Peacebuilding does not stop for the pandemic

Peacebuilding does not stop for the pandemic

Like everyone else in the Philippines, I spent a good proportion of 2020 at home, committed to keeping everyone safe from the virus but also keen to get out of the house. After traveling throughout the country extensively during 2019, the thing I missed the most was the chance to speak to people about their lives and their work – there’s only so much communicating you can do over Zoom.

It wasn’t until February this year that I was finally able to board a plane again – and I went straight back to Mindanao, where the ravages of the pandemic have not stopped people from working to bring peace and stability to the region.

My first trip back was to Zamboanga and then to the island of Sulu, a place where few outsiders go; a place that has a reputation for being as beautiful as it is dangerous. We traveled at the invitation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which are interested in repeating a successful reintegration program Australia supports in Basilan for former Abu Sayyaf Group members who have surrendered. I visited Basilan in 2019, meeting many of the people participating in the program. It was a thrilling, positive visit – even driving rain couldn’t dampen the participants’ enthusiasm.

The surrenderees we met in Sulu reminded me that there is a long way to go before peace is found across the islands. The small group of men I spoke to were still angry about their lives – they are poor and their circumstances had been dangerous. None of them had joined ASG out of a dedication to jihad – it was about security for themselves and their families. While they had agreed to lay down their weapons, they were yet to see any of the benefits of peace, unlike the men in Basilan.

But now is a time of opportunity for Sulu, as terrorist activity is down. Despite the terrible loss of life in the July C-130 plane crash, the AFP has made great strides in tackling the terrorist threat in Sulu. The pandemic has seen greater engagement of local and provincial government officials with the national government and military, and renewed discussions on managing ASG, getting loose firearms out of the community and improving the day-to-day lives of the people. Hopefully one day the former ASG members I met will also be able to live their lives as productive members of society free from conflict.

A few months later, in May, I traveled to Cotabato City, in the heart of the BARMM, with UNDP. There, of course, conversation was dominated by the peace process and, in particular, Normalization (a term that refers to the transformation of Moro Islamic Liberation Front combatants and their communities in mainstream society. It includes demobilization, the putting beyond use of weapons, education and training and transitional justice).

Like everything else, Normalization has been slowed down by the pandemic, which has made implementing the peace process more difficult for everyone. Still, it was heartening to meet the people who have not let lockdowns, curfews or social distancing prevent them from working together for peace in the region. With the establishment earlier this year of the Bangsamoro Normalization Trust Fund, which will guide the transformation of the six acknowledged MILF camps, I hope we’ll see this commitment to peace capitalized upon soon. Australia is proud to have been the first country to donate to the BNTF, which we see as a continuation of our long support for its predecessor, the Mindanao Trust Fund.

Finally, in early August, I made it back to Marawi, my fourth visit to the city, but almost two years since I had last been there. What can one say about the residents of this city, except that their resilience and patience in the face of disaster is truly impressive? Even as terrorist groups try to target vulnerable young men in the area, the community has fought back, working to retain its strength and self-worth, rejecting the vision of violence offered by the people who destroyed their homes.

This is the work Australia supports in Mindanao: Helping ordinary Filipinos who are striving to make their lives, the lives of their neighbors and the lives of the whole country, better. Not even a pandemic could stop the work of peace. As we celebrate Peace Month in the Philippines, I hope we are now entering a better time, for everyone, but particularly for the people of Mindanao.

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Steven J. Robinson AO is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter @AusAmbPH.

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