Philippines – The Women in the Bangsamoro Peace Process: History, Herstory


Carolyn O. Arguillas – Minda News

[Note from TMS editor: TRANSCEND member Emma Leslie is featured prominently on this report.]

When the history of the peace process between the Philippine government (GPH) and the Bangsamoro is written, the story of the women who helped and are helping make it possible – inside the formal peace negotiations and on the ground — will certainly be one of the highlights of this 40-year journey to peace.

The signatory for government when the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) between GPH and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is signed in February or March, 2014 would be Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the first woman panel chair in the 40-year negotiations (17 with the MILF), under an administration whose Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, is also a woman: Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles.

Kristian Herbolzheimer, Director of the Philippines Programme of the London-based  Conciliation Resources, and a member of the International Contact Group (ICG) that accompanies the GPH-MILF peace process told MindaNews that the Mindanao peace process is, in fact, “one of the most gender-sensitive in the world.”

Ferrer, he said, is “probably the first ever (woman) chair of a negotiating panel signing a peace agreement” and women “have played a key role also in the MILF team as consultants on legal and political issues.”

He said both panels also paid special attention to drafting the multiple documents in gender-responsive language. “This is significant from a gender justice perspective, and also in responding to UN standards,” he said.

WOMEN POWER. (L to R) Juckra Abdulmalik and Roslaine Lidasan Macao-Maniri of the MILF peace panel’s technical working groups, Emma Leslie of the International Contact Group, government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Undersecretary Zenonida Brosas and Undersecretary Bai Yasmin Busra-Lao in Kuala Lumpur last week. PHoto courtesy of OPAPP Read more

WOMEN POWER. (L to R) Juckra Abdulmalik and Roslaine Lidasan Macao-Maniri of the MILF peace panel’s technical working groups, Emma Leslie of the International Contact Group, government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Undersecretary Zenonida Brosas and Undersecretary Bai Yasmin Busra-Lao in Kuala Lumpur. PHoto courtesy of OPAPP

The United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1325 on October 31, 2000 reaffirmed  the important role of women in the “prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”

Beyond military action, power and wealth sharing

In the Cordaid and WO=MEN policy brief in September 2010 titled “Gender-responsive Peace and State-building Transforming the Culture of Power in Fragile States,”  Yoka Brandt, former Dutch Ambassador to Uganda and Director-General of the International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (now Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF in New York), was quoted as saying that when women are actively involved, “peace agreements are more credible and cover a broader range of issues.”

“Their participation widens negotiations beyond issues of military action, power, and wealth sharing, and promotes a non-competitive negotiating style and bridge-building between the negotiating parties,” she said.

While Herbolzheimer lauds the Bangsamoro peace process as “one of the most gender-sensitive in the world,” getting there was not easy. For as the Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination moved on, the women’s struggle for representation in peace-making, as well as within the Bangsamoro itself, moved on, too.

In the 1974-1976 formal peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement on December 23, 1976 and the 1992 to 1996 negotiations that led to the signing of the Final Peace Agreement on September 2, 1996 – did not have women in either the government or MNLF peace panels, even as the war years took their toll on mostly women and children.

Courage, defiance

But it took the courage of a woman — then President Corazon Aquino — to defy the counsel of her predominantly male security advisers to meet with MNLF chair Nur Misuari in Jolo, Sulu, in the early months of her post-Marcos dictatorship administration, to talk peace. And while no peace agreement was forged within her term (1986 to 1992),  she paved the way for the reopening of talks with all Moro factions and she left a legacy that the next administrations would not be able to take out easily: the inclusion of the concept of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao as well as the Cordillera, into the 1987 Constitution.

The Moro revolutionaries frowned at what they viewed to be a unilateral decision on the part of the first Aquino administration. They wanted the “letter and spirit” of the 197t6 Tripoli Agreement implemented. They saw the establishment of  the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as another unilateral move of government, not a product of a peace settlement.

The Ramos administration that followed, signed a Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF on September 2, 1996 and almost simultaneously, opened talks with the MILF,  which had split from the MNLF in the late 1970s and by the 1990s was a far bigger force than the MNLF.

The GPH panel, led by a retired general and former Ambassador,  Manuel Yan and the MNLF peace panel, led by Misuari, had an all-male membership in the four rounds of formal peace talks from 1992 to 1996. The government peace panel had women in the technical working groups but they were a minority. The MNLF had none. But for a time, their wives were present during the talks in Jakarta, Indonesia, but not inside the negotiating room.

The idea to bring their wives along Misuari copied from Yan, who always traveled with his wife. After meeting Yan’s wife during the first round of talks,  Misuari in the succeeding rounds also traveled with his wife, Eleonora or Ruayda Tan. By the third and fourth rounds,  some panel members and commanders in Misuari’s team also brought their wives.

First woman panel member

It was only during the peace negotiations with the MILF, which formally started in 1997 (still under the Ramos administration), when the Moro women were finally given a seat at the peace table.

The late Emily Marohombsar of Lanao del Sur, who made history as the first, and thus far, the only woman president of the Mindanao State University (February 1993 to December 1998),  again made history as the first Moro woman to have been named  member of the government peace panel.

WOMEN FOR PEACE. They bear the burden of armed conflicts but Moro women had to struggle, too,  to get a seat at the peace negotiating table. Photo taken during an assembly in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, courtesy of Emma Leslie.

WOMEN FOR PEACE. They bear the burden of armed conflicts but Moro women had to struggle, too, to get a seat at the peace negotiating table. Photo taken during an assembly in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, courtesy of Emma Leslie.

The peace negotiations under the Estrada administration collapsed when it waged an “all-out war” in 2000 to take control of the  MILF camps previously acknowledged by a joint government-MILF team for purposes of  determining the scope of the implementation of the general ceasefire agreement. Nearly a million residents were displaced.

When Estrada was ousted as President and then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over, she vowed an “all-out peace.”  But two wars occurred within her nine-year administration (2001 to 2010): the 2003 war in Buliok that displaced some 400,000 and the 2008 war that followed the botched signing of the already initialed GPH-MILF Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).

The 2008  war displaced some 600,000  residents and was “the biggest new displacement in the world” out of 4.2 million newly displaced in  2008, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in its April 2009 report.

More women

More women, however, were given seats in the government peace panel. When Arroyo reconstituted the government peace panel on February 19, 2001, she named the first ever civilian-led peace panel under Jesus Dureza, Presidential Adviser on Mindanao (the previous government peace panel chairs were all retired generals), and named two women in the panel: Marohombsar and Irene Santiago of the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW), the organization behind the Mothers for Peace movement.

The women served as members until July 2003. The next panel under Silvestre Afable, Jr.,  had Sylvia Paraguya of Bukidnon, representing the Lumads (indigenous peoples).  When retired Armed Forces deputy chief of staff Rodolfo Garcia chaired the panel from July 2007 to September 2008, Paraguya remained as member and another woman, who had been serving in the legal panel, Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Leah Armamento was also named as member.

When Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis took over from December 2008 to June 30, 2010, his panel had one woman member: Dr. Grace Jimeno-Rebollos, then President of the Western Mindanao State University and a leader of the Peace Advocates Zamboanga.

Women in the NGOs

It was in the decade of the wars — “all-out war” in 2000 and the wars in 2003 and 2008 — when women in non-governmental organizations took the lead in accompanying the peace process: Santiago’s MCW,  lawyer Mary Ann Arnado’s Mindanao Peoples Caucus,  Mindanao Coalition of Development NGOs or Mincode under Dolly Corro and later Patricia Sarenas,  and the very young Rosan Aliya Agbon’s Kids for Peace, among others.

It was also during this period when Moro women took an active part in organizing and leading groups such as the Young Moro Professionals under Ayesah Abubakar and Samira Gutoc,  Bangsamoro Laywers Network and Nisa Ul Haqq Fi Bangsamoro (Women for Truth and Justice in the Bangsamoro) under Raissa Jajurie and Laisa Alamia, Suara Bangsamoro party list under Amirah Lidasan, Philippine Council (now Center) for Islam and Democracy under Amina Rasul, Bangsamoro Women’s Solidarity Forum under Tata Maglangit, Lupah Sug Bangsamoro Women under Fatmawati Salapuddin and  Mindanao Tulong Bakwet under Rose Ebus.

Women at the grassroots

Women also played an active role during mass evacuations from war.  A number of women led marches and “Bakwit Power” to call on both the GPH and MILF to end the war and return to the negotiating table.

Babu Umbai Maliganan of Pikit, North Cotabato, went around Mindanao and Manila to talk about the bakwits’ plight. She was also the most frank among members of a team that went to Malacanang twice to appeal to then President Arroyo to stop the war. She told Arroyo and her Cabinet officials that she was tired of war, the she had been fleeing the war since she was little and that she was already a grandmother and was still fleeing the war, this time with her grandchildren.

The last time Babu Umbai met Arroyo was in Congress when she was no longer Presdient and was already a congresswoman of her district in Pampanga.  She told Arroyo: “Ma’am, ang promise mo sa akin, hindi mo pa naibigay. Yung peace para sa Mindanao.”

Babu Umbai never lived to see the dawning of peace. She passed away in March 2012

Teams monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire between GPH and MILF, like the Mindanao Peoples Caucus’ Bantay Ceasefire,  also sprouted within this period, with  several women among its members, including Brenda Albarico, a tricycle driver in Midsayap town in North Cotabato.

In October 2010, to mark the tenth anniversary of UNSCR 1325, an all-women contingent of the Civilian Protection Component of the GPH-MILF peace process, was launched, composed of women from various tribes and faiths.

Women in the MILF panel

When the administration of Aquino’s son, Benigno Simeon III took over on June 30, 2010, he named  UP College of Law dean Marvic Leonen as chair  on his 15th day in office.  Ferrer was later named member, the lone woman then.

The MILF, apparently reacting to criticisms that the panel it reconstituted was again “all-male,” announced they were taking in two women advisers from “Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao.”

Sulu-born lawyer Raissa Jajurie of the alternative law group, Saligan Mindanaw, was named consultant along with Bai Cabaybay Abubakar, President of Shariff Kabunsuan College in Maguindanao.

The MILF continued to be an all-male panel but as the talks progressed, Jajurie would sometimes serve as alternate panel member.  Her tasks expanded as well.  It was Jajurie who steered the technical working group on Wealth-sharing for the MILF.  Jajurie is also a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) which is drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

By December 2012, another lawyer, Roslaine Lidasan Macao-Maniri, joined Jajurie as an adviser on transport and communication. Juckra Abdulmalik,  who lost one of her  nine children to a miscarriage during the war years in the 1970s, assisted in the TWG on Normalization.

Women in GPH panel

In the government panel, Bai Yasmin Busra-Lao of Lanao del Sur, Undersecretary on Muslim Affairs, was initially appointed as consultant but was later named as panel member.

Ferrer, a senior member of the panel since 2010, was named chair in December 2012, days after Leonen was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

The chairs of the GPH technical working groups who negotiated the annexes on Wealth-sharing and Normalization are also women: Ma. Lourdes Lim, regional director of the National Economic Development Authority in Southern Mindanao and National Security Council Undersecretary Zenonida Brosas. Brosas served as a member of the technical working group in the GPH negotiations with the MNLF in the 1990s and was a member of the GPH team in the Tripartite Implementation Review with the MNLF and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The head of secretariat is Iona Jalijali who brings a predominantly women’s team in Kuala Lumpur while the communications team is headed by Polly Cunanan.

Johaira Wahab of Maguindanao led the legal panel from 2010 to early 2013. When she was named Commissioner at the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, Wahab’s post was taken over by Anna Tarhata Basman, who was already on board, along with Armi Bayot.

Valentine’s 2012

On Valentines’ Day in 2012, when the Decision Points of April 2012 and the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in October of the same year were still a dream, the women in the GPH peace panel did what could be a first, worldwide, in contemporary peace-making history:  giving a Valentine’s gift to the peace panel of a revolutionary group.

The second day of the three-day peace talks fell on February 14, Valentine’s Day, and just as soon as the panels sat down before 10 a.m. for what was expected to be a really heavy day of discussions on substantive issues, then GPH panel chair Leonen informed Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato’ Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed that the women had something important to say.

Ferrer, Lao, Wahab, Bayot and Basman stood up to greet everyone a “Happy Valentine’s Day,” approached the MILF peace panel members and its secretariat and handed over a heart-shaped canister of chocolates each to MILF chair Mohagher Iqbal, panel members Datu Michael Mastura, Abhoud Syed Lingga and Datu Antonio Kinoc,  secretariat members Jun Mantawil, Mike Pasigan, Mohadjirin Ali and the lone woman in the MILF team  then — Jajurie.

Lao acknowledged that Muslims do not celebrate Valentines’ Day but added, “we live in a pluralistic society.”

Ferrer said “we did it in the spirit of friendship between panels and the spirit of collegiality between us women and the men with whom we are working hard to find a solution.”

MILF chair Mohagher Iqbal  told MindaNews  then that the women’s act of giving was “very sweet” but added, “well, to us, the  spirit of Valentine is incidental; the real thing is we are engaged in negotiation to search for real justice and peace in Mindanao.”

Balance at peace table

Like the MILF peace panel, the ICG — the group of state and international NGO representatives accompanying the peace process, and the Malaysian facilitator’s team == are also male-dominated. But the head of the Malaysian secretariat is a woman: Che Khasna.

Emma Leslie, Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Siem Reap, Cambodia and Philippines Programme Associate also at Conciliation Resources, is the ICG’s lone woman member.

BONDING: Emma Leslie of ICG (2nd from right) with lawyer Mary Ann Arnado of MPC, GPH panel members Bai Yasmin Busra-Lao and Miriam Coronel-Ferrer on June 7, 2012 at the inauguration of the Bangsamoro Management and Leadership Institute in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. File photo by GG Bueno / MindaNews

BONDING: Emma Leslie of ICG (2nd from right) with lawyer Mary Ann Arnado of MPC, GPH panel members Bai Yasmin Busra-Lao and Miriam Coronel-Ferrer on June 7, 2012 at the inauguration of the Bangsamoro Management and Leadership Institute in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. File photo by GG Bueno / MindaNews

But Leslie played a key role in August 2011 when, still euphoric over the historic meeting in Japan between President Aquino and MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim two weeks earlier, no one could imagine that the first round of talks after that meeting would end in an impasse. The talks adjourned a day ahead of schedule when the MILF rejected the government’s draft peace agreement and GPH chair Leonen replied, “We reject your rejection.”

Leslie, along with other members of the ICG,  got both parties and the Malaysian facilitator, to return to the negotiating table.

“The prevailing ways of meetings, agendas and methods of conducting meetings are often masculinist and based on the ideal of power over rather than power with. They follow the principle of ‘may the best man win’ and other competitive and divisive values,” she told MindaNews.

Leslie stressed the need for balance at the peace table. “Women must be included for meaningful participation, so that diverse ways of knowing, communicating, relating, and getting the work done are fully incorporated and integrated in all peace processes. This can be reached only through both equitable numerical representation and designing gender-balanced methods and agendas. We need each other to be sure that we reach the prize together, intact.”

For peace, for the country

Lao acknowledged to MindaNews last Friday that towards the end of a journey, there are always fears. She asked: “where we able to capture what would respond to the need for sustainable peace?”

She said she is confident that even if there is no PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund or ‘pork barrel’ which has been declared unconstitutional in November 2013), Congress would still support the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Addressing members of Congress, she said: “you want to be part of history, you want to be part of a legacy. If you believe that this, to a certain extent, is what we humanly can attain to achieve peace, with or without PDAF or DAP (the President’s controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program which is the subject of a petition at the Supreme Court and whose hearings will resume on January 28), you can say ‘ako, nagpirma ako para sa bayan.’ You’d want to be on the side of history. Wala ka na ngang PDAF, wala ka pa sa pumirma. Paano ka na?” (You don’t have PDAF, you’re not a signatory. What does that make you?)


Emma Leslie is on the TRANSCEND International Board of Conveners. She is the Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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One Response to “Philippines – The Women in the Bangsamoro Peace Process: History, Herstory”

  1. Jake Lynch says:

    Carol is too modest to say it but her own leadership role in spreading and practising Peace Journalism, over a sustained period of more than a decade in the excellent Mindanews, has also exerted a helpful influence for peace. Bravo!