the military camp of MNLF in this area and the mini-war went on for nearly a month. It was halted through political agreement between higher-ups of both sides, given the need to conduct elections as well as other considerations. Small skirmishes continue in this area because the army is still chasing some enemy combatants. Civil society maintained continuous presence and advocated for early cessation of hostilities. Thousands of civilians were displaced in this mini-war and many are yet to return to their homes.
Although the ceasefire in Midsayap (North Cotabato) is holding in mid 2007, and most of the IDPs have returned to their respective homes, fear of renewed violence is widespread. The core issue (land dispute) has not yet been settled. There is heavy presence of armed actors in their respective allocated areas. Civilian grievances regarding protection have not been addressed and they continue to be a cause of concern.
At the end of August 2007, the official peace processes (GRP-MILF & GRP-MNLF) are lingering in a state of uncertainty and with extended delays in the resumption of talks. They are also frequently subjected to challenge by outbreak of small-to-medium scale hostilities between the main parties to the conflict and their proxies. For instance, the mini-war in Midsayap (North Cotabato Province) in March 2007 and the intense two-week-long fighting in Panamao (Sulu Province) in April 2007 destabilised the environment, threatened the safety of thousands of civilians, and impaired the mobility of the local civil society. Although ceasefires were arranged in both these conflict theatres, small skirmishes continue to generate tension and fuel the agony of the communities.
Since late July 2007 the peace process in Mindanao between Government Republic of Philippines (GRP) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is passing through a turbulent and testing time after a fire fight on July 10, 2007 in Barangay (lowest administrative unit) Guinanta, Al Barakah in Basilan involving the armed forces of both parties that resulted in casualties on both sides. The decapitation of the dead bodies of marines of Armed Forces of Philippines and a Muslim Imam further aggravated the volatile situation. The high militarization of the whole area caused much fear among the residents, local governmental officials, the ceasefire mechanism structure and civil society organizations. It was feared that the confrontation between the forces of both sides might led to a new outbreak of violence not only in Basilan but which may also affect the cease-fire on the mainlands of Mindanao.
A joint fact finding committee comprised of representatives from the “GRP – MILF Coordination Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities” and Bantay Ceasefire produced a joint fact finding report and identified 10 Abu Sayyaf Group bandits behind the mutilation of the dead bodies of marines. The report strongly endorsed for the immediate establishment of Joint Assistance Monitoring Team (JMAT) structure in Basilan to maintain ceasefire and further prevent the outbreak of violence.
The proactive civil society organizations (CSOs) of Mindanao vehemently condemned the July 10 Basilan incident and exerted joint efforts to save the peace process. CSOs produced series of press statement urging both parties to exercise maximum restraints and resolve Basilan crisis through dialogue and other peaceful means. Nonviolent Peaceforce Philippines supported the efforts of its partners in Mindanao by sending its Sulu team along with Communication Officer and Project Director to Basilan for more than two weeks, and publishing two statements written by them.
In the middle of August, GRP intensified its decalred war on terrorism in the island of Sulu against Abu Sayyaf Group that resulted in huge displacement of civilians and caused increased tension between AFP and MNLF troops on the ground, as Sulu is the strong base of MNLF.
Elections dominated the political space for the last few months. They were marked by several malpractices and were closely monitored by national and international observers. Many provinces of Mindanao in which NP has plans of working have been declared to have had “failed elections”. Re-elections in some critical areas generated more polarisation of society and added fuel to existing ridos (clan conflicts). Civil society leaders consider the elections to have had a divisive impact on the overall peace process, instead of uniting the stakeholders. Overall, the elections fortified the power of provincial feudal elites and raised the possibilities of emergence of local ‘third parties’ to the peace processes.
MNLF and GRP scheduled to resume tripartite talks with the OIC in Qatar in July.but talks were postponed as Indonesian envoy was not ready and MNLF insisted on to have Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as a venue for talks. The talks between GRP and MILF were scheduled for after the elections, but mistrust arose with the sudden resignation of the Chair of the GRP Peace Panel. During the Basilan crises, talks were planned in Malaysia but in the last moment the Chairman of GRP Peace panel backed out with a request to need more personal time to prepare for the talks.Given the parallel peace processes covering the same territories between MNLF and GRP on one hand and between MILF and GRP on the other, tensions are also observable between the two Moro revolutionary outfits. Sometimes, these tensions escalate into localised bouts of fighting that result in burning of houses and displacement of villagers. Although MNLF and MILF have a Coordination Committee to sort out differences and strengthen ties, its operational structure has loopholes through which violence emanates.
The incidence of human rights violations by different armed parties remains a major subject of concern for civil society actors, who are finding it difficult to come up with a suitable response due to pressures, security risks, and lack of support structures. Certain highly sensitive parts of Central and Western Mindanao are inaccessible or off-limits for human rights defenders and legal counsels due to the obstructions posed by various armed parties and lawless groups. Civilians and communities that have undergone abuses are unable to share their grievances with relevant sources of help because of fear of retribution and absence of active human rights networks on the ground.
Sporadic bomb blasts and kidnappings are on the rise and often go unexplained as to who the real perpetrators were. These incidents often happen in close proximity to NP field offices and in their radius of work.