A Discussion with Myla Leguro, Director of the Interreligious Peacebuilding Program at Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
June 15, 2020
Background: Myla Leguro has long experience as a peacebuilder, working day to day for peace in Mindanao, Philippines, site of one of the world’s longest lasting violent conflicts. She is also widely known both for supporting women’s roles in peacebuilding and for bringing together practice and theory. This exchange builds on a February 2019 discussion in Manila with Cameron Pulley, Research Consultant for World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) that was part of research for WFDD’s country mapping study of the Philippines. It also reflects email exchanges in June 2020 with Katherine Marshall. It draws on a published 2010 interview with Nathan Schneider on SSRC’s Immanent Frame. Ms. Leguro touches on the present situation in the Philippines and in Mindanao the light of the COVID-19 emergency. She elaborates on her work in Mindanao with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) on conflict resolution and management. The discussion touches specifically on the background and complex causes of conflicts and the approaches involved in continuing peacebuilding work. She addresses the often asked question of how religion is involved in the conflict. Her response is that it's part of issue because of the part it plays in how identities are seen, but religion is not a cause of the problem. Rather, it flavors engagement and relationships.
Practice comes before theory and the local precedes the national and the global. My approach to religion highlights practical, context-specific steps toward getting different communities talking with each other. These trump concerns about abstract doctrines or clashing civilizations.
How are you experiencing the COVID-19 crisis in Manila and in Davao today?
The COVID-19 crisis, both public health measures and broader issues, are affecting people living in conflict areas and fragile contexts here, especially in Mindanao. The Bangsamoro region was identified as a priority intervention area because of pre COVID-19 vulnerabilities. These include destabilizing incidents, food insecurity, armed vertical and horizontal conflicts, and frequent natural disasters. Insecurity and fear result from a number of cases of COVID-19 and the effect of quarantine and lockdown measures. Uncertainties about jobs, schools, food availability, and health services add to anxieties. Travel outside villages to banks, hospitals, and other basic services is uncertain. Contact tracing activities in communities are contributing to unfounded suspicions about neighbors.
The uncertainties persist even as quarantines and lockdowns are lifted. Uncertainties combine with frayed relationships and a general atmosphere of insecurity. Poor households in conflict affected areas, especially the internally displaced populations, face food insecurity both because they lack money to buy food and they cannot reach markets. And violent incidents and armed hostilities continue in conflict hot spots in Mindanao. Despite overwhelming needs, humanitarian response, development, and peace building activities have either been temporarily stopped or reduced, because of quarantine restrictions.
Religious institutions and actors in Mindanao have been directly engaged in both education about COVID-19 and in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable in terms of food, cash, hygiene kits, and startup livelihoods. Civil society groups, including religious and traditional leaders, are continuing conflict analysis, monitoring changing conflict dynamics. They are relying during the lockdown period on online conflict analysis sessions and conversations.
What were some of the early experiences that inspired you to start working on peace-building and development in Mindanao?
I'm from Mindanao. I grew up in Davao City during the Martial Law years [under Ferdinand Marcos, 1972-1981], witnessing many violent incidents—daily assassinations of police and also police assassinations of citizens. One of my most significant memories was witnessing the bombing of San Pedro Cathedral as a teenager [Easter Sunday, April 19, 1981]. I was already reflecting then on what could be my role to end the violence. Part of my university education was about the theology of service—how to encourage others to join the pursuit of social justice.
My career has really been about finding my role to help create peace and justice in Mindanao in my own humble way. You ask yourself, how do I actually contribute towards the building of the kingdom of God here and now? I carry that passion and zeal for social justice and peace in whatever I am doing, even until now.
Before I joined CRS [Catholic Relief Services], in 1991, I worked with an ecumenical NGO focused on justice and peace, mostly through community education programs in Davao City. After that I worked in the government on agrarian reform services, and then joined CRS.
Before I joined CRS, I hadn’t yet been exposed to Muslim-Christian issues. We were trying to understand what issues farmers had in relation to land and worker issues in relation to their conditions of labor. I was first exposed to the unique issues facing the Muslim community when working on an agriculture program in South Cotabato, where I engaged the local community and worked with Muslim partners. We focused on the agricultural issues faced by Muslim farmers in the area.
Through this work, I learned more about the culture of Maguindanao Muslims and tried to understand their perspectives. Fortunately, unlike many or most Filipinos raised in Christian families, I did not carry a lot of bias that prevented me from engaging with Muslims. In the Philippines, Christians are often socialized to understand Muslims as traitors, as enemies. I feel lucky that I had little of such social conditioning. I was able to keep an open mind. I had previously worked with indigenous communities in other areas of Mindanao, so I thought about the way to orient myself to different groups of people in Mindanao.
The conflict in Mindanao is often described as a Muslim-Christian conflict. I always respond, “It's really about political and economic marginalization. It's about historical injustice experienced by Islamized ethnic groups and indigenous groups.” Certainly, religion is part of the issue. But, it's part of issue because of the part it plays in how identities are seen. Religion is not a cause of the problem; rather, it flavors engagement and relationships.
What roles has CRS played in this work? How have you seen approaches to peace-building in the Mindanao evolve over time?
I was part of the Filipino team that worked on establishing the Peace and Reconciliation Program for CRS. CRS has been here in the Philippines since 1945; its early initiatives were mostly in food relief. By the 1970s, CRS was working in communities all over the Philippines. Still, until the Peace and Reconciliation Program established in 1996, we had never worked on social justice issues.
Why is 1996 significant? It was the year that the government signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front. That was a historic moment and we at CRS thought about what we could do as a Catholic organization to provide support towards peace and the reconciliation in Mindanao. This really inspired me. At the time, CRS was reflecting internally on conflict because the organization had been in Rwanda for 30 years before 1994, the year of the Rwanda genocide. We were present there and the events served as a wake-up call for us about the importance of deeper analysis on structural issues in countries where we work. That was another impetus for the justice lens for our scoping work for the Philippines in 1996.
The idea at the time was to start with the formal peace agreement. We wanted to work more at the grassroots level to provide accompaniment and create spaces for dialogue and Muslim-Christian engagement. Note that the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, or Jakarta Accord, signed on September 2, 1996, came after talks that spanned four years of peace talks between the Philippine Government and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This is connected to the 1976 Tripoli agreement.
What was the nature of the CRS work?
We at CRS worked with the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, the primary negotiating entity of the Philippine government, and UNICEF to develop the Culture of Peace manual. It became the entry point for community-level engagement and dialogue. This takes the form of a two to three-day workshop with modules that talk about the self, the history of Mindanao, and the history of conflict in particular. There are also modules that teach skills in conflict resolution, non-violent ways of addressing community issues, and how communities can build a vision of peace together. It's a broader process, but we used the Culture of Peace Workshop to create safe spaces for dialogue and interaction. In most communities, it was the first time they could actually engage with one another.
There were moments, for example, where an ex-military commander and an ex-MNLF commander came together to talk with one another in the context of a constructive workshop. Previously, they would just never talk to each other.
We organized these workshops from 1998 until maybe 2000, and from that grew a massive culture of these workshops all over different parts of Mindanao. This manual is still being used today as a starting point. What happens after that depends on the communities building their vision of peace. We have helped to facilitate those community visions of peace. For example, we helped a community to set up their own peace committee and another to set up their own inter-religious platform. In some cases, these initiatives became the first steps towards the establishment of a zone of peace.
What are the zones of peace?
“Zones of Peace” are geographic areas that the community, by their own will, declares to be safe spaces against armed encounters—even presence of arms may not be allowed. Take the case of Pikit in Cotobato Province, Mindanao. They had been experiencing the cycles of war directly since 1997. We went to villages, accompanying the local church to hold Culture of Peace workshops. These became the space where groups actually talked through the details of what was to be included in the declarations for their peace zones.
We started with two villages in 2001 and soon it grew to seven. Across the different communities, people were always saying, "We're tired of war. We're tired of evacuating. We want to create a safe space for our community." That feeling of mutual suffering was what really galvanized the common vision for safe spaces in communities. The harder work was afterwards, when negotiating with the MILF and the military to respect the agreed upon designated peace zones.
That takes a lot of consensus-building. Does each village or each barangay determine its own vision for peace and create their rules?
Yes, they create their own rules. For example, some villages set up an entrance outpost and said, "We're not actively resisting or preventing the entrance of armed groups, but leave your guns outside of the community." Other communities said, "If you must bring guns into the community, do not display them in public." Certain communities had to take active steps to prevent armed groups from entering. Each community understands its situation and takes a unique approach in handling its local safety and security issues with respect to the conflict.
The zones of peace where we have worked are mostly established across Muslim-Christian divides, where the conflict is between the MILF and the military. With determined negotiation, advocacy, and awareness-building, both became very receptive to the idea of a safe space. To a certain extent, they have at times even been part of the signing of the declarations.
What kinds of difficulties faced the indigenous communities?
In recent years there has been an increase in militarization of the conflict. Both the military and nonstate armed groups have been increasingly active in their attempted recruitment of Lumad leaders. Polarization inside and between communities seems increasingly difficult to avoid. It’s harder to be neutral than to take sides. If a community maintains neutrality, it becomes the target of both. Locally, it’s very complex in some cases because at times the local killings are only being done by one side or the other.
Indigenous communities are caught in the middle. They're very vulnerable, and there is no peace process structure to protect their safety. In MILF conflict-affected areas, there is a ceasefire agreement and civil society groups can engage the international monitoring team to report violations in specific locations. Still, while these mechanisms exist, they may not be operational. There is always the dilemma of where and to whom to bring these reports. The only thing that we can do is stay constant in monitoring and our accompaniment of local leaders to make sure that local governments are aware of the things happening in communities for which they are responsible. We can help, but a lot depends on our local partners in the communities engaging with their local government leaders themselves.
How does CRS build local partnerships on the ground that are so fundamental to its mission in peace-building?
We have done a lot of training and capacity building with local partners for many years. We always choose to work with partners that are already embedded in local communities. The strategy has been to empower communities to deal with their local issues themselves.
For example, for a program on land conflict resolution, our strategy was to work with traditional religious leaders in the villages because they are often the go-to people when conflict arises in the community. They have the social-positioning for conflict resolution, but not yet necessarily the conflict resolution skills and understanding of the law that they need. A lot of the work that we did was helping them to understand land rights and law, for which we also sought the support a group of lawyers. Together, we helped the local leaders understand how to use mediation, work within local conflict resolution structures, and seek legal and paralegal support. Still, a lot of peace-building is working on dialogue itself. We shared strategies on how to work across conflict divides and how to best use their influence as religious leaders to move parties towards the solution.
Is recognizing the issue of land tenure often a starting point for addressing conflict?
In many cases, yes. Lack of respect for land rights is often a trigger of violent actions or intentions in the community. Rido (or blood feuds) often result from land dispute, causing larger political consequences. Land is a key concern and not enough groups are working on it. Unfortunately, we were not able to complete our work on land concerns because we didn’t have enough funding, but we continue to work with the local leaders within local structures to build local capacity.
Rido originates from some sort of offense to honor, highly variable from mild jokes to homicide. Especially in areas where there is a perceived lack of justice and security, this has a tendency to escalate in extreme ways to include property destruction, displacement, and multiple murders. It often involves powerful political dynasties.
How is conflict resolution approached in cases of rido?
In Mindanao, there is the institutional justice system but also the traditional or customary systems, which often deal with such cases. This is very common in indigenous communities. Designated people are tasked to conduct the conflict resolution in a culturally-responsible way. This is also often the case in Muslim communities. In those communities, there are institutional, traditional, and even religious justice systems, in some cases involving Sharia, whether the formal Sharia court, or a Sharia tribunal supplied by the community. Since the 1977 Presidential Decree 1083, the Code of Muslim Personal Laws, formal Sharia courts (both trial and circuit level) have existed in Muslim Mindanao to adjudicate and enforce certain civil cases.
There is of course the formal institutional justice system and still other mechanisms at the village level. With Katarungang Pambarangay [Barangay/village-level Justice System], there is the Lupon Tagapamayapa [non-judicial committee composed of the barangay captain other local residents to resolve village-level conflicts outside of the formal justice system]. The Katarungang Pambarangay structure is somewhat tied to the formal court system, but the idea is before a dispute reaches the court, it could be resolved at the community level if there is a committee tasked and validated to resolve conflicts. Should they be unable to resolve the dispute, it will go to the formal court if the parties do not settle.
There are also hybrid conflict resolution mechanisms, a combination of the formal and traditional. For example, let’s say a mayor of a municipality is convening a task force to deal with resolving a particular type of conflict issue—the group may be composed of both formal elected leaders and traditional leaders.
What particular roles do women play as conflict mediators in the modern Philippines?
Despite the wide variety of adjudication options available in Mindanao, in most cases, women are not there or at least are not visible. In a minority of cases, individual women may have earned a major role, but generally women have a relatively minimal presence. Consider the land conflict resolution project I mentioned before, to organize a core group of traditional religious leaders at the barangay level. We must actively advocate to include women, specifically women traditional leaders, in that convening. Of course, their inclusion is beneficial to all, given the unique perspective they bring on how to do conflict resolution and deal with parties. In our experience in most of the villages where we have worked, it was actually the women doing most of the difficult mediation, but the stamp—the formal agreement—had to be given by the barangay captain who is usually male. It is in the preparatory work, the negotiation, the mediation, and working face-to-face with the conflicting parties where the women are.
Part of my own advocacy is to help give women more of a voice in the public processes. My research in the master’s program focused on the role of women in peacebuilding—both visible and invisible. I think being a woman in this field does give me a distinct way of looking at things compared to others. I always work for complementation, which comes partly from my standpoint as a woman. Integration comes naturally to me. I’m always asking myself how I can connect people and groups, activities and initiatives. That, I think, has been my contribution as a peacebuilder and as a woman.
How are you and CRS involved in processes of higher-level interfaith peacebuilding?
We work on the ground directly with communities, but we also work with higher-level structures, civil society, and inter-religious platforms. We have supported the Bishop-Ulama Conference [BUC] technically, directly, and indirectly since it started formally in 1996. We convene inter-religious dialogue conferences with many inter-religious dialogue practitioners from different parts of Mindanao to reflect together on their common issues. After the Marawi Siege ended officially on October 23, 2017, we reflected a lot on the internal journey we face as inter-religious dialogue practitioners and how we read the path forward through the situation.
We see the conference as a reflective learning processes, partly for the practitioners themselves. We create that space for them to discuss together and reflect on possible scenarios to come. We also bring in outsiders, for example Tanenbaum Peacemaker awardee Pastor James Wuye from Nigeria. We have partnership with Tanenbaum because one of our colleagues, Maria Ida “Deng” Giguiento, is a Tanenbaum Peacemaker awardee herself for her work on the MILF and CPP-NPA-NDF conflicts in the Philippines as well as during the 1999 East Timorese Crisis. We work with the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Thus peacebuilders from Mindanao spend part of the time reflecting on a guest’s experiences in Nigeria or Indonesia or on a topic like pluralism. Listening and reflecting on the guests’ stories help to broaden perspectives of peacebuilders from Mindanao; they learn from the experiences of others but also work on a particular theme. One year the theme was the “Common Word Between Us and You”.
The other part of our work is advocacy. The Bangsamoro Organic Law and Beyond, for example, came about partly through the work of CRS in inter-religious peace building. It helps religious leaders figure out their role in understanding and capacity to provide a positive push for society. I see that statement as one of solidarity with the Bangsamoro. With the historic angst between Catholic and Muslim leaders, it might have been difficult to make this statement of solidarity 10 or 15 years ago. Thus our work involves a group of Catholic Church leaders that look at recent developments in the peace process and understand it as a step towards lasting peace. Part of that understanding is also the readiness to give up something so that the other can claim their space within society in Mindanao.
How do you see the patterns of polarization that contribute to conflicts?
Our work for peace with Christians started in 2018 in preparation for the Bangsamoro Organic Law plebiscite in early 2019. There was considerable Muslim-Christian polarization. At the time CRS worked with the Christians for Peace Movement, a group inspired by Cardinal Quevedo of the Archdiocese of Cotabato, with the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Church, and the Office of the Deputy Governor for Christian Affairs of the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao). I was inspired by how inclusive the Christians for Peace Movement group was because ten years ago you would never see a Christian group saying, “We want to be part of the Bangsamoro peace process.”
That is precisely the idea; all should be engaged as active constituents because all are from the Bangsamoro area. Churches should be a part of that legacy and encourage their members to be active constituents in the political transition, as Christians. They often say, "We are Christians and we are for peace.” But, Christians also have a moral responsibility to engage in the process to make sure that peace really endures for the Bangsamoro.
The Christians for Peace Movement is not just a faith-based organization. It is also very politically astute. They reflected on the draft law at the time and came up with a 17-point agenda for Christians living in the Bangsamoro. This was the impetus and foundation for doing Bangsamoro Organic Law Education Sessions for Christian Communities in the Bangsamoro. I accompanied some of these education sessions. CRS did some planning with the Christians for Peace Movement on what would be some of the key messages in the education sessions. We had to work through a lot of issues because while they said, “we want to be part of the Bangsamoro peace process”, they still carried a lot of baggage because of the historical conflict. Most had experienced the conflict personally in the past, so that’s still there. It takes a lot, but I feel there is a segment of society in Mindanao that is engaging positively by saying, "We recognize the pains of the past, but we want to support the political transition." By saying that, they also claim their space in the transition.
They presented their 17-point agenda to the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front); I'm very happy to share that the Christians for Peace Movement has since grown to pursue inter-faith activities and an ever more inclusive peace process, engaging with their Muslim counterparts through the Inter-Faith Peace Action Network. I'm inspired by the Christians for Peace Movement’s willingness to work in solidarity with their Muslim counterparts towards the political transition.
What were some of the key turning points for the Bangsamoro peace process?
A major turning point was that the President [Rodrigo Duterte] made it one of the main focuses of his agenda from the very beginning. He did a lot of backdoor negotiation with key leaders; not just with the MILF but also between the MILF and other groups, including political leaders. Politically, I think this made the legislative lobbying for the Bangsamoro Organic Law relatively easy compared to the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Legislative lobbying for the Bangsamoro peace process was hard, very hard at that time because of the prejudice coming to the surface.
It helped that there was more preparation on the side of the constituency to become part of the BARMM. For example, the Christians for Peace Movement started as just an expression, “We are a Christians and we are for peace”, but it became something much greater. It created momentum and credibility for the peace process moving forward. Religious leaders like Cardinal Quevedo prepared to visit more and give their full support for the peace process. Leadership helped create a safe environment for the law to pass. I’m in no way saying it's 100 percent good. Most Christians would vote no, regardless. To them I say, "No. This is not about religion. It's about politics." The position of “yes or no” for the BOL is not about religious identity because some Muslims (not many) voted no. Those who voted no came from both Christian and Muslim groups.
What steps can support the process going forward?
The hope is that there continues to be space for non-Moro and indigenous peoples’ groups to engage. Expectations for the government are high and they must perform well. The question for groups like the Christians for Peace Movement is still: “Are Christians or indigenous peoples going to be involved formally? There is still nervousness in anticipation of change, but after so many discussions I believe there is a level of maturity. However, there still remains a lot of ignorance about what it means for individuals.
Despite all the education workshops we have done, misinformation grows and spreads quickly. It’s a problem on both sides. For example, some Christians still do not understand that they’re not going to be subject to Sharia and they will still be able to raise pigs in the BARMM. The rumors always touch basic things that threaten identity. On the side of the Moro, there were reports of some Moro telling Christian landowners to vacate the land because “BOL is here and it means I can take your land”. There are problematic incidents based on misinformation like that.
A good understanding of history is non-negotiable. It’s not only outsiders that have difficulty understanding the complicated history—it’s common even among Mindanaoans. Hundreds of years of history need to be recognized to connect the story together. A foundation needs to be established as to why certain groups hold certain perspectives about the conflict. Polarization and even animosity between groups is represented in understandings of different periods of history and it all connects to the dynamics happening today. If you ask a Bangsamoro (as we have done), “When did the conflict start?” they always start during the colonial period. If you ask the same question to a Christian, they always start in the 1970s because that was the start of the open conflict. The Bangsamoro do not look at it that way.
Overall, I feel hopeful. Local issues need to be addressed and we need to follow up with constituents. We need to continue the fire. Now, it’s time to focus on the transition concerns.