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History of the conflict in the Philippines: an overview

A brief look at the decades of conflict that have been present in Mindanao and the
whole of the Philippines.

There have been two guerrilla wars going on for several decades. The armed
conflict in the North began already in 1946 when an already existing communist
army started to fight the Philippine government until 1954. Ca. 1970 the NPA
(New Peoples Army), the armed body of the newly founded Communist Party,
took up the fighting again with the goal to enforce a socialist system with just land
distribution. After 1986 the movement split over the issue of strategy. The NPA is
also active in Christian areas of Mindanao. The main armed groups in Mindanao
however have been Muslim guerrillas who fight for self-determination of the
Muslim Nation (=Bangsamoro) in Mindanao.
The conflict in the South began when a massive resettlement program of
Christians on Mindanao caused conflicts around land distribution with the Muslim
population that already felt discriminated against by the Christian North. The main
guerrilla, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), signed a peace treaty (Final
Peace Agreement) with the Philippine government (GRP) in 1996. A referendum
asked the municipalities and provinces with significant Muslim populations in
Mindanao if they wished to join an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao
(ARMM) which had originally already been created in 1990. At present five
provinces form the ARMM: Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao in Central Mindanao,
as well as the islands Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in Western Mindanao. Since the
municipalities of some of these regions are predominantly Christian, some of the
cities are not in ARMM, including Cotabato City, Maguindanao, which is the
headquarters of the ARMM.
MNLF leaders joined then the government structures in Mindanao mainly in the
ARMM. MNLF Commander Nur Misuari even eventually became governor of
Mindanao before he got arrested in 2001 after leading a failed uprising. He is
facing charges for mishandling of funds, and is still in prison in Manila. 12.000
MNLF soldiers were demobilised, about 8.500 of them integrated in the Armed
Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police.
However the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that had split off in1984 from the
MNLF continued the fighting. Ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations with
the MILF broke down several times. The last two all-out wars happened in 2000
under President Estrada, and then again in February 2003, but already in March
2003 peace talks were resumed. In July, the government signed a new ceasefire
with MILF ahead of talks in Malaysia. These negotiations are under way, and are
supported by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC).
But violence in the South has been perpetrated by many more groups than MNLF
and MILF, including other armed non-state actors (Pentagon in Central Mindanao,
Abu Sayyaf, the South-East Asian Jemaah Islamiah etc.), Christian vigilante
organisations and criminal gangs (Kidnap for Ransom Groups) and official and
semi-official government agencies (human rights organisations have counted at
least 50 extrajudicial killings of drug offenders in the city of Davao). Family feuds
with an ethos of revenge are also an important issue especially in Muslim areas.
Abu Sayyaf has been accused of a close relationship with El Quaida, and the US
army has joined (officially in form of sending trainers and advisors) with the
Philippine military in fighting the guerrillas in Mindanao. The Philippines are
considered a close ally of President Bushs war against terror.

On 7 February 2005, a new armed conflict erupted in the area of the Sulu islands
(Western Mindanao) between MNLF and government troops
All together, between 400,000 and 1 million people have been internally displaced
(though most have returned by now) because of the conflicts, and 160,000 died
(40,000 in the North, 120,000 in the South).
Generally the armed confrontations have been since 2000 limited geographically
to certain areas. The picture of which group controls which area is rather
confusing, there are no larger territories in control of one or the other group
(unlike Sri Lanka where the LTTE governs its occupied areas, with clear boundaries
and checkpoints). There are no visible boundaries or checkpoints in Mindanao,
however, it seems that territorialism is strong insofar that either one or the other
of the two main Muslim armed groups are controlling certain areas, with little
overlap, in Central Mindanao. (This seems to be different in Zamboanga where
both MNLF and MILF could be present.)
Civilians are usually not targeted in the conflicts but evacuated before serious
fighting begins, and their camps are not attacked (although in Pikit in 2003 a
grenade hit by accident the roof of a gymnasium where IDPs stayed). A recent
study by the Notre Dame University about the involvement of children in the
conflict showed that there is child recruitment although neither numbers nor
patterns of such recruitment are really clear.
Although peace talks have often been interrupted between the Government of the
Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic National Front (MILF) with
some unresolved issues such as the ancestral domain, both parties are generally
committed to resolve all the outstanding issues through dialogue and peaceful
means. Although, the resignation of Chief Peace Panellist from GRP side created
further uncertain atmosphere with respect to the new round of peace talks. There
are growing concerns about the implementation of the 1996 Peace Agreement
between the GRP and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Civil society in
Mindanao is playing a highly commendable and constructive role on its part to not
let the ongoing peace process slip into disarray. The ray of hope is a well
organised and networked civil society that aims to end the cycle of violence and
believes that proactive action can build peace with justice.
The political rise of traditional feudal chieftains (Datus) in the last years in some
provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has
intermeshed clan conflicts (Rido) with the larger peace process between the GRP,
the MILF and the MNLF. Active and simmering Ridos ensure that there is a
socioeconomic basis to continuous warfare. Traditional warlords are also
significant vote-capturers with implications for national-level politicians. Local
Government Units (LGUs), which represent the feudal interests and derive power
from their control over paramilitaries (Civilian Volunteer Organisations (CVOs) and
Civilian Armed Forces of Geographical Units (CAFGUs)) are now important
stakeholders in the larger conflict. In the province of Sulu, the traditional feudal
chieftains are not as influential as in other parts of the ARMM. Here, LGUs are less
capable of projecting themselves as independent forces with their own vested
interests. Besides the mainstream MNLF, which is committed to a peaceful
resolution of the conflict, Sulu also has a number of so-called lawless/banned or
terrorist groups that have attracted a fairly large US military contingent to assist
operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
A ceasefire was announced between the AFP and armed elements of MNLF in the
Panamao area of Sulu province. The army captured the military camp of MNLF in
this area and the mini-war went on for nearly a month. It was halted through
political agreement between higher-ups of both sides, given the need to conduct

elections as well as other considerations. Small skirmishes continue in this area

because the army is still chasing some enemy combatants. Civil society
maintained continuous presence and advocated for early cessation of hostilities.
Thousands of civilians were displaced in this mini-war and many are yet to return
to their homes.
Although the ceasefire in Midsayap (North Cotabato) is holding in mid 2007, and
most of the IDPs have returned to their respective homes, fear of renewed
violence is widespread. The core issue (land dispute) has not yet been settled.
There is heavy presence of armed actors in their respective allocated areas.
Civilian grievances regarding protection have not been addressed and they
continue to be a cause of concern.
At the end of August 2007, the official peace processes (GRP-MILF & GRP-MNLF)
are lingering in a state of uncertainty and with extended delays in the resumption
of talks. They are also frequently subjected to challenge by outbreak of small-tomedium scale hostilities between the main parties to the conflict and their
proxies. For instance, the mini-war in Midsayap (North Cotabato Province) in
March 2007 and the intense two-week-long fighting in Panamao (Sulu Province) in
April 2007 destabilised the environment, threatened the safety of thousands of
civilians, and impaired the mobility of the local civil society. Although ceasefires
were arranged in both these conflict theatres, small skirmishes continue to
generate tension and fuel the agony of the communities.
Since late July 2007 the peace process in Mindanao between Government
Republic of Philippines (GRP) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is passing
through a turbulent and testing time after a fire fight on July 10, 2007 in Barangay
(lowest administrative unit) Guinanta, Al Barakah in Basilan involving the armed
forces of both parties that resulted in casualties on both sides. The decapitation of
the dead bodies of marines of Armed Forces of Philippines and a Muslim Imam
further aggravated the volatile situation. The high militarization of the whole area
caused much fear among the residents, local governmental officials, the ceasefire
mechanism structure and civil society organizations. It was feared that the
confrontation between the forces of both sides might led to a new outbreak of
violence not only in Basilan but which may also affect the cease-fire on the
mainlands of Mindanao.
A joint fact finding committee comprised of representatives from the GRP MILF
Coordination Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities and Bantay Ceasefire
produced a joint fact finding report and identified 10 Abu Sayyaf Group bandits
behind the mutilation of the dead bodies of marines. The report strongly endorsed
for the immediate establishment of Joint Assistance Monitoring Team (JMAT)
structure in Basilan to maintain ceasefire and further prevent the outbreak of
The proactive civil society organizations (CSOs) of Mindanao vehemently
condemned the July 10 Basilan incident and exerted joint efforts to save the
peace process. CSOs produced series of press statement urging both parties to
exercise maximum restraints and resolve Basilan crisis through dialogue and
other peaceful means. Nonviolent Peaceforce Philippines supported the efforts of
its partners in Mindanao by sending its Sulu team along with Communication
Officer and Project Director to Basilan for more than two weeks, and publishing
two statements written by them.
In the middle of August, GRP intensified its decalred war on terrorism in the island
of Sulu against Abu Sayyaf Group that resulted in huge displacement of civilians
and caused increased tension between AFP and MNLF troops on the ground, as
Sulu is the strong base of MNLF.

Elections dominated the political space for the last few months. They were
marked by several malpractices and were closely monitored by national and
international observers. Many provinces of Mindanao in which NP has plans of
working have been declared to have had failed elections. Re-elections in some
critical areas generated more polarisation of society and added fuel to existing
ridos (clan conflicts). Civil society leaders consider the elections to have had a
divisive impact on the overall peace process, instead of uniting the stakeholders.
Overall, the elections fortified the power of provincial feudal elites and raised the
possibilities of emergence of local third parties to the peace processes.
MNLF and GRP scheduled to resume tripartite talks with the OIC in Qatar in
July.but talks were postponed as Indonesian envoy was not ready and MNLF
insisted on to have Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as a venue for talks. The talks between
GRP and MILF were scheduled for after the elections, but mistrust arose with the
sudden resignation of the Chair of the GRP Peace Panel. During the Basilan crises,
talks were planned in Malaysia but in the last moment the Chairman of GRP Peace
panel backed out with a request to need more personal time to prepare for the
talks.Given the parallel peace processes covering the same territories between
MNLF and GRP on one hand and between MILF and GRP on the other, tensions are
also observable between the two Moro revolutionary outfits. Sometimes, these
tensions escalate into localised bouts of fighting that result in burning of houses
and displacement of villagers. Although MNLF and MILF have a Coordination
Committee to sort out differences and strengthen ties, its operational structure
has loopholes through which violence emanates.
The incidence of human rights violations by different armed parties remains a
major subject of concern for civil society actors, who are finding it difficult to come
up with a suitable response due to pressures, security risks, and lack of support
structures. Certain highly sensitive parts of Central and Western Mindanao are
inaccessible or off-limits for human rights defenders and legal counsels due to the
obstructions posed by various armed parties and lawless groups. Civilians and
communities that have undergone abuses are unable to share their grievances
with relevant sources of help because of fear of retribution and absence of active
human rights networks on the ground.
Sporadic bomb blasts and kidnappings are on the rise and often go unexplained
as to who the real perpetrators were. These incidents often happen in close
proximity to NP field offices and in their radius of work.