Advocacy Update
on the present situation in the Philippines

The continuing hostage crisis in Southern Mindanao in the Republic of the Philippines has drawn attention once again to the failure of peace negotiations undertaken by the Government of the Philippines, especially under former President Fidel Ramos, but essentially abandoned by the present government. The World Council of Churches, like all others around the world, prays for the early release of hostages and is grateful to those who have undertaken to find a negotiated solution to the crisis, which will save these precious lives.

The release of the hostages, however, will not resolve the underlying problems. This International Affairs, Peace & Human Security Advocacy Update seeks to provide essential background and to stimulate advocacy actions to encourage the retaking of stalled negotiations, especially now with the representatives of the predominantly Muslim Moro population in Mindanao.

The World Council of Churches has been following the present situation very closely since its General Secretary, Dr. Konrad Raiser, paid his first visit to Philippines, including Mindanao, in early March this year. There he met many political leaders, including the Legal Counselor of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who briefed him on the present status of the peace negotiations that were initiated by the government of President Fidel Ramos in 1996. He was informed of the Philippine government’s pressure to finalize negotiations by the end of June this year. In the event of failure to reach an agreement the government was threatening to take military action. From these conversations Raiser concluded that while MILF remains committed to a peaceful, negotiated settlement, its ultimate political objective is self-rule. The negotiating deadline set unilaterally by the Government of the Philippines was unrealistic, yet its Armed Forces had already stepped up their military campaign and was arming vigilante groups and civil defense committees.

WCC Involvement

The World Council of Churches has a long history of involvement with the struggle of the Philippine people for justice, peace and democracy. Throughout the period of military dictatorship of the late President Ferdinand Marcos the Council accompanied the Churches and the people of the Philippines in their struggles for human rights. From September 1972 to January 1981, the Philippines was under martial law. This was the darkest period in the country’s history. Under wide-ranging emergency powers Marcos authorized thousands of political arrests and law some 70,000 people were detained. Church leaders, human right activists, students, teachers, peasants and workers were unlawfully detained and tortured. Some lost their lives. Hundreds of people were extra-judicially executed and hundred others disappeared under police or military custody. The government waged an unrelenting war against the New Peoples Army (NPA), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other armed groups. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in predominantly Muslim areas of Mindanao. Unofficial paramilitary forces and vigilantes armed by the security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations. Tens of thousands were forced to leave their homes due to widespread destruction from bombings and military operations in the Cordillera region and Mindanao.

In support of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the WCC was instrumental in organizing massive international ecumenical solidarity with the churches and church-related human rights and peace organizations. It also brought the case of massive human rights violations in the Philippines to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, drawing international attention for the first time in an international forum to the dramatic situation prevailing in that country. These solidarity efforts were instrumental in strengthening the people’s struggles for an end to military rule and a transition to a form of democracy dedicated to the protection of human rights and a negotiated peace.

Recent political developments

After the "Velvet Revolution" which overthrew the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, there was a period of relative calm under the democratic governments of Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. Tensions continued to prevail however as the underlying causes of the conflict remained unresolved. The situation has changed dramatically since April 30th, however, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) moved against Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF -- a splinter group of the MNLF) positions along the Narciso Ramos Highway. This highway remains closed to all traffic as the AFP tries to wrench control from the MILF. Large numbers of people have been displaced again, particularly in Mantanog, Buldon and Barrira, as the fighting has intensified. The city of Cotabato has been closed to air traffic and military escort is needed to transit the highway to Davao City. Heavy casualties have been inflicted on the civilian population caught in the crossfire.

The situation in southern Philippines has deteriorated mainly due to the hard-line position adopted by President Joseph Estrada and his Secretary of Defense, Orlando Mercado, who hold that peace can to be negotiated only on their terms. The government doubts the sincerity of MILF and views its unilateral declaration of cessation of hostilities as a pretext to gain time, regroup and replenish its war supplies. The situation is further complicated because government officials have erred in associating another radical splinter group, "Abu Sayaaf", with the MILF. "Abu Sayaaf" is known to pursue a criminal agenda, and has repeatedly taken children, teachers and foreigners as hostages. Unlike the "Abu Sayaaf" group, the MILF has over the years has engaged in armed struggled for justice for the Moro people particularly with respect to land rights. It has called for recognition of the Moros’ right to practice their own religion and culture. Former President Fidel Ramos was not only aware of the strength of MILF, but also of the validity of its demands and the support it enjoyed among the Moro people. He therefore sought to enter good-faith negotiations with them. As an experienced military leader Ramos knew that if the Moro situation was mishandled it could plunge the entire island into a political quagmire. The present government’s use of force against MILF risks destroying whatever gains were made during the peace talks with the Moros. The all-out war advocated by some officials of the Estrada government would be disastrous not only for Mindanao but also for the entire country which is presently faced with a serious economic crisis.

Recommended actions

Given the predominantly Islamic religious composition of the island’s people, President Estrada’s government should be careful not to allow the political conflict in Mindanao to disintegrate into yet another Christian-Muslim confrontation in the Southeast Asian region. The government needs to exercise restraint and pursue the peace agenda. It should take advantage of the opening provided by the MILF’s unilateral declaration of cessation of hostilities.

The World Council of Churches unequivocally supports the statement of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP) denouncing the inhuman acts perpetrated by the "Abu Sayaaf" group, and calling on the parties to cease hostilities and return to the negotiating table. The WCC is convinced that the exercise of military options cannot end the conflict in Mindanao. The government and the MILF together need to address the fundamental grievances of the Moro people and this can only be done through a constructive dialogue.

Churches and ecumenical partners should offer their support to the NCCP in its peacemaking efforts, seek to inform public opinion about the underlying causes of the present crisis, and advocate with their own governments to press upon the Government of the Philippines the need to engaged in honest and determined negotiations for peace.

Geneva, 17 May 2000

International Affairs, Peace & Human Security
World Council of Churches

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