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Brokering Peace to Resolve Conflicts: Part I

Date: April 3, 2024

By Aldrin Norio and Denise Cadorniga

Right before the onset of Ramadan, over 250 displaced families turned to Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) and community partners to broker peace between fighting groups and for support in facilitating their safe return back to their community.

Forced to Flee

On 15 September 2022, three members of the Philippine Army were ambushed by a violent group, led by Abbas Jangkatan, and associated with Abu Sayyaf.

A week after the attack, the Army began searching for Abbas and his group. Abbas’ group continued to flee with the rifles in hand that they had taken from the soldier they’d killed and chose a little community of Bato Mapoteh in the city of Tipo-Tipo as their hideout. This violent pursuit continued for more than six months and occasionally included other armed groups drawn into the violence.

During this time, family after family in Batu-Mapoteh was forced from their homes. In total, around 250 families left their homes, unprepared, and fled. Without evacuation centers to go to, most of them stayed with their families and relatives in nearby villages and towns.

As the women and elderly evacuated their neighborhood, they shared, "Because of too much fear, we ran in different directions without carrying anything, some went to the mountain."

"Sa sobrang takot namin, kung saan saan na kami tumakbo na walang dalang gamit, ang iba pumunta ng bundok."

Sought to Intervene

NP has been present in the area since 2007 as a long-time partner of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in their peace process. Having built deep trust with both sides of the conflict, NP monitors civilian protection issues and builds peace side-by-side with local communities using unarmed strategies. Today, MILF leaders, with Army soldiers, and NP’s support, monitor the ceasefire that keeps peace in place among them. And they respond to needs and tensions arising in the community to ensure a broader peace endures.

As the months dragged on displaced families from the Abbas group-Army conflict began reaching out to NP and MILF leaders and asked for assistance to return to their home, especially with the approach of Ramadan. In a bold and crucial mission, MILF leaders, with NP, embarked on a series of shuttle diplomacy actions to engage with the Abbas group and the Philippine Army to end the ongoing violence stemming from that September.

First, the negotiating team conveyed the plight of the displaced families and their desire to return home to the local government unit (LGU) of Tipo-Tipo through Vice Mayor Ingaton Istarul and to the Philippine Army. Then, in a rare opportunity, the Abbas group passed on a message to the MILF leaders notifying their willingness to return to normal life and their wish to have a dialogue with the LGU and the Army. 

"The LGU cannot guarantee the safety of the returning civilians considering the Abbas group is still armed and roaming around barangay Baguindan," stressed the Vice Mayor.

"Hindi masisigurado ng LGU ang kaligtasan ng mga pabalik na sibilyan kung ang grupo ni Abbas ay may armas pa at malaya silang gumagala sa barangay Baguindan."

While meeting with the Abbas group, the negotiating team – consisting of MILF leaders and NP staff - documented the group’s demands:

  1. There shall be no mention or talk of surrender
  2. The group shall not surrender their firearms
  3. They are willing to be under the supervision of the MILF in the area and they guarantee of not doing any illegal and unlawful acts or atrocities
  4. The Army detachment situated in the community of Bato Mapoteh shall withdraw
  5. They shall be allowed to return in the community along with the civilians
  6. The peace dialogue shall be conducted with the LGU and the Army

The negotiating team then relayed these demands from the Abbas group to the Vice Mayor and the Army, who then created their own counter positions: 

  1. There shall be no mention of surrender but the Abbas group shall undergo the Custodial Debriefing Report as part of the small arms and light weapons programme of the provincial government
  2. The Abbas group shall keep their firearms after stenciling or documentation
  3. The Army shall move out Bato Mapoteh and return to their original detachment position 
  4. The Joint Peace and Security Team shall replace the Army detachment in Bato Mapoteh until the situation is fully normalized
  5. The group led by Abbas shall be under the jurisdiction of an MILF commander in Baguindan for supervision and accountability
  6. As gesture of sincerity, the Abbas group shall return the firearms taken from the ambushed members of the Army in Al-Barka

Over the next several days the negotiating team shuttled back and forth between the Abbas group, the Vice Mayor, and the Philippine Army until a consensus was reached on a set of agreements for peace.

Long-awaited and crucial peace accord

On 22 March 2023, a peace dialogue was finally held in the city gym of Tipo-Tipo. All parties to the conflict and the negotiating teams were present. Displaced families were there as well. NP, being the independent and non-partisan party, co-facilitated the peace dialogue and presented the conditions of the agreement to Abbas group and stakeholders from the government side. 

At one point a confusion over one of the points of the agreement had tensions running high. Participants worried of a gunfight right there in the crowded, enclosed gym. But NP, with the whole negotiating team, were able to rapidly respond to the tension and use the trust they had built with the Abbas group and the Army to clarify the agreement and, ultimately, ensure the agreement was signed by all. 

After the agreement was finalized, NP participated in the efforts to accompany returnees back to their homes. Civilians were provided with relief packs by the Vice Mayor, the Ministry of Social Services, and the Development of the regional Bangsamoro government. Families were able to observe Ramadan with their families, safe in their homes, just as they’d wished for.   

* * *

This initiative is part of the conflict resolution initiatives under the EU-funded ATTAIN Project or Accompanying the Transition, Transformation of Conflict, and Advocacy on Social Cohesion in the normalization of Bangsamoro currently being implemented in BARMM, Regions 9, 10 and 12 to complement the civilian protection component of confidence-building and security measures under the normalization and opportunity to broaden the practice of unarmed strategies in conflict transformation and social cohesion to a wider geographical scope in Mindanao.

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