Striving for peace in battle-weary Mindanao

Despite headway in dialogue between govt and separatists, the lasting peace desired by prelates is not quite within reach
Striving for peace in battle-weary Mindanao

A joint team of local policemen and Moro rebels cross a marshland as they search for terrorist gunmen who attacked villages in the province of Maguindanao. (Photo by Ferdinandh Cabrera)

Even in retirement, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato has not wavered in seeing his dream of a just and lasting peace in the southern Philippines become a reality. 

Mindanao had been wracked by armed conflict since the 1970s when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started a struggle to secede from the Philippine Republic. 

Libya brokered a peace agreement between the Manila government and the MNLF in 1976, but the guns did not go silent as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway group, continued the struggle.

After four decades of war, the government and the MILF eventually hammered out a comprehensive peace agreement in 2014 that would pave the way for self-rule by Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao. 

Cardinal Quevedo, a respected church leader, now wants continuing dialogue to achieve lasting peace in the southern region.

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He pointed out that dialogue made peace possible between the military and the MILF.

"Dialogue is not mere intellectual discussion," he said. "It is, first of all, listening humbly and respectfully to the other. Listening not only with one's ears, but most importantly listening with one's heart." 

According to the cardinal, dialogue "transforms hostility and suspicion into understanding and trust."

Cardinal Quevedo, during the Mindanao Week of Peace at the start of December, expressed optimism that a "bright new leaf" is turning for the island.

The Bishops-Ulama Conference initiated the Week of Peace, which the government institutionalized through two presidential proclamations. 

The religious leaders' group believes that dialogue is important because "humans are destined to associate in order to survive and to grow in humaneness."

Cardina Quevedo said Mindanao is now on the "threshold of definitive peace" with the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which would create a Bangsamoro Region where Muslim Filipinos would be able to enjoy autonomy within the framework of the constitution.

The new law seeks to create a new region to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which critics described as a "failed government experiment." 

An earlier version of the law failed to gain approval in the Philippine legislature as critics said it would give too much autonomy to the proposed regional government, thus violating the provisions of the constitution. 

Decades of rebellion by Moro separatists stunted the economic development of Mindanao despite its vast fertile land and huge mineral deposits.

Today, while the two main Muslim rebel groups have signed peace accords with the Manila government, peace in Mindanao is still elusive as the Abu Sayyaf Group, which achieved notoriety for kidnapping both foreigners and locals for ransom, and lately piracy on the high seas, has yet to be completely neutralized.

Then there's also the Maute Group, a homegrown terrorist outfit that declared affinity with the Islamic State group and staged a five-month occupation of Marawi City in central Mindanao from late May to early November last year before it was crushed by government forces after fierce battles that left the city in ruins. 

Military officials have expressed alarm over reports that Islamic State militants smarting from successive defeats in the Middle East could be moving to Mindanao to pursue their goal of establishing a caliphate in Southeast Asia with Muslim Mindanao as its hub. 

Given the conditions now on the island, the just and lasting peace that retired Cardinal Quevedo wants to see in Mindanao is not likely to be realized just yet.

But it's something that he hopes would be attained within his lifetime through dialogue and consensus, rather than through a clash of arms, for the sake of future generations of Mindanaoans who deserve to be spared from violence and bloodshed. 

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines.

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