Very few people from the non-government and peacebuilding sector get to engage in peace discourses with soldiers, let alone build good relationships with them thereafter. I would like to think that I was one of the fortunate few. I believe that experience allowed me to share with the soldiers how the narratives of conflict in Mindanao are seen from our eyes, as well as get a glimpse of how soldiers see these same narratives from their eyes.
This experience started when I got the chance to enroll in the Fundamentals of Peacebuilding (FPB) course of the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) in the 2008 Annual Peacebuilding Training. At that time, I was attending as a staff of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), Inc. If memory serves me right, I was one of three or four from CBCS who attended that year.
For me, it was one of the high points of my journey as a student of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. MPI has always been considered as one of the premier training platforms for peace practitioners. What one learns from training with MPI, if applied properly, creates the potential for one to make a difference in his/her sphere of work and influence.
On the first day of the course, I was seated on the left side of the session hall. To my left, front, and right sat four lieutenant colonels from the 6th Infantry Division (Kampilan) of the Philippine Army. One was a deputy brigade commander, while others were battalion commanders of different units assigned in Maguindanao Province. Until this day, I do not know if the facilitators of the course, Ate Deng Giguiento and Jon Rudy, had pre-arranged the seat assignments or not. That daily proximity with these gentlemen from the military (and their proximity to this Moro peace advocate) triggered an exchange that resulted in us and others in this course and other MPI courses eventually making a difference, however little, during one event in Mindanao history.
It has been 13 years now, and I could not recall many parts of this episode in my life, but I can recall one of the first group activities of the FPB course that started my journey with these Army officers. We were all asked to write down and share our vision of peace for Mindanao. What I wrote as my peace vision was “that one day, the Filipino people and the Bangsamoro people would live in solidarity, justice, and prosperity in Mindanao.” The framing of the statement and the message embedded in it were intentional and the result of careful reflection. I used this vision of peace again in the course on Peace Advocacy a week later.
After posting our peace visions on the whiteboard in front, the facilitators read them one by one. If I could describe the reaction of my Army officer co-participants to my peace vision, it was somewhere between great surprise and shock. After that, we were asked to discuss our reactions to the visions of peace in small groups, and as it turned out, I was grouped with these same men.
Of course, they were very curious, waiting for me to explain to them what my vision of peace meant. Probably, the statement was dissonant from their own visions of peace. This dialogue between these Army officers and me continued during the whole time that we were together in MPI, particularly during mealtimes. Whenever some or all four of them would catch me in the mess hall, they would sit with me and continue from the last point of discussion of the long-running dialogue I had with them, frequently to the point of almost running late for the next session. That dialogue touched on such topics as the history of conflict in Mindanao, the Bangsamoro people’s aspiration for their right to self-determination, and the Government of the Philippines – Moro Islamic Liberation Front (GPH-MILF) peace process. But I was not the only one who engaged them in this discourse. I was accompanied by fellow co-staffers of CBCS and Kadtuntaya Foundation, Inc. (KFI), who did not all belong to the same class but were pulled into the mess hall dialogue throughout the training event.
In retrospect, it was not the intention of either side to convince the other of their point of view but was more a sharing of positions, which also touched lightly or strongly on personal values, as well as the norms of the institutions and the communities from which we came. By the end of MPI 2008, I would like to think that, over and above anything else, I and my CBCS and KFI officemates gained the friendship of these Army officers.
Fast track to the early weeks of the MOA-AD Crisis a few months later. Forced displacement was already in the hundreds of thousands and was rising fast. A lively discussion around the unfolding MOA-AD Crisis between Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) luminary Atty. Teng Ambolodto, the late Sammy Maulana, Secretary-General of CBCS, and me, led to a challenge from them that I invite one of the battalion commanders of the 602nd Brigade for an evening talk “to analyze” the ongoing armed conflict in the home of Attorney Ambolodto. So, I invited one of my classmates, Lt. Col. Gavin Edjawan, who was then the commander of the battalion whose military camp watched over Camp Abubakar. On the night of the meeting, he arrived with a full escort of his men. During that meeting, Col. Edjawan shared with us that his camp and his men had already withstood an attack from what they believed were Commander Ameril Umbra Cato’s forces. Commander Cato was then leading the attacks against military camps in Maguindanao, but Col. Edjawan had only ordered his men to defend the camp and respond in equal measure in defense.
He did not order his men to engage in pursuit after the attack had ended. He explained to us that it was not only his battalion taking this defensive stance, but also many of the field commands of the Kampilan Division, which were at that time commanded by Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, another MPI alumnus. He told us that it was not only because it was an order issued by his commanding general, but it was also because his experience in MPI had made him believe in the primacy of the peace process, along with others in his division. If this new manifestation of a protracted conflict could be concluded peacefully sooner than later, he did not need to unnecessarily exacerbate the situation then. If his camp would be attacked again, he and his men would shoot back in defense, but they would not pursue. However, he shared with us that it also takes two sides to end hostilities and make peace. He, therefore, asked us if it was possible to help convey to the MILF Central Committee (CenCom) and through different channels the assurance that they would continue to take this defensive posture. They would deeply appreciate it if the CenCom could somehow prevent Commander Cato’s forces from launching any more attacks on their military camps.
In the weeks following this meeting, it was not only the MPI alumni from CBCS and KFI who were trying to convey this message to the MILF CenCom through several channels, but also other peacebuilding organizations and movements that had direct communication lines to both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and MILF leadership. Some of these individuals were our mentors, pillars of Mindanao peace work, who in one way or another had been part of MPI’s journey from the start.
At this time, a peace caravan was organized by several organizations. The caravan would travel from Davao City to Cotabato City and make a courtesy call to General Ferrer in the Kampilan Division Headquarters in Barangay2 Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao. The purpose of the caravan was to appeal for military restraint, despite the attacks led by commanders of the MILF Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) in their Area of Responsibility in the name of innocent civilians who were already being forcibly displaced in growing numbers.
MPI founding member Guiamel Alim, Chairperson of the Council of Elders of CBCS, advised me and fellow CBCS staffers and MPI 2008 alumna Hanan Masdoc to join the caravan to Kampilan Headquarters and represent CBCS in the subsequent dialogue meeting. That dialogue meeting was also attended by all the commanding officers of the major units of the 6th Infantry Division. As stragglers to the peace caravan, Hanan and I sat at the back of the large group of fellow peacebuilders. After the presentation of the formal appeals from representatives of the peace caravan, Gen. Ferrer deferred his right to respond in favor of some of his commanding officers. The first one to give his response was another classmate from the same MPI course, Lt. Col Cesar Sedillo, then the deputy brigade commander of the 602nd Infantry Brigade and the commander of Task Force Kutawato. He affirmed that he too believed in the primacy of the peace process. He admitted that he previously did not carry this belief, but after attending MPI, his position and point of view changed “180 degrees.” Then, to my shock, he pointed to me and Hanan as the persons from MPI who were responsible for “converting” him to believing in the primacy of the peace process. Both Hanan and I ducked from view as all eyes turned to us. It was not our intent to be recognized for something we did as a matter of personal advocacy, specifically at a time when hundreds of thousands of civilians had been forcibly displaced. After the MOA-AD Crisis, the Norwegian Refugee Council labeled it as the largest internal displacement of that period.
Almost two years after the MOA-AD Crisis, I was a few months away from leaving CBCS to search for new learnings and opportunities in the field of peacebuilding and development work. Several MPI alumni were gathered to join the “Tajiyah” (three-day post burial commemoration) of Ate Nonitz Alim, wife of our boss, Kaka Guiamel. Over a cup of hot native coffee, our small talk led us—among several other topics—to the peace work we did together during the height of the MOA-AD Crisis. One colleague concluded that had the peacebuilding community and the MPI alums not taken the informal role of conveying messages through various channels between the MILF leadership and the 6th Infantry Division leadership, the forced displacement count might not have just been over 800,000, but probably even higher.
This thought made us contemplate that, big or small, one’s contributions to peace work reinforce that done by others. Big or small, what matters is that we try to make a difference in alleviating the suffering of those in need or mitigating the suffering of those in distress. More importantly, regardless of what side you are a part of, if you aspire for peace, the position or action you take in its favor reinforces the same actions done on the other side towards its attainment.
Tommy Pangcoga (2008 and 2019 Annual Peacebuilding Training) is currently the Country Director of Equal Access International - Philippines. Prior to that, he was the organization's MERL Manager. He has worked with UNHCR, UNICEF, Cordaid, Oxfam, Save the Children, Plan International, Childfund, and Catholic Relief Services.
1 Armed conflict triggered by the nullification by the Philippine Supreme Court of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) signed between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
2 A barangay is a small administrative division in the Philippines, equivalent to a neighborhood or village.