Peacebuilding in Mindanao, Philippines, During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Myla Jabilles Leguro

June 15, 2020

Religious Action on COVID-19: Efforts in the Field

Mindanao has experienced episodic violent conflict for more than four decades. The conflict has often been portrayed as a result of historical and ideological friction between Muslim and Christian communities, although religious differences have, in fact, only partly shaped the conflict. It is multi-layered, resulting from a combination of factors, including dispossession of land, chronic service deficiencies, deep-seated and widespread prejudice between diverse groups, power struggles between clans, and the recent rise of violent extremism.

Local peacebuilders have long championed initiatives aimed at building relationships and addressing structural causes of conflict. Two decades of peace negotiations culminated last year in a peace agreement and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao. Local peacebuilding actors, including religious and traditional leaders, accompany the political transition and normalization efforts within this peace process. Our experience affirms the important roles of religion, religious identity, and institutions in the peacebuilding process. But while we stress the role of religious actors in promoting peace, we also acknowledge that our religious identities and differences have contributed to conflicts. We have seen how religion has been used as a tool for provoking and inciting violence and violent acts, as an instrument to mobilize support for violence, and as a justification for exclusion of and discrimination against specific groups of people.

Religious actors have been leading and initiating local peacebuilding efforts since the 1970s, when armed conflict erupted in Mindanao. They provide crucial leadership in protecting victims and civilians, on peace education, advocacy, local conflict resolution, community building, and healing and reconciliation. In the formal peace process, religious actors and institutions have acted as observers, advisors, and facilitators, using their good offices to broaden public support, increase legitimacy, and sustain peace negotiations. Religious peacebuilding brings together individuals, groups, and institutions of different faiths and cultural traditions, and draws on their spiritual values. It engages in the processes of dialogue, mediation, reconciliation, problem solving, and practical actions that promote deeper mutual understanding, respect, and social equity to achieve harmonious coexistence for the common good. Efforts identify commonalities, challenge misconceptions, and accept differences.

People living in conflict areas and fragile contexts here, especially here in Mindanao, are affected by COVID-19 and its after effects. The Bangsamoro region was identified as a priority intervention area because of pre-coronavirus vulnerabilities that include destabilizing incidents, food insecurity, armed vertical and horizontal conflicts, and the impact of natural disasters. Rising numbers of cases and the effects of the lockdowns due to quarantine measures have caused insecurity and fear among the general public. Individuals are unsure of continued employment and schooling, and feel apprehensive about food supplies and traveling outside their villages to access banks, hospitals, and other basic services. Contact-tracing activities in communities contribute to unfounded suspicions about neighbors.

Even as quarantines and lockdowns are lifted, community residents are unsure about whether they are safe and protected from threats, including COVID-19. These sentiments contribute to personal insecurities and envy, but also fuel relational problems. Poor households in conflict-affected areas, most notably the internally displaced populations, experience food insecurity because they lack money to buy food, and cannot reach markets.

Violent incidents and armed hostilities are taking place in conflict hot spots in Mindanao. From March to the present, civil society organizations (CSOs) have actively monitored about 21 armed incidents that also displaced people in the affected areas, triggered by food scarcity, land disputes, clan feuds, and the presence of violent extremist groups. 

Despite overwhelming needs, humanitarian response, development, and peacebuilding activities have either been temporarily stopped or reduced because of quarantine restrictions.

Religious institutions and actors in Mindanao have prioritized education on COVID-19 and response to the needs of the most vulnerable in terms of food, cash, hygiene kits, and startup livelihoods. Despite restrictions, civil society groups, including religious and traditional leaders, build on and update conflict analysis to monitor changing conflict dynamics through online conflict analysis sessions and conversations, integrating the monitoring of conflict incidents and the monitoring the effects of COVID.

CSOs through education and information activities promote inclusion, solidarity, hope, fair transparent distribution of resources, and access to services. They mobilize and prepare existing groups, civic networks, and peace leaders, notably women and youth, to carry out faith initiatives or disseminate accurate information to hard-to-reach areas and groups, using simple technology to promote continued engagement with communities. We find ways to reach remote, communication-deprived areas, adapting social traditions and peacebuilding activities to the COVID-19 context, since normal face-to-face engagement is not possible at this time.

Adaptations include simplifying technical content at school, activities and trainings for virtual online trainings, and peer-to-peer learning discussions using available technology. And more importantly, harnessing local resources in the community.

We monitor implementation of the government’s COVID response activities, from delivery of services to implementation, especially policies around restriction and restrictive measures. We also encourage and support inclusive community participation to advocate for and monitor capable and transparent access to, and distribution of, goods and services, and the fair application of government measures, particularly for testing, safety, good hygiene support, and food distribution. We encourage good leadership among government and civic leaders and strengthening capacities of local government and civil society to foster the rebuilding of social networks damaged during COVID-19.

This is not an exhaustive list of adaptations, just some examples. Coping mechanisms, resilience, and capacity to prevent and respond to COVID-19 differ from community to community, institution to institution, person to person. So, adaptation, recognition, and flexibility are critical.

We join UN Secretary-General António Guterres in calling for a global ceasefire, to reinforce local efforts of Mindanao’s peacebuilding organizations. Priority needs are to ensure mandated ceasefire monitoring structures, ensure safety and security of affected families, work towards cessation of hostilities, address needs of displaced families, and work towards safe return to their communities. Civil society groups in Mindanao, including faith-based organizations, will pressure peace process actors to meet targets within the political transition and normalization and to implement the broader peace process roadmap.

We, as civil society, have collectively resolved to be guided by three action points: (a) to develop coordinated and comprehensive responses to the effects of COVID-19, especially on the most vulnerable communities, meanwhile protecting democracy and human rights; (b) to pursue immediate collective action to ensure the safety and security of communities affected by armed hostilities, including calling for cessation of hostilities in the affected areas; and (c) not to forget long-term visions and goals to build the foundations of sustainable peace in Mindanao.

Editor’s Note: This post is based on a presentation at a June 5 webinar organized jointly by the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and the United Nations Mediation Support Unit. Here, Myla Leguro draws on her engagement as convener of the Mindanao Peaceweavers, a network of peace networks in Mindanao.

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