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Authorities Urged to End Mindanao Fighting

With thousands displaced, religious and civil groups urge government to resolve conflict peacefully.
The prospect of renewed fighting in Mindanao after Ramadan has prompted religious groups to pressure the authorities to pursue peace talks while also helping out in the huge relief effort in the region.

In mid-September, representatives of the more than half a million evacuees in Mindanao in the south Philippines travelled to Manila to meet and petition President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The group – which included representatives of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, MPC, an alliance of Christians, Muslims and Lumad (indigenous peoples) – ordered a halt to military operations against Muslim separatist group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, in Mindanao. They also called for a new round of peace talks between the government and MILF.

“We fully supported the process that was designed to bring peace to Mindanao. However, some were not ready and some were not consulted,” said lawyer and MPC coordinator Mary Ann Arnado.

“The situation calls for a deeper reflection on our peace advocacy.”

At a ceremony on August 5, the government abandoned the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, MOA-AD, it had reportedly intended to sign with the MILF, saying it would not agree to it in its current form.

Among other things, the MOA-AD was to create a Muslim homeland to encompass areas not covered by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, ARMM.

Renewed hostilities after the government’s botched signing of the MOA-AD have already killed 83 people and injured over a hundred, according to the government’s National Disaster Coordinating Council, NDCC. However, the real figure could be higher.

Ironically, some evacuees in the 17-man delegation had already met the president when conflict between government forces and MILF last broke out in Mindanao in 2003. Many maintain it was this meeting that helped Arroyo decide to call a ceasefire that led to peace talks and, ultimately, to the failed MOA-AD.

Their positive experience in calling for a ceasefire in 2003 explained the high spirits of members of the delegation this time around, even after they noted that the president said the number of evacuees fleeing fighting this time round was just a tenth of the number cited by the NDCC.

The group also expressed concern and apprehension over the military’s denial late last week that the president directed a halt to air raids taking place during the holy month of Ramadan.

At the meeting, delegation member Father Edward Vazquez raised the issue of the evacuees’ mental and physical well-being.

His own congregation in Pikit had already donated more than 100,000 Philippine pesos, PhP, (2,174 US dollars) worth of relief goods and is now mobilising other parishes to support the displaced.

“We are still preparing for what might happen after the end of Ramadan,” he told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.

NDCC data indicates that the fighting between government soldiers and the MILF which started in some 15 villages in four towns in North Cotabato in August has now spread to over 68 municipalities and five cities in 11 provinces across Central Mindanao.

To accommodate increasing numbers of internally displaced persons, IDPs, in Maguindanao province, new evacuation centres have been opened in the towns of Datu Anggal Midtimbang, Datu Piang, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Shariff Aguak and Talayan.

Dakila Aquino, of the Citizen’s Disaster Response Centre – an NGO which conducted a relief mission with the government in August and September – said that many IDPs have found alternative places to stay.

“Many of the displaced took the risk of either returning to their communities or moving into the interior areas to stay with relatives,” said Aquino.

“With homes, schools, mosques and chapels burned, those who cannot be accommodated in formal evacuation centres set up informal, makeshift or house-based evacuation sites outside [of them],” he said.

NDCC administrator Glenn J Rabonza reported that on September 21, 14,048 families were staying at evacuation centres.

The IDPs now face health problems due to overcrowding and a lack of medical services available in the centres.

The Council for the Welfare of Children Sub-Committee on Children Affected by Armed Conflict and Displacement, CWC-SC CAACD, called on local NGOs to help out in North Cotabato after fighting broke out there last month.

In their report, the entire team expressed fears that if conflict and displacement continue, the distress and anxiety experienced by children may worsen. The team fears the impact of suspended schooling will force students to drop out of the education system for good, affecting their future chances to find jobs and livelihoods.

The group also reported on the voluntary separation of Muslim and Christian evacuees in some centres in Pikit and Aleosan, apparently caused by mutual distrust attributed to the conflict. They noted that some evacuees stayed in their villages during the day and returned to the evacuation centres at night for safety reasons.

Meanwhile, the cost of the conflict continues to soar. NDCC figures showed the total cost of damage to now stand at 121.5 million PhP (2.6 million US dollars).

The combined financial assistance provided by government agencies, local and international NGOs, and United Nations agencies now stands at PhP 89.3 million. More than PhP 50 million of this has been provided by government agencies, local government units and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

As the humanitarian crisis continues to unfold, members of the Bantay Ceasefire (Ceasefire Watch) are also calling for peace to be restored to the region.

Since 2003, the civil society group has monitored the ceasefire between the government and MILF in Mindanao, and considers its work up until now to have been a great success. Its members worry what the coming weeks may bring.

“We have created a space for peace,” insisted Omar Unggui, barangay (village) captain of Dalingaoen in Pikit, North Cotabato.

The five-year-old initiative started in the adjacent barangay of Nalapaan, eventually attracting six other neighbouring villages in Mindanao.

Through the group, the communities maintained a continual dialogue throughout the past five years with both the military and the MILF leaders to avoid renewed clashes in the region.

An uneasy truce held until the recent clashes in August.

Unggui’s message to the government and all concerned parties in the current conflict is, “Don’t give us food, give us peace.”

Nora O Gamolo is a columnist and former senior desk editor at The Manila Times.

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