Cong. Christopher Belmonte of Quezon City District VI (4th from right) poses with students from Culiat High School during a caravan calling for peace in Mindanao. Posted by Bureau of Public Information - ARMM on Monday, 16 March 2015

In Muslim Mindanao – and all over the Philippines – people rejoiced at the prospect of peace with the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law last year. The law is intended to provide for the establishment of a distinct political entity to satisfy the demands of those who wish for an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Mindanao area of the Philippines.

However, fears were raised after what has become known as the Mamasapano clash in January.

A secret operation called Oplan Exodus was launched by the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Filipino police to capture Zulkifli Abdhir. Also known as Marwan, he was on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Marwan was in the territory controlled by the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) group, which had been in the middle of peace negotiations. However, the SAF began its operation without informing the MILF, as stipulated in the agreement between the Government and the MILF.

The SAF and MILF never intended to engage in conflict
The SAF and MILF never intended to engage in conflict. The SAF intended to serve a warrant of arrest for Marwan. The unplanned result was armed violence and the killing of 44 SAF personnel, 18 MILF forces, five Bangsa Moro Freedom Fighters rebels, five civilians, and Marwan himself.

There is a backlash taking place against the prospects for a peace deal as a result of these deaths. The predominantly Christian population of the Philippines has described the 44 commandos as fallen heroes. At the same time, many civil society organisations have cautioned against automatically blaming the MILF for what happened.

The public clamour for transparency resulted in separate Senate and MILF Reports on the Mamasapano clash. Fingers are now being pointed in different directions as to who was responsible for what is being described as a ‘misencounter’ between the government and rebel forces. Some have reported US funding for the operation.

Clamouring for peace: activists and archbishops join forces to reject violence

At the grassroots level, civil society organisations are continuing to call for the reinvigoration of the peace process between the Philippines government and the MILF. The Lanao Peace Partnership and its partner organisations have said that there must be a comprehensive peace agreement between the government and the rebel group.

An SAF officer involved in the Mamasapano operation has anonymously posted an online petition calling for the every effort to be made in pursuing the peace process in Mindanao.

The “true face of war is not that dead soldier or rebel on the battlefield. It is a mother fleeing home with a cartload of offspring, amid sounds of gunfire,” he said. At the time of writing, the petition has over 6,500 signatures.

Hundreds of advocates walked barefoot to show their support for a peaceful resolution
In February, hundreds of peace advocates walked barefoot for an hour in the Autonomous Region of Mindanao to drumbeat their desire for a peaceful resolution of the fallout of the Mamasapano clash.

And in March, the Mindanao region itself organised a peace caravan in the capital, Manila. More than a million people have signed another petition supporting the peace process in Mindanao.

In a show of support, a huge variety of people joined: students and faculty from different universities, politicians, employees of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, and members of the public.

In Cotabato City, peace organisations held another caravan and peace rally only last week, to celebrate a year after the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

Leading the Mindanao-based Friends of Peace, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo has invited representatives of peace organisations to meet on April 6, 2015. They will discuss the problems with the peace process, including issues related to the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and different ways forward.

At the same time, President Begnino Aquino has named several Manila-based activists, including the Archbishop of Manila, Antonio Cardinal Tagle, to lead a National Peace Summit to discuss the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

With all the clamour for peace, the Filipino people will hope that their calls for a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict in Mindanao fall not on deaf ears, but on the reasonable minds of the legislators.

[more_info_box]Background: Peace Direct will soon be launching a new section on the Philippines. Please check back for updates and profiles of local peacebuilding efforts in the country.