Today, as the 32nd Round of Exploratory Talks between the Negotiating Panels of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) begin in Kuala Lumpur, we at the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), our partners and networks, find time to pause and consider what it has taken for us all to reach this threshold, having peace so tantalizingly within our collective grasp.
Many had said at the start of the GPH-MILF peace talks some fifteen (15) years ago, that there was little chance of achieving even a semblance of open lines of communications, much less substantive and gainful negotiations between the GPH and the MILF. The wounds of conflict were too fresh and the issues faced were too far opposite to be bridged substantively. Suspicion towards each other was the common sentiment of the day. Oppositionists to peace were firmly lodged within the ranks of both protagonists, raising concerns about unity on pronouncements, about fidelity to commitments and ultimately about trust to work together. In threshing out a solution to the conflict in Mindanao, the baser notion of victor over vanquished, of gains and losses, of wins and defeats oftentimes prevailed in the mind-set of many, manifesting in intermittent and oftentimes violent clashes that flamed out, book-ended by drawn-out periods of isolation and neglect. Yet even in these dire times, Mindanao continued to crave a future blessed with peace.
Now, as the tides have markedly shifted to that end, as all major issues have been laid on the table and both panels willingly admit to substantial gains being tallied point by point, more of us begin to appreciate the efforts of those who stayed the course of peace. These were the visionaries from both sides, who saw the true potential of a peaceful Mindanao moving forward, who understood the value of principled, strategic and sustainable gains over costly battles, who believed in building lasting mechanisms rather than piecemeal solutions. But if we were to borrow the words of the martyred poet Eman Lacaba, it were the millions of “nameless, faceless,” denizens of Mindanao – from the ranks of the Bangsamoro, settlers and indigenous peoples—who did not give up on peace, who inspired, checked and balanced their principals in the peace panels; who despite being mostly the victims of the conflict, stayed the course. We have cause to rejoice at this point where commonalities and agreement are now the rule rather than the exception in these talks. It has taken this long and much sacrifice from all sides to reach this stage, it is now time for us all to help complete the process, a time to end the war and begin the peace.
We now encourage both parties to continue moving resolutely forward in their final steps towards the prize of peace. To this end, we lend our united support in ending the conflict that has wracked Mindanao for decades. Yet, while we can hopefully say peace is close at hand, let us also remind ourselves that the way forward still remains challenging and arduous. While the framework for peace is being hammered out today, the finer details that will fill it out remains our collective work in progress. We already foresee contested points that will arise, as there will surely be dissatisfied and disgruntled parties willing to point out such flaws to seed discord. Both panels have acknowledged that any agreement is expected to be imperfect. It is a challenge to us in civil society and the public at large to not take such imperfections as a weakness but rather as an opportunity. For it is in participating in and detailing the peace that we begin to realize part of what we have been missing for so long, a chance for all people to be heard, to participate and to feed into lively public discourse and debate as part of our rightful democratic space, no longer silenced by guns nor muffled by fear. This is the vision and opportunity opening up before us as we move towards a new dawn in Mindanao. By staying and supporting this course, we now approach our best chance at silencing the guns and celebrating peace. Let us continue our march forward, let us end this war and reach for peace.
And let us begin to let Mindanao flourish and become indeed a promised land.