Philippines: Shattered Peace - the human cost of conflict in Mindanao

Originally published
1. Introduction and summary

"I had not even gotten married yet when this conflict began. I was still a young lady when we first had to evacuate. Then, when I had young children, we had to evacuate again. Now, I have three grandchildren, but nothing has changed." -Mariam, 63, North Cotabato province

Heavy fighting erupted in August 2008 after a temporary restraining order on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which would have widened the territory of the existing Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and given broader political and economic powers to Muslim leadership in the island region in the southern Philippines. The MOA-AD, previously "initialled" by the Philippine government and the armed opposition group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was scheduled to be formally signed in Putra Jaya, Malaysia on 5 August, but on 4 August the Philippine Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on it. The document was designed to pave the way for peace in Mindanao, an island region double the size of the Netherlands, where the long standing armed conflict over the last 40 years has claimed the lives of an estimated 120,000 people, displaced some two million civilians and left the resource-rich region impoverished.

On 2 September, the Office of the Solicitor General informed the Supreme Court that the executive would not sign the MOA-AD with MILF, regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court upheld it. The next day the President announced that the government has dissolved the peace panel, with her spokesperson and former peace adviser saying there will be, "no more talks".

On 14 October 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the MOA-AD was unconstitutional. In response, an MILF commander announced that it would launch further attacks, as its fighters were largely frustrated with the results of the peace talks.

Data gathered by Amnesty International in August 2008 in a fact-finding mission to various locations in Mindanao, together with information received from local contacts, the media and the Philippine Human Rights Commission, indicate that the renewal of violence between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been, and continues to be, accompanied by human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. While the armed conflict in the Philippines' south is not new, the number of civilians directly affected by this most recent escalation of hostilities has increased dramatically, with no clear end in sight.

If impunity for perpetrators of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law from both parties to the conflict continues, with a lack of avenues for redress for the victims and the threat of more MILF attacks in the wake of the failure of the peace talks, Mindanao may find itself approaching a human rights crisis.

Two months after the attacks by the MILF on civilians in predominantly Christian and sometimes mixed Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods in August 2008, the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) reported that over 610,000 people have fled their villages to escape the violence. They fled from MILF attacks on their homes; fighting between the MILF and Philippine security forces; and after their relatives had been killed or injured. Around 240,000 of them have subsequently gone back to their homes after the Philippine military declared their villages safe. These people, many of whom found their houses burned and their livestock stolen upon their return, continue to live in fear. The 370,000 who are still displaced, remain in internally displaced person (IDP) sites or with their relatives. With the peace talks indefinitely stalled, skirmishes and military operations against the MILF continue.

Reported cases of civilians killed as a result of the conflict between August and September 2008 have reached at least 104-- many of them children. Government data attributed at least 30 deaths to "hack wounds" or "multiple gunshot wounds".

Some were also killed by "mortar shelling". Given the difficulty in obtaining data from the remote villages where the fighting continues to take place, there could be more civilian casualties than has been reported. Hundreds of civilians have been injured either from getting caught in the crossfire, hit by government air strikes or by mortar attacks by both sides.

(Note: Armed violence did not occur in Misamis Oriental and Misamis Occidental, but they were highlighted because a substantial number of displaced people fled to them after the 18 August attack in Lanao del Norte. Provinces in red are areas that have gone through, or still continue to undergo, the worst violence.)

As of October 2008, the armed conflict has spread to nine provinces and three cities in Mindanao. These include the provinces of Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Saranggani, Sultan Kudarat, Shariff Kabunsuan, Basilan and Maguindanao and the cities of Iligan, Marawi and General Santos.

A particularly worrisome development since the escalation in fighting has been the reappearance of the vigilante group Ilaga, a vigilante group that was known in the 1970s to have targeted and killed Moros (Philippine Muslims) whom they perceived as subversive. Government backed Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU), Civil Volunteer Organizations (CVOs), police auxiliaries and other civilian militias supported by local politicians have also joined the conflict. Government officials and the police justify the arming of civilians in various provinces around Mindanao as a form of protection for communities from further attacks from MILF fighters. Amnesty International has earlier cautioned against the arming of civilian militias, stating that "experience from around the world shows that the deployment of civilian militias can set off a chain of reprisals and only increases the danger facing civilians".

In the course of its research on the ground and its subsequent monitoring of the conflict's development, Amnesty International has collected information indicating that both the Philippine government and the MILF have committed human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law during the renewed conflict. Unlawful killings, including reported killings as a result of targeting civilians by the MILF and indiscriminate attacks by the security forces, and hostage taking with possible torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment) by the MILF, and have occurred in the conflict areas of Mindanao.

Both sides of the conflict have violated their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect from harm those who are taking no active part in the hostilities.

The MILF has attacked civilians in several towns and villages in at least three provinces in Mindanao, using guns and machetes to kill villagers in their homes or on the streets. Amnesty International has received reports from credible local sources about how the MILF forces had taken civilians as hostages after attacks in the towns of Kolambugan and Kauswagan in Lanao del Norte province. The MILF fighters had also reportedly looted businesses and burned houses in the different affected provinces. Such abuses were described as being directed at Christian civilians who are locally considered as "settlers" in what was historically a Muslim-dominated Mindanao.

The Philippine military has failed to protect the civilian population in the conflict affected areas, and has killed civilians in a number of attacks and aerial bombings. Amnesty International has also received documentation from reliable local sources that members of government security forces have burned houses and stolen civilian belongings and crops during their operations.

To protect victims who fear reprisals from the military or the MILF if they are identified, throughout this report, Amnesty International does not use the real names of its interviewees nor include sensitive details of the cases, unless it otherwise specifies.