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On Mindanao, Protecting Civilians in a Conflict Zone With Eyes and Notepad

December 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Its lush, verdant fields act as food supplier for the Philippines, but Mindanao is also a tense, highly militarized place. Tens of thousands of residents have been forced to flee their homes for squalid camps. In our Agents for Change series, Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on a group of peacekeepers holding the fragile cease-fire.

GWEN IFILL:  Next: protecting civilians in a conflict zone with eyes and a notepad. 

The island of Mindanao in the Philippines, hit hard by a typhoon earlier this month, has seen separatist conflict for decades.  Even though the government and rebel forces signed a peace treaty in October, sectarian tensions run high. 

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro takes a look at one unarmed group trying to keep the peace on the island as part of our series Agents for Change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Mindanao remains one of the most militarized places in the world, with frequent outbreaks of violence. 

The 6-year-old child in this picture was caught in a crossfire, one of the latest victims of a decades-old civil war on Mindanao.  Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced from their homes into dilapidated camps. 

MAN:  Many families are still in Luanan? 

MAN (through translator):  There are still 104 families staying here.  We go to our farms during the day, but come back here at night. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Surveying conditions in these camps is an individual group of civilians called Nonviolent Peaceforce.  They register and relay these concerns to representatives of both sides of the conflict, holding each to the fragile cease-fire earlier and now to the peace treaty. 

MAN:  What did you hear?  

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  They provide no material aid, just accountability on all sides for the plight of civilians, says co-founder Mel Duncan.  He was in Mindanao during our visit.

MEL DUNCAN, Co-Founder, Nonviolent Peaceforce:  There are many organizations that do medical care and food provision, never enough.  But I — what is new here is civilians protecting civilians, and that’s where we can make our greatest contribution, because the vast majority of casualties in war today are civilians. 

MAN:  The military has set up a camp.  Does that still not give you enough confidence to — to be staying there at night? 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: “No,” the reply came from Abdul Manan Ali.  Armed groups continue to pose a threat, so people feel safer in the crowded camp refuge at night.

MAN:  I think families are still insecure about the situation. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  A few minutes later, the monitors were relaying the citizens’ concerns to the Philippine military, which is in charge of security in this region. 

LT. COL. BENJAMIN HAO, Philippine Army:  Some of the members of community are suggesting to bring my platoons nearer.  I have no problem with that.  The problem is bringing military into the community might cause another problem, so we have to study this some more.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Nonviolent Peaceforce’s annual budget of $7.5 million comes from the U.N. and the governments from several developed nations, though not the U.S., also from private donations. 

The group worked in Sri Lanka during its civil war and now also serves in South Sedan and breakaway regions in Georgia.  Monitors are paid about 1,500 U.S. dollars a month, plus living expenses.  In total, the group claims, their costs are about half

Their challenges in Mindanao have been daunting.  When this island became part of a newly independent Philippines in 1946, Muslims, or Moros, were a majority here, and they resisted, demanding a separate state. 

Over time, Christian settlers moved in.  They now outnumber Muslims 3-1.  Today, the leading insurgent group no longer seeks independence, but more autonomy from Manila. 

Rashid Ladiasan is the secretary of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

Do you consider yourself Filipino? 

RASHID LADIASAN, Secretary, Moro Islamic Liberation Front:  No, no.  By citizenship, yes, by nationality, no.  I am a Moro by nationality.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Journalist Glenda Gloria, who wrote a book about the Mindanao conflict, says it is as much about economic inequality as religion.  She traces much of today’s problems back to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1965 to 1986. 

GLENDA GLORIA, Author:  The Marcos government institute a lot of government policies that suppressed the minority Muslims, that took them away from the economic and political fight.  And after that, the abusive military really violated human rights, just ran after these rebels who wanted to separate from the republic at that point. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  That sowed the seeds for radicalization among some rebel fighters, she says.  By the 1990s, a regional al-Qaida affiliate called Abu Sayyaf began to thrive. 

GLENDA GLORIA:  In Philippines future, inter-religion, for all sorts of things, namely to even help you understand why you’re oppressed. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Is Abu Sayyaf growing? 

MAN:  As far as we’re concerned, it’s not growing.  They’re still confined.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Army Major Carlos Sole says Abu Sayyaf has largely been contained as a military threat, in part helped by U.S. advisers who remain in the region. 

MAN:  That’s one of the success of our government security forces in that portion of Mindanao.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Philippine officials also note that the peace treaty gives the Moro more autonomy and control over resources.  But factions on either side remain unhappy with the peace process, and there are frequent localized clashes, and trust continues to be in short supply. 

That’s a void both the military and the main rebel group, the MILF, say foreign civilians can fill effectively. 

RASHID LADIASAN:  Only an armed civilian protection monitors would be effective, because our people have been traumatized.  If they only see government and MILF working in civilian protection, there is no impartiality. 

MAJ. CARLOS SOL, Philippine Army:  Since they are foreigners, the perception could be they are neutral compared to local organizations that are involved in the Peaceforces.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Regardless of their faith?

MAJ. CARLOS SOL:  Regardless of their faith.  I think — and the Nonviolent Peaceforce is a mixture of Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  The unarmed peacekeepers also come for the long haul.  Raghu Menon, trained as a lawyer in India, joined the group two years ago.  He says the relationship with locals makes a big difference. 

RAGHU MENON, Monitor:  As you can see, there are no fences, no guards outside our office, in spite of the fact that Pikit, where we are based, is considered to be a dangerous place by most Filipinos.  But because we are living in a community which supports our work, which understands our work, I think we draw a lot of our security from that.   

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Nonviolent Peaceforce is based in Belgium.  Co-founder Duncan says his earliest inkling that the concept might work came in the ’80s.  The Iowa native was living in Nicaragua, where he had gone as a peace activist during that country’s civil war.

MEL DUNCAN:  And what we found over a seven-year period was none of those villages were ever attacked when there was an international presence.  This was at a period of a war where 50,000 people were being killed. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Refining and putting the idea into practice took years of studying similar attempts, he says, including an ill-fated one during Bosnia’s civil war. 

MEL DUNCAN:  People, primarily from Europe, had been recruited, many of them not trained.  And they came into a situation where they in fact drew artillery, and drew artillery into the areas where they were trying to protect.  And they made a lot of problems in terms of having to be taken out. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  Now, long before they deploy, the group spends months in training, studying the conflict, meeting key players, and forging partnerships with citizen groups. 

MEL DUNCAN:  We have to engage with local partners, who can understand things in ways that internationals will never be able.  War is complicated and so is peace, and we’re always learning at this.

And that’s — we have to remain humble, and this is not a tool that fits every situation and that will rid the world of war. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO:  The group hopes to test that theory in more conflict zones, that unarmed civilians can be as effective as militaries in ensuring the peace and safety.  All sides here say they have done that in Mindanao. 

GWEN IFILL:  A version of this story aired on the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.