By Ed Quitoriano

(Part 2)

Power shifts change the dynamics in relationships that define new ordering and norming in society. World wars in the past shifted power to allied forces from the Central Powers in World War I and Axis Powers in World War II. Each shift came with promises of stability and peace that have not yet sustainably come true. Peace agreements in civil wars are also accompanied by negotiated power shifts that are supposed to define new relations of power between the central state and rebel groups. Like other power shifts, they are supposed to define a new order and secure stability and peace. However, some power shifts gear up new dynamics that perpetuate conflict and violence; others, go towards a more positive note.

Peace remains elusive in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Conflict and violence persist despite the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996 and a separate Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government in 2014. A major power shift emerged in 2018 upon the enactment of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and establishment of the MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) in 2019.

The post-BOL regional power shift in favor of the MILF-led BTA raised a lot of expectations on the transition to peace. However, these expectations remain unmet. The political transition itself, leading to formal legitimation of the regional government through elections, did not happen as originally planned in 2022. Similarly, the programmed decommissioning of MILF weapons and combatants has been delayed.

Thousands of rebel guns remain in the hands of the MILF, so are other illicit guns in the hands of private armed groups and civilians. From 2011 to 2020, Conflict Alert recorded 2,774 gun-related violent incidents in the BARMM due to illegal guns that are associated with various types of threat actors of which 95.5% are unidentified. Topping the list of identified actors is the MILF.

Palimbang in Sultan Kudarat province is not part of the Bangsamoro political transition and normalization processes, but it remains part of the organizational systems of the MNLF and MILF. A new addition is the organizational system of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). No one really knows how many illegal weapons are in the hands of non-state armed groups, criminal gangs, and civilians in the town. There has been no record of disarmament and surrender except for weapons confiscated during law enforcement operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Power dynamics in frontier areas like Palimbang can either lead to persistent violence or peaceful transition. Skeptics may not be convinced that a maritime frontier like Palimbang can choose to take the nonviolent route to development. However, there are positive markers that show otherwise. These are substantive markers behind the overt and physical signs of improvement such as the modern government buildings, well-lighted boulevard, and sprouting of restaurants and lodging accommodations.

Conversations with various stakeholders in Palimbang — the municipal and barangay local authorities, the AFP, MNLF, MILF, former NPA rebels, and ordinary civilians — suggest positive markers of how local power shifts can lead to nonviolent routes to peace. A history of violent conflicts, ethnic diversity, formal and informal institutions of governance, and co-existence of state and non-state armed groups easily place Palimbang as an arena of fierce competition. However, local actors chose the other way — to become partners rather than competitors.

First, a look at the power shift in the agrarian economy. Palimbang has a land area of roughly 48,000 hectares, of which 30,000 hectares are under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Municipal Agrarian Reform Officer Omar Kanda says that the program benefits 16,000 families, roughly 85% of the total number of families in the municipality. This shift faces no competition from big landlords. It only shifted legal control of the resettlement areas from the National Government to the local people.

The MILF and MNLF cooperated in the agrarian reform process. The land where the MILF camp in Tibulho is located is also under CARP coverage. Kumander Teng (aka Macalma Sabidan Ali) ensured that indigenous peoples and Christian settlers are not excluded from land distribution. He and his wife — Bainon Benasi, who is the Barangay Chairperson of Tibuhol — preside over agricultural support from the BARMM, Palimbang being considered by the MILF as a special development area.

This shift does not follow the conventional “guns-to-plows” approach, but it works. Earlier on, former combatants of the MNLF and MILF, mostly women, organized themselves into the Palimbang Entrepreneurs and Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative (PEARBCO).

Crystal Solaiman, daughter of former MNLF combatants, manages the cooperative. Still landless in 2008, she and 24 other women offspring of former combatants initiated the formation of the cooperative with P1,000 in individual contributions to produce nipa shingles. Upon acquisition of certificates of land ownership award (CLOAs) in 2013, they shifted to the production of banana chips, palapabagoong, coffee and buri bags, alongside pre-existing production of coconut. What the cooperative produces is considered by the municipal government as “braggable” goods that have attracted support from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Science and Technology (DoST).

Second, the shift in use of armed power by the MILF and MNLF. They maintain military camps and command structures and hold on to their guns. Being outside the BARMM, they are not subject to the terms and conditions of normalization and decommissioning. However, they chose to respect the peace process, cooperate with the local government, local police, and the AFP; and get out of the rebellion. This leaves the CPP-NPA alone in non-state armed activities, limited to movement in indigenous people’s (IP) communities.

Third, the AFP’s shift to the “keyhole” approach in the mobilization of military power. According to Col. John Paul Baldomar, commanding officer of the 37th Infantry Battalion, this approach is characterized by incisive military actions that are less invasive to communities. Unlike other provinces, the AFP in Palimbang does not detain captured (or surrendered) NPA rebels in de-radicalization facilities. Former rebels are immediately allowed to return to their home communities. Col. Baldomar also gives credit to alliances with the MILF, MNLF, and IP leaders in containing CPP-NPA movement.

Fourth, the shift in deployment of local government power. The current Mayor, Joenime Kanima, does not fall under the category of a traditional politician. He spent his youth in General Santos City but did not finish college because, as he says, he was a “malingerer.” Although a Muslim, he was exposed to non-Muslim urban culture. Religious tolerance is also in the family, his wife being of mixed Maguindanao, Muslim-Ilocano-Christian parentage.

Mayor Kanima changed the face of Palimbang into a modern-looking township that is supposed to attract entrepreneurship, investments, and tourism. The municipal government benefits from technical assistance provided by Action for Economic Reforms in data-driven adaptive management. The government center boasts of a modern building (with an elevator), a wide plaza, a seaside promenade, and a guest house called the Green Palace. The physical set-up is designed to accommodate local entrepreneurs and the inflow of investments and commodities from other provinces.

The mayor worries less about the rebellion and insurgency. Sporadic violence is mainly driven by rido (clan feuds). For this, he established the Kukom Kalilintad, an informal dispute resolution mechanism that settles clan feuds. Often, he uses personal funds to cover the diya (blood money) as compensation to the victim or heirs of victims of clan feuds. The money spent is a better alternative to perennial equal retaliation.

Ed Quitoriano is a Chevening fellow on Conflict Resolution and specializes in peace and conflict studies. He works as senior advisor of the Council for Climate and Conflict Action Asia and principal consultant of Visus Consulting