Last October 15, the Philippine government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) finally signed a Framework Peace Agreement. It was a historic event that elicited mixed reactions from the different sectors of our society. The reactions ranged from outright joy and approval, to cautious optimism, to indifference, to apprehension, to cynicism, to outright dismay and disapproval.
But for many of those who live in the Bangsa Moro designated territories and their peripheries, achieving that elusive peace is a wondrous dream that they’ve long waited for. Having been assigned to Mindanao numerous times during my military years, I too have witnessed the horrors, the hurts and the tears brought about by decades of fighting and finger-pointing. And all these have only served to fuel that vicious cycle of tragedies that we continued to inflict on each other. Our people have suffered more than enough. And I have cried with them, bled with them, buried the dead with them. What an irony! The ease with which we destroy, and the difficulty we find as we rebuild.
Rebuilding a house, a road or a bridge is not the most difficult thing to do. But mending the heart, restoring the trust, forgiving (though not necessarily forgetting), moving forward, here lies the difficulty. Too many lives have been lost, too many dreams shattered. How do we bring back the past, when Moslems and Christians lived harmoniously with each other, their homes open to one another? How do we convince each other that we can – in fact, we must – move on, as brothers that we truly are? How do we erase the stigma of treacheries and betrayals, and remove the stench of death and destruction that pervade in our land? Can we now live in peace, now that the Framework Peace Agreement has been signed? Does this signal the end of hostilities in our southern frontier?
Truth to tell, the Framework is not the the answer, but quite simply, the start of a long journey that is meant to rehabilitate our hearts, our heads and our land. There will still be many challenges, so many pitfalls that could collapse the efforts if we do not help push it forward. Last month, I was fortunate to have been invited by VSO Bahaginan to travel with a retired Irish police officer who brought with him a wealth of experience and knowledge in Northern Ireland’s transition from a veritable war-zone to a progressive and hope-filled community. And it has reinvigorated my resolve to help make the peace process work.
Peter Sheridan was a member of the Irish Police Force which was tasked to enforce peace and security in the streets of Belfast during those difficult days when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was threatening to destroy Northern Ireland. He was wounded in a car-bombing incident that killed 2 of his buddies. He was ‘projected’ for assassination, and had to transfer his family many times to elude his would-be assassins.
In the visits we had, and the dialogues with different sectors, particularly in the areas in Cotabato and Lanao, it was clear that there remains many contentious issues that need to be resolved. Issues on power-sharing, on the proposed Bangsa Moro territory, on security, on the status of firearms, and many more. The first salvo of questions raised during discussions would almost always reflect a defensive posture, and a desire to protect self-interests. “What’s in it for me?” – was always the veiled question amidst all the probing concerns raised.
It was obvious that the Framework Peace Agreement still does not have all the answers to these queries. The details for each and every issue are still up for discussion. However, it is better to be able to discuss these problems over coffee as opposed to letting the guns do the talking. With each discussion, some concerns are resolved, and more goodwill is developed. Creative ideas are presented and later tested, and win-win solutions found. It was emphasized further that the peace agreement should not be viewed as a zero-sum game, where the gain for one side will mean a corresponding loss to the other. For in war, nobody wins; and in peace, everyone wins!
The opportunity for us to move forward is here with the Framework Peace Agreement. Like many of us, the MILF leadership, as well as their rank and file, have expressed their desire to stop the fighting. Let us stop focusing on the small bumps and potholes along the road then. These humps – which are the problems that we must jointly resolve – can stymie us, if we allow them to. But armed with enough perseverance and the capacity for healthy give-and -take, we can certainly make this work. Instead, let us focus on the price that awaits us as we thread this difficult portion of the journey. The dividends for achieving peace are right there, with more development programs, more education, more and better health services, more progress, and ultimately, a better world to live in.
I dream of peace in Mindanao. Let us all join hands to make this a reality.