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Report on the Mindanao Peace Process

by Virginia Swain

September 24-27 1999

Introduction

In 1992, I went to the United Nations to study the reasons that the Persian Gulf Resolution passed in the Security Council. As a result, I began a masters degree independent study through Lesley College to explore the theory and practice of coexistence — making a minimum standard of a world safe for difference. I was also interested in the maximum standard — creating reconciling environments where deep-rooted healing could take place. My masters thesis project was conceived and implemented as a non-violent response to the Persian Gulf resolution, Celebration of the Children of the World, to develop political will to resolve protracted, historic, social intra-state conflicts (Celebration of the Children of the World: A Model for Building Global Community, 1993).

Since then, I've been developing the work and upgrading my skills toward providing resources, tools and processes through a proposed Global Mediation and Reconciliation Service for the International Year (2000) and International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010).

I presented my work at the Hague Appeal for Peace in May 1999 and had further training last summer at Eastern Mennonite University in designing interventions in conflict transformation, skills for the peacebuilder, ethnic identity and conflict transformation, and reconciliation theory and practice.

In instances where participants from neighboring countries were involved in ethnic and tribal wars, it was an awakening to find so many peacemakers at war within themselves and with each other, in the level of verbal abuse,anger and fear people had toward each other, both in unresolved inner conflict as well as unresolved political, cultural, religious and ethnic issues. After meeting people from 50 countries, many of them war-torn, I am committed my to help peacemakers make peace within themselves. The invitation from the Philippines supported that leading.

Since 1992, I have been working on pilot projects in local and international settings with a focus on Rwanda, with refugees in Boston from the former Yugoslavia, with religious conflicts at the Parliament of the Worlds Religions, the UN Community in New York, The UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UN Social and Economic Development Summit in Copenhagen, the Hague Appeal in the Netherlands, in severely conflicted organizations and individuals. The Very Reverend James B. Manguramas, EDSP, Diocesan Bishop in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, and Dr. Grace J. Rebollos of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) invited me to facilitate an exit conference for peacemakers who had been working on a United Nations project in the Christian-Muslim (MLNF) Government-Rebel Forces conflict in the Southern Mindanao Province for 18 months from September 24-27, 1999.

1. Background on the Philippines and Mindanao

The Philippines is an archipelago made up of three large island groups: Mindanao is the second-largest island with 102,043 square kilometers or 34% of the nation's total land area. Despite its huge resource advantage, Mindanao's economy has been continually trapped in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment. Mindanao's low economic performance is exacerbated by high population growth that has resulted in low employment, weak purchasing power of the populace, rising number of the poor, and a sluggish economic growth. As such, Mindanao remained economically behind the rest of the country. Before the UNDP IOM-MIRCAS project, Mindanao had been unable to harness its huge resources to address the continuing conflict between Muslims, Christians, and indigenous cultural communities. A Peace Treaty was signed in 1996. The process I was invited into was closing after 18 months of intense, practical, concrete work helping Muslim rebels integrate back into society.

Dr. Grace J. Rebollos, a professor on leave from Eastern Mindanao University, now working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and I met at the Virginia peacemaking training last summer. The exit conference for Muslim and Christian colleagues and peacemakers who had been working on a United Nations project in the Government-Rebel (MLNF) Forces conflict in the Southern Mindanao Province for 18 months from September 24-27, 1999. My orientation was to provide a response to the invitation out of a process combined with my experience in coexistence and reconciliation training.

2. Purpose of the UN Project

The purpose of their 18-month initiative was to deepen the peace treaty signed in 1996 in very practical ways by helping the MNLF rebels to become integrated into Filipino culture in this southern province. My task was to help the peacemakers deal with their feelings of anger, hurt, bitterness, and loss over the ways they had been treated "by the bureaucracy" of the United Nations and over the peace process ending while so much was left unfinished. Many of their hopes and dreams for what they had wanted to accomplish had not as yet happened. They had to find other work as the funding for the project had run dry, yet they wanted help with how they could still pursue the peace process individually and collectively, even as they were not actively involved in the UNDP process any more.

3. UN Operations and Problems

The 18-month UNDP IOM-MIRCAS process was the biggest UN operation in the Philippines and was funded by nine countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and Turkey. Mobil Information Referral and Community Assistance Service (MIRCAS) was the information dissemination and confidence-building sub-contractor to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Problems that the peacemakers reportedly had to deal with included: discrepancies in the financial reporting systems, in coordinative processes, in being left out in meetings, in being "pushed around as work horses", in being treated like second-class citizens. They felt that "UNDP was missing the point about peace". Its people "get involved in too many
conferences, too much training, too much politics, underhandedness and a lack of authenticity".

The peacemakers related to the following statement:

"I was hungry and you formed a committee to investigate my hunger. I was homeless and you filed a report on my plight. I was sick and you held a seminar on the situation of the underprivileged. You investigated all aspects of my plight and yet I am still hungry, homeless and sick."

4. My Work Plan and Process

My host, Dr. Grace Rebollos, had just come from a training-workshop for peace and development advocates of the MNLF (a Muslim rebel group). She was part of a team of Muslim-Christian trainors.

a. Facilitation Process

I proceeded to provide a safe space for the peacemakers to share their pain and suffering incurred during this project. Dr. Grace Rebollos. had told me that the group needed healing and reconciliation. I consulted with Ben Errol D. Aspers (IOM-Mircas Project Coordinator) before the meeting about what I proposed to do in my facilitation and got his approval to go ahead with the reconciliation process that had come from my prayers: acknowledging gifts, strengths and limitations, concerns, historicizing, a letting go process, making closing statements, and ending with a celebration.

b. Acknowledging Gifts, Strengths, Limitations and Concerns

I invited participants to share with me one word about their particular gift or strength that would allow them to reconnect with the vision that originally led them to the peace process. Their words reflected their core gifts and leadings many had experienced in coming to the process: grace, hope, compassion, love, peacefulness, solitude, glider, helpful, light and joy, peace, compassion, understanding, frank.

c. Historicizing

Next I invited them to begin their own timeline of their experience in the peace process in a historicizing process of reflection. "Historicizing" started with a period of historical reflection with sheets of newsprint and stringing them out along a wall. Each participant
was invited to make her/his own timeline first on a sheet of 8 l/2 x ll paper that could be kept confidential. Then, after one hour, a group timeline was made on newsprint with a horizontal line drawn through the center. At the far right, an arrow with the word "present" is printed on it. Then the participants are invited to proceed backwards from the present recalling some of the most important historical events in the life of the peace process since the Peace Treaty, drawing on and building on their own personal timelines.

d. Critical Incidents

We began by talking about the most important critical incidents in the past twelve months. That was a warm-up period. The group then moved back to the previous three years since the Peace Treaty was signed.

It was important to guide those present through the entire history of the peace process Even though there may not be anyone in the group who was alive during the formative years of the dispute, there may have been stories to recollect and record. This step took two hours. It provided a gold-mine of information. The chart was hung where people could review it, debate over its contents, and make changes.

e. Time-line Review

The second phase of this historicizing process invited the same group to review the time-line to identify the tacit norms of the process. Tacit norms are unwritten psychological rules governing behavior in the process. Norms are hard to identify because "that's the way things have always been done in the 18-month process."

f. Tacit Norms as Ongoing Concerns As They Left the Peace Process

Then it was time to invite them to reflect on the tacit norms as ongoing concerns that still lingered within them that would prevent the peacemakers from making closure for the process. Two of the peacemakers were former MNLF rebels and their contributions were especially poignant. Just as they had contributed to the uprising, so they now were contributing to the peace process. They, incidentally, were feeling most clear about how the process had gone and how they could go forward, with very little concern.

Some of their ongoing concerns that were expressed:

  • "my efforts weren't acknowledged or valued"
  • "Allah will provide: there's life after MIRCAS"
  • "Regrets not doing enough: anger, bitterness, bad thoughts, discontentedness"
  • "no regrets"
  • "displacement of staff, unfinished work"
  • "worried about MNLF access to service providers in future"
  • "MNLF losing confidence with Peace Process, tension between IOM, UNDP and within staff"

g. A Forgiveness Process

Participants were asked if they felt comfortable with going through a ceremony where they could experience a release from their concerns. They were open and willing. I explained how fire is an ancient symbol of transformation. Since they had feelings that couldn't be released on their own, they could be brought to the fire and then be open to being
released from their pain. That which had held them back now could propel them forward.

We were helped by a gorgeous sunset. In the South Pacific, it is dramatically beautiful. Just as everyone was telling the group what they had written down, burned their papers, and joined together to support one another through the letting go process, the sun set on each participant.

h. Closing Statements

Each participants made a statement of closure at the end of the conference. Some of them include:

  • "This project made me live again"
  • "I'm grateful to be blessed with such experiences not many can have in the peace process"
  • "Till we meet again"
  • "The UN can only aspire for the best, but 'Que Sera Sera' " (former MNLF rebel, turned peacemaker)
  • "Never to lose hope in achieving peace in oneself and the world"
  • "It's been tough and rewarding"
  • "Peace requires dedication and commitment"
  • "The road is not easy. Bon jour. The Challenge remains"
  • "Acknowledge ourselves to be peacemakers!"
  • "I've taken stock of my feelings of what should have happened."
  • "I had high hopes"
  • "I light a fire to my sufferings!"

i. Celebration

Then it was time to celebrate. They had families waiting behind on the beach and someone fetched the food. There was a dinner with much laughter, reminiscences and hope expressed for the future of the process. One little group began a new peace process by beginning an Non-Governmental Organization to continue where the UN left off. The celebration went on till the boat left to bring people back to other islands and home.

5. Other Work While in the Philippines

My host kept me busy after the closure process for the peacemakers was over. I spoke to many Muslim, Christian and secular groups. I attended a conference where participation of trust between sectors was building. I spoke at a Carmelite Nuns and Tertiaries Catholic Nunnery who were faithful to St. Theresa. I spoke at a coalition of teachers, Ateneo de Zamboanga, with Private School Heads about the International Year (2000) and International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010).

I met with Pax and Salaam, the coalition of Moslem and Christian leaders with Edward and Zeny Lim (Muslim Coordinators of Salaam) and Fr. Angel Calvo, Pricilla Valmonte, and Grace Rebollos (Christian coordinators of Paz.) to listen to their plans for The Week of Peace, the first week of November and to introduce them to the International Year (2000) and International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010).

6. My reflections and analysis

  1. There was a danger of my being kidnapped, so my hosts kept a close watch over me. I stayed in a Muslim Hotel because rebels would be less likely to kidnap someone from a Muslim Hotel.

  2. Being an American with a sensitivity to the fact that US military bases are in the Philippnes essentially against the will of the people was a huge issue. The Filipinos were too polite to bring it up with me, but when I opened the issue, they spoke to me openly.

  3. I have received word from the participants and the coordinator that my work provided healing and reconciliation to help the peacemakers deal with their unresolved feelings while leaving the UNDP IOM-MIRCAS Project and get on with their lives.

  4. This work is a pilot project of a proposed global mediation and reconciliation service, dedicated to bring non violent resources to the international and UN community for the International Year (2000) and International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010).