Breaking the Links Between Economics and Conflict in Mindanao

THIS REPORT SHEDS analytical light on the complex linkages between economic factors and the conflict in Mindanao, and on the possible role of local business leaders and their associates in communities or other sectors in the country in breaking these links. It also explores options for government in addressing these dynamics.

Mindanaosymbolises resistance. Generations of Moro peoples have resisted colonial conquest, assimilation by central government, and declarations of all-out war for over four centuries. Their quest for self-determination and their aspiration to establish a Bangsamoro nation has taken different forms of struggle.

The peoples of Mindanao symbolise resilience. In times of war or peace, the people of the southern islands of the Philippines including Moro peoples, the lumads (indigenous peoples) and the Christian settlers in the lowland areas have managed to survive and to thrive – at times, together, and, at other times, separately. The island of promise more often than not has seen the expectations of its inhabitants frustrated either by the failure of development efforts, by poor governance or neglect, or by successive military operations.

In this light, the people’s pursuit of peace in Mindanao, with support from friends, represents a compelling response to what indeed is a complex reality. Citizens of Mindanao have raised and continue to advocate just and durable responses to the unresolved issues which cry for imperative action: the question of ancestral domain and agrarian reform; the plight of thousands of war victims comprised of displaced and landless families who have witnessed the destruction of their properties or experienced human right violations; the relationship characterised by social and cultural discrimination that still exists between people of different historical or religious traditions; the widespread poverty, characterised by deep inequalities, in the regions inhabited by predominantly Muslim populations; the exploitation of natural resources that somehow constitute what has been described as ‘development aggression’; and finally, the desire to design a way of life and a system of governance compatible with the values of the tri-peoples (the Muslims, the lumads, and the Christian settlers) in the land they commonly inhabit.

There have been a number of milestones in the journey to find an acceptable resolution to the country’s oldest conflict: a 1996 Peace Agreement was signed between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the armed movement that was founded in 1969 and initially espoused separation. However this accord, which created the autonomous region of Mindanao focusing on peace and development, failed to deliver on the aspirations of the Moro peoples.

Three years later, formal talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had broken ranks with the MNLF, opened on 25 October 1999 in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, giving rise to what has become a cycle of negotiations combined with deadly armed clashes on the ground. Major military offensives were launched on at least three occasions: in 1997, 2000 and 2003.

To complicate matters, the Abu Sayyaf, a band of local bandits that has specialised in kidnappings of foreign tourists and missionaries, and that formed in the late 1980s, was linked by the national government and major powers to the global war on terror. This led to joint military exercises near the island of Basilan in south-western Mindanao involving US troops and materiel in the armed conflict.

With the good offices of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and in particular with the active facilitation of the government of Malaysia, there steps were nevertheless taken to broker a fragile peace. A General Framework of Agreement of Intent was signed in March 2001 and later an Agreement on Peace was signed in Tripoli in mid-2001, which focused on security, rehabilitation and development of conflict affected areas. Other joint communiqués and guidelines for the implementation of either humanitarian activities or ceasefire monitoring were signed. None of these was definitive however, and formal talks to put closure on the more contentious issues have now been calendared in the remaining seven months of the current administration.

Perhaps the single most important development on the peace front (in contrast to the battle front) are the citizens’ initiatives that abound in the southern part of the country, including courageous efforts such as the building of the ‘sanctuaries for peace’, the ‘spaces for peace’, and the zones that combine development of livelihoods with the creation of opportunities for dialogue to avert or reduce political violence. Peace advocacy engaged in by local peoples has resulted in backdoor linkages or joint monitoring mechanisms built by groups such as the Mindanao People’s Caucus, or Kusog Mindanaw, together with other networks and alliances with both the government and military, and the MILF. Women have formed vehicles such as the ‘Women in White,’ the Mindanao Women’s Group, and the Mindanao Commission on Women, which have become a vital part in the mobilisation for peace with activities such as the Mindanao ‘week of peace’ and the ‘peace caravans’, and incessant peace campaigns. Religious groups have likewise engaged in inter-faith dialogue, in particular, the Bishops-Ulama Conference, as well as groups of priests, imams and pastors in several areas.

This report seeks to promote a role for local business leaders alongside other civil society constituencies in pushing for peace. It aims to make a modest contribution to the pursuit of a peace that has long eluded the people of southern Philippines, through making recommendations to both business and government on the economic dimension of the conflict, and future roles and opportunities in this area.

  • Author(s):
    Sylvia Conception
    Larry Digal
    Rufa Guiam
    Rumlo de la Rosa
    Mara Stankovitch
    International Alert
    The Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao
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  • Date:
    December 2003
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