(Speech delivered by Fr. Bert Layson, OMI in Malaca�ang Palace, Mainla, in October 25, 2006. Father Layson was among 17 members of the Mindanao Grassroots Lobby Mission in Manila. There, they met with Malaca�ang and embassy officials, legislators, and the press.)
The reason why this delegation is here on a mission is because we are again worried. We are worried because of the �impasse� or �breakdown�, as the MILF says, of the GRP-MILF Peace Talks. The problem is real and we believe that if the impasse or breakdown is not addressed in the shortest time possible, the situation on the ground could get out of control.
The all-out-war policy of the Erap administration in 2000 brought havoc and untold suffering to 800,000 civilians in Central Mindanao. When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over the presidency, she shifted from the all-out-war policy of her predecessor to an all-out peace policy. We welcomed her administration�s choice of diplomacy in resolving the conflict in Mindanao through the negotiating table over the military solution.
This did not, however, last. In February 2003, another war broke out particularly in the Buliok complex in Pikit, Cotabato. We were not prepared then nor did we expect that war to happen. For many months we agonized to see the suffering of 350,000 civilians in various evacuation centers even as we felt betrayed by both the government and the MILF for not being able to prevent that war.
In April of 2003, a delegation of evacuees came here to Manila and met decision makers in Malaca�ang, the legislature and the defense department. The delegation made a passionate appeal to the authorities to put a stop to the suffering of civilians by declaring a ceasefire in Central Mindanao. However late, the government declared a ceasefire in July of that same year.
We in Central Mindanao cannot afford to have another war. That is why we are here. Some of us in the delegation were the same people who came here in 2003. Many of us took pains in rebuilding our communities from the physical, economic, social psychological and emotional destructions left by the war. We came here to bring the message to our brothers and sisters here in Manila that we have had enough and we don�t want any outbreak of hostilities to happen again in our land. Another war is just too much for us to bear, children and adult alike.
For all you know, we, civilians in conflict-affected communities, suddenly found hope after the resumption of the Peace Talks in the aftermath of the Buliok incident in 2003. With the generosity of Malaysia hosting and acting as the third party facilitator, the Peace Talks went on smoothly achieving almost 80% of the controversial issues. We witnessed the dramatic decrease on the ceasefire violations from 500 to almost zero in some months in the span of three years due to the hard work and dedication of the International Monitoring Team, the Joint Ceasefire Committee, the Local Monitoring Teams and the active participation of the Bantay Ceasefire and other civilian volunteers in monitoring the ceasefire agreement. We also saw how the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group or AHJAG worked together in their joint effort to curb criminal activities such as kidnappings.
Suddenly, people�s faith in the Peace Process was restored, something that was difficult to expect from people who have experienced armed conflicts every three years in the midst of Peace Talks as in the case of Pikit and the neighboring towns from which many of us come. Many conflict-affected communities have taken the difficult path to peace by declaring their villages as zones of peace, sanctuaries of peace and spaces for peace with the support of the military and the MILF.
In these villages, former evacuees are beginning to enjoy relative peace and development with the assistance coming from the government and international communities. In mixed communities, the local inhabitants have learned to live together in harmony, accepting each other not just as neighbors but as brothers and sisters. These communities continue to expand in Central Mindanao. We found out that if violence escalates, peace also escalates. In the midst of the rubbles of war, hope was finally born.
These are some of the gains that the Peace Process has achieved in the last three years. They are too real to be ignored. To my mind, these gains should be preserved by all means. That is why we would like to appeal to both the government and the MILF not to give up. Listen to the cries and longings of the ordinary civilians who would suffer the most in the event that another war will break out as a result of this �impasse� or �breakdown�. No, not again.
We appeal to the government to exercise a strong political will and imagination to break what you called the �impasse� in the negotiation. As a state, the government has the moral high ground to do everything possible to solve the problem in the Mindanao in the most peaceful way. Prolonging the �impasse� prolongs also the agony of ordinary civilians and allows other actors oppose to the peace process to take advantage of the situation. We also appeal to the MILF to be more patient and understanding in solving what you called the �breakdown� in the negotiation.
To both, we say this. If you were able to hurdle the difficult process of negotiation and achieved 80% of the contentious issues, we find no reason why you cannot make it to the finishing line by resolving the remaining 20% in the same negotiating table. We are quite certain that if you choose to solve the remaining 20% in the battlefields, it will not only destroy lives but it will also shatter the dream of every Mindanawon. We are already on our way to Peace; please do not anymore make a detour. To do so would be a great price to pay.
Lastly, we also appeal to our brothers and sisters here in Manila to help us in whatever way you can to bring this message of our people to the concerned authorities. Already, our brother and sister Muslims have gathered at the Cotabato plaza a week ago to pray for peace in Mindanao as part of their Ramadhan celebration. Our churches have also intensified their prayer for peace in our land.
The moment we landed at the airport here in Manila, we already received a lot of text messages coming from the communities we represent. Some came from our civilian ceasefire volunteers and from members of the civil society organizations. They were asking us how our mission was going even if they knew that we just arrived. I guess they were just too worried and they could not wait for a day to hear any good news from us.
We hope and pray that God will listen to our plea and touch the hearts of those who change the situation for the better.
(Father Bert Layson, OMI is the Chair of the Committee on Muslim-Christian Relations & Inter-faith Dialogue of the OMI Philippine Province. He received the Pax Christi International Award in 2002 and the Ninoy Aquino Fellowship for Public Service in 2004.)