CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 20 April 2019

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What else dies with the peace process?

MARAWI (UCAN): Barely two years after the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace deal, the war-torn south of the nation continues to face the risk of massive displacement of people.

The failure of the House of Representatives to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law has dashed the hopes of people who have experienced centuries of armed struggle in defence of their homeland.

More than 5,000 Muslims, many of them young people, staged a protest in the Muslim-majority Marawi City in Mindanao on February 2, calling the president of the country, Noynoy Aquino, a traitor.

Orlando Cardinal Quevedo and other religious leaders have warned that the failure to pass an expansion of autonomy strengthens extremist groups that are pressuring ageing Moro leaders.

Congress member, Teddy Brawner Baguilat, from Ifugao, said the setback could jack up child displacement figures from the current annual estimate of 30,000 to 50,000.

Despite strong support from the United States of America (US) for anti-terror drives, although some say because of it, urban centres remain vulnerable to on-going bombing and attacks.

Baguilat said the government and civil society have the daunting task of pursuing the peace dialogue, as Muslims lament a second major defeat for the peace process.

The first came in 2008, when the Supreme Court struck down the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain during the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, leaving the MILF and the negotiators, as well as government and foreign sponsors aghast.

The fighting that followed displaced more than 750,000 people in the southern Philippines. Then in 2014, veteran Moro and government troops wept as peace negotiators signed a comprehensive peace agreement in Manila.

At the Moro headquarters in Cotabato City, combatants and their wives cheered and clasped their children as the senior government peace adviser dedicated the peace process to Mindanao’s children.

Peace negotiator, Teresita Deles, spoke of hope “that, henceforth, no family shall be forced to drive their children away for fear of their being maimed and wounded by conflict; and that no child has ever again to cross a raging river and knock on a stranger’s door to beg for protection.”

Aquino stated, “I will not let peace be snatched from my people again.”

The peace deal took 17 years to negotiate, cost thousands of lives and saw millions of people displaced.

But in January last year, a US-supervised operation against a Malaysian terrorist sparked a deadly clash between state and MILF forces, which claimed 67 lives, including at least 43 police.

Aquino, who came out of the investigation with mud on his face, lost the initiative in the peace process, even in a congress where he enjoyed a huge majority.

His pet legislation was watered down twice and the Moro people warned they would reject any law that scrapped key provisions. No number of roadshows and press statements could mask the writing on the wall.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the chief government negotiator, said Aquino would pursue other components of the peace pact, including a massive influx of development aid and continued coordination with all parties.

The MILF pledged to keep its areas free of extremists and terrorists, but despite this, uncertainty continues.

It is also no secret that in conflict areas, children learn at a young age to view weapons as a desirable toy and later as a necessity of life.

The Mindanao conflict costs the Philippine economy 20 billion pesos ($3.8 billion) in annual losses, according to the government peace office. Government records show that of the 120,000 killed in the Mindanao conflict between 1970 and 1996, civilians make up 20 per cent.

Spikes in child recruitment during massive displacement have been noted. Baguilat says that because they are forced out of school and feel insecure, minors are lured to join state and non-state forces with offers of regular meals, the company of peers and mentors, as well as the means to retaliate against the enemy.

He also worries about a recent upsurge in bigotry from both the non-Muslim majority and the 9.6-million Muslim minority in Mindanao.

He said that in his home province, which shelters a big Muslim community of displaced people, animosity has grown following last year’s fiasco with the police.

 

“We are all victims of historical circumstances,” he said. “We must stop the cycle of rage.”

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