Muhammadiyah is one of the world’s largest non-political Islamic organizations (with 40 million members) and is one the three international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that are part of the International Contact Group (ICG) supporting the peace process in Mindanao. The ICG has played a key role in keeping the process moving steadily toward an agreement, with quiet words when heated negotiations could have broken the progress made.
From Nov. 20 to 22, over 200 participants took part in discussions on consolidating multicultural democracy, particularly in conflict-torn areas, during the fifth WPF. Strengthening pluralism in multi-ethnic communities is a prerequisite to the reconciliation of the conflicting parties over their dispute on values, motivations, perceptions, ideas or desires.
The WPF has structured workshops on the experiences and lessons learned from conflict resolution in Kosovo in southeastern Europe; the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar; Pattani in southern Thailand; Mindanao in southern Philippines; Lebanon; Aceh and Ambon in Indonesia; Central Africa and Nigeria. In most of these countries, conflict resolution took place in the forms of political settlement and peace agreement, which included a declaration of ceasefire, the decommissioning of weapon, troops withdrawal, and police reform.
As the organizers noted: “Some of the cases of conflict resolution have brought up determination and optimism over their successes, other long-lasting frustration over their failures among involved governments, peace organizations, experts and activists. These successes and failures are in essence crucial as lessons learned in our efforts to search for lasting peace.”
Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, the keynote speaker at the opening of the conference, recounted his own experience in peacemaking in Aceh. At the time, making direct contact with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was suspect to the powerful Indonesian military. In spite of the sensitivities involved in talking to an armed group, Kalla reached out to the GAM leadership (those in exile and those in the field), in order to ensure that all parties “buy in” to any agreement reached. The Vice-President stressed that the key to peace is to address the root causes of conflict, which always become intertwined: injustice, poverty and marginalization.
The next day, Peace Adviser Teresita “Ging” Quintos-Deles, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chair Murad Ebrahim al haj and I shared our thoughts on the government-MILF peace process together with Valeria Martano representing the Community of St Egidio, now a part of the ICG. Echoing the central message of Mr. Kalla, both Secretary Ging and Chair Murad focused on the hard work of both sides to address generational injustices. Valeria recounted the efforts of civil society, particularly faith-based organizations, to unite the communities in support of peace. A just and lasting peace was the end goal.
As Secretary Ging put it, the process was difficult and challenging but also wonderful and hopeful. The transformation in the attitudes of both sides, from antagonistic suspicion to pragmatic collaboration took years to build up. Trust in each other slowly developed after years of working together on critical issues. Chair Murad shared the history behind the wars between the Moros of the South and the colonizers, noting that the peace process would put an end to the longest running conflict (436 years!) in the Philippines. Like Secretary Ging, Chair Murad is optimistic (if cautiously so) that Congress will pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law by February 2015.
I shared my own observations on ensuring that the peace agreement does come to fruition. After all, a signed peace agreement is but a signed piece of paper — easy to tear up or burn. There are several major challenges to the implementation of the agreement: concerns about sections of the Basic Law violating the Philippine Constitution; hawks who see a peace process as a weak approach to neutralizing armed groups; vested political interests whose domain may be weakened by the passage of a law that will be true to the intent of the peace agreement.
Will the Basic Law be true to the spirit of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), the product of almost 18 years of peace talks? If it does not, the MILF may have problems accepting the law as fulfillment of the agreement that they signed. Assuming that all parties concerned accept the Basic Law, there is the second critical spoiler: will it be successfully challenged by its oppositors in the Supreme Court? Should this happen, it’s like tossing the burning peace agreement into a can of gasoline.
The panel on the Philippine peace process was probably seen as one of the most valuable panels at the forum, since the speakers included the chair of the MILF, the head of the government’s peace process, a representative of the ICG, and one from the Bangsamoro civil society. After the panel wrapped up, several participants approached us to continue the discussion. Certainly, lessons learned from the Philippine process can provide valuable insights for the Buddhist-Muslim conflicts of Patani and Myanmar.
Last year, I spoke at an interfaith conference on “Security, Peace and Co-existence” in Yangon, Myanmar, attended by over a hundred leaders of Myanmar’s five main religions. I have often wondered how such horrifying ethnic and religious violence had become rooted in Buddhist majority communities such as Thailand and Myanmar. I have always thought of Buddhists as pacifist and gentle people, prevented by their faith from killing any living thing — even dengue-carrying mosquitoes.
Perhaps the Philippines can invite Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders of Myanmar and Southern Thailand to dialogue with the Muslim and Christian religious leaders of Mindanao and learn from each other. The Muslims of Mindanao are lucky that the strongest champions for peace and interfaith cooperation are Catholic religious leaders like Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Bishop Antonio Ledesma and Father Eliseo Mercado.
Meanwhile, the support for the Basic Law is gaining strength, with the public hearings conducted by Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for the Senate and Congressman Rufus Rodriguez for the House of Representatives.
More of these discussions need to be undertaken within the next two months, before Congress goes into plenary discussions. I asked one of our former chief justices what he thought were the chances of the Basic Law. While he thought it would become a reality, the path will be rough.
Influential organizations such as the Philippine Economic Society have also started to focus attention on the peace process. During the society’s 52nd Annual Conference last month, Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan organized a panel to discuss the Bangsamoro development plan.
We need more of these, because need to make sure that the Basic Law will remain true to the spirit of the peace agreement.
Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, and president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy.