A Peacebuilding Course Called “OP Kors”

A presentation to the workshop titled: “Trends and State of Peace Education and Peace Research in Asia”, during the AMAN Assembly and the Interfaith Conference on “Multi-Culturalism and Global Peace” held at the Prince of Songkhla University, Pattani Campus, 26-28 January 2011

By Charlito “Kaloy” Manlupig
Chairperson and President, Balay Mindanaw
Member, Action Asia

I – Introduction

This paper seeks to share the experiences and lessons from Balay Mindanaw’s peace education efforts which is a key component of our Peacebuilding Programme. As I reflect on the evolution of our peacebuilding strategies, I will give particular attention to our work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Mindanaw that began in 2005.

OP Kors! (Operation Peace Course) is a comprehensive peace course designed for peacebuilders in Mindanaw, first organized and run in 2005 by the Balay Mindanaw Foundation, Inc. (BMFI). It aims at building peace cadres coming from different sectors of society, and multiplying peace constituency at the different levels of engagement. It provides theoretical inputs with matching practical application based on community-based experiences and other peace initiatives. A customized course for the military has been developed and continues to be implemented until today.

Balay Mindanaw Foundation, Inc. (BMFI) is a Mindanao-based, Mindanao-focused and Mindanaoan-led NGO founded on May 8, 1996 focusing on land rights and advocacy for political parity and economic equity. It began its work in as a small NGO engaged in the pursuit of equity and development through agrarian reform and sustainable integrated area development. The first six years of its existence were also years of action and contemplation as it continually tried to find a meaningful and comprehensive realization of its vision of Equity, Development and Peace in Mindanao, the Philippines and the World.

The first few years of Balay Mindanaw’s journey were also a time of searching for real meaning and concrete expression of its framework which basically states that inequities cause underdevelopment and poverty, and that the root of unpeace can be found in inequity and underdevelopment. This framework further states that the work to address inequities and injustice is indispensably connected to development work, and that the work for peace is invariably connected to the work for equity and development.

It is now also actively involved in regional peacebuilding work through its active participation in Action Asia.

Action Asia is a network of individuals and organizations in the Asia continent committed to action for conflict transformation through the sharing of skills, knowledge, experiences and resources. Action Asia carries a vision of a world of justice and peace, where basic needs are met and dignity and human rights are respected.

II – Context

Mindanaw is the second largest of the Philippines‘ 7,107 islands. One out of every four Filipinos is a Mindanaoan. One out of every three hectares of land is in Mindanao.

Most of the Philippines’ earnings from agricultural and fisheries exports come from Mindanao. One hundred percent (100%) of banana, pineapple and tuna exports come from Mindanao. More than half of the country’s mineral and forest resources are in Mindanao.

Despite the island’s richness and giftedness, Mindanao remains as the country’s poorest region. Its rural populace alone, despite their closeness to agricultural resources are among the poorest, mainly because seventy percent (70%) of those who work in agriculture do not own the land that they till. Mindanao remains marginalized economically, politically and culturally.  Decisions concerning the lives of Mindanaoans continue to be made by decision-makers in Manila, the Philippines’ seat of economic, political and socio-cultural powers.

Aside from being the poorest (or perhaps more correctly, because it is the poorest), Mindanao is also the most war-torn region. It continues to suffer from the violent conflicts and the armed struggles being waged by the Moros as they continue to fight for self-determination, the Maoists’ revolution for national liberation, and the local Marxists-Leninists’ struggle against landlessness, marginalization and poverty. In fact, four of the six parallel peace processes are focused on Mindanao.

Mindanao has a history of unrest due partly to the diverse character of its population, encompassing indigenous peoples, the Moros – Muslim communities, and Christian settlers.  This diversity has somehow aggravated the conflicts between and among these groups. The indigenous peoples remain the least involved or consulted group of all. Fourteen (14) of the country’s 20 poorest provinces are in Mindanao.  All the Moro provinces belong to the 10 poorest.

III –  Balay Mindanaw’s Peace Education Work with the Security Sector

Mindanaw’s usual image is that of a war zone. It is where soldiers get their combat experience. It is where the strength of military hardware is being tested. It is from here where military generals get their stars. For years, soldiers were seen by many local communities more as occupation forces rather than allies. However, the military is not monolithic. There are many progressive elements within the military organization who seek to transform the image and mind set of the soldiers. There are key officers and ordinary soldiers who want to be allies and partners of the people and communities.

We decided to start somewhere, modestly. One of Balay Mindanaw’s earliest efforts to engage the military was to invite the soldiers and the para-military assigned in the villages (where Balay Mindanaw was working) to its community-based seminars and conferences. This effort came about as result of the observation that the military and para-military were actually watching (spying on) the community-based activities causing fear among the local people. The military had to be convinced that they did not have to watch (spy) as they are in fact an integral part of the community. Eventually, a customized orientation peace and development course was organized for the local army battalion. This was among the earliest attempts to deliver the message that they should begin looking at themselves as partners and allies rather the occupation forces.

A major breakthrough came when the then Executive Director of BMFI Ayi Hernandez met General Raymundo Ferrer during the Bridging Leadership Training. Gen. Ferrer at that time was beginning to gain recognition as a “peace general”. He has gained the respect of the civil society by reaching out to them and the communities, and even attending the Mindanao Peace Institute, the first soldier to do so. The two began discussing prospects for collaboration. They both agreed that there was need to work hard to transform the mind sets of the soldiers.

At that time, Balay Mindanaw had already gained extensive experience in conducting peace courses for tribal and community leaders, local governments, NGOs and peoples’ organizations, through Operation Peace Course (OP Kors!). The two eventually decided to customize OP Kors! for the military’s needs. .

Thus, the conduct of Op Kors! has expanded from NGOs, to communities, LGUs, indigenous peoples, the Philippine Army, and even the Philippine National Police. General Ferrer initially committed an entire infantry division to undergo the peace course. As of December 2010, at least five divisions have gone through the courses. An Army infantry division is composed of at least three brigades. A brigade has at least three battalions.

The peace education work with the military has evolved and expanded. It is beginning to generate support from the government and the civil society. It is beginning to show impact, not just on individual soldiers but on the policies of government.

Instead of presenting a narrative describing the OP Kors!, I have decided to share with you a case study that tries to capture the real-life experience of a group of military officers going through the peacebuilding course at the Balay Mindanaw International Center for Peace in Mindanaw.

A Case Study: The Peacebuilding Course called OP Kors!

(A shorter version of an article by Marcos Mordeno in the book “Soldiers for Peace” published by Balay Mindanaw)

All their lives as soldiers revolved around hunting the “enemy” and dutifully reporting statistics on casualties, rebels killed or captured, firearms recovered and other stuff that readers usually find in the pages of the morning papers. But for five days in October 2009, 25 officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Eastern Mindanao Command and six police officers did what used to be unthinkable – attend Operation Peace Course (OP Kors!), a training-workshop on peacebuilding organized by Balay Mindanaw.

For the soldiers and policemen, being in civvies was a welcome relief. The organizers anticipated that the participants would need the physical comfort that goes with being in civilian clothes. This course would likely make them sweat, placing squarely for their consideration as it would be the dilemma of trying to reconcile the concepts of peace building with the nature of their profession. After all, these are field-based officers who directly confront rebels and other armed groups, and not always peaceably.

For most of them, it was perhaps their first time, too, to listen to relatively radical inputs – and from superior officers at that! These inputs would, at first glance, seemingly contradict long-held institutional practices and policies that the military and police organizations zealously guard.

The participants were also scheduled for a crash course in Mindanaw history and conflict and some updates on the stalled peace processes with rebel groups. These are intended to stress the importance of peacefully resolving the decades-old communist-led and Moro rebellions.

Maj. (now Colonel) Khrisnamurti Mortela, one of the trainers, told the participants that the training, the thirteenth of its kind for EastMincom officers, would give them another lens at understanding the Mindanaw conflict and it would hopefully expand their outlook. He said it forms part of the program to institutionalize peacebuilding in the AFP and the local governments toward meaningful security sector reform.

Col. Julieto Ando, (now retired) chief of EastMincom’s Civil Military Operations, stressed that officers should learn some tools in peacebuilding and conflict management for them to become responsible fighters and peacebuilders. “Peacebuilding teaches you to deal with community and stakeholders because we need their help. They are our partners” he admonished. He reminded the participants that the military could not do it alone.

Indeed, speaker after speaker emphasized the need for the military to shed off its messianic complex and to treat the conflict as a problem that requires coordination with government agencies and non-government stakeholders.

But it was Col. Lysander Suerte, 10th Infantry Division Chief of Staff, who sort of stirred up the hornet’s nest with his two papers – a candid assessment of the Philippine situation and a policy paper that seeks to rectify the apparent failure of successive governments to resolve the rebellions.

He opined that protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the real threat. “If armed conflict is not resolved 10 years from now, the Philippines will be no more,” he warned. He observes that at present, armed conflict seems to have been accepted as a given, a fact of life that is here to stay.

Suerte, who said he wrote the papers not as a military official but as a Filipino, recommended stopping the armed response, redefining security, and pushing for peace processes, governance reforms and accelerated development.

Stopping the armed response does not mean putting a stop to operations, he clarified. “But operations should secure the communities and protect/enhance economic activities. Soldiers should stop looking for imagined enemies and relying on the number of enemies killed as killing is a symptom of failure. Body counts increase the measurement of failure,” he said.

The colonel further noted that ISO (internal security operation) has become the soldier’s life but that the increase in the number of rebels puts a question on the government’s strategy. He wondered why the government has to preoccupy itself with the armed group that represents only about 0.0005 percent of the country’s population.

“Why not attend to the many others? Are they (rebels) really a threat to our security or we just want (to keep) our jobs?” he posed to the participants.

“We send men to war. Why not send men for peace. Peace is a condition that can be imposed. War, on the other hand, we wait for to end. Why are there no peace warriors? If we put the rebels in a dilemma (by not engaging in armed response), they have to explain (their) continued armed struggle,” he argued.

He added that security should mean seven elements – economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security.

Aside from engaging the participants in critical discussions about policies governing the security sector and imparting skills in conflict management, the training also touched on philosophical themes. For instance, Chris Sumajit, of the Theosophical Society of the Philippines, took the participants to the necessary yet rare journey toward inner peace. His input combined the psychological, physiological and experiential ways of attaining peace at the level of self, including managing stress, controlling anger and getting rid of emotional baggage.

“Anger is poison. Find the source of your anger,” he said.

One participant could not help asking Sumajit if the things he said did not contradict their work as soldiers. “Most of us here are in the military. Will this actually help us in actual situations? Is it possible not to have baggage after you kill an enemy in combat?”, he asked.

“If you shoot the enemy with anger in your heart, you will carry it to your death. You can do it without hatred, just for the sake of duty. There is no emotion involved so there is no baggage,” Sumajit replied.

Yet for all the seriousness of the whole thing, there were light moments too. The participants enjoyed the simulation exercise where each of them played a role in a fictitious town marred by political squabble, social unrest, non-delivery of basic services, and other problems. They also had fun together the night before the last day of the training, in an after-dinner socials where everybody had a chance to sing a song or two. After the last bottle of beer has been emptied, they huddled for the closing prayers after belting out John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

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