This week the Philippines government resumes peace talks with the country's main Islamic separatist group. Formal negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have been occurring since 1997, although they break down repeatedly without major breakthroughs. But government negotiators say they are hopeful that a new approach that addresses violent clan feuds called "rido" over land disputes, voting districts and other local issues, could help produce an agreement to end the separatist rebellion.
For the last eight years, independent mediator Abel Moya has kept the peace in a generations-old fight over 24 hectares of fertile land in a western Mindanao province. The Oliveros family and a group of nine other clans both claim to own the disputed coconut grove, but now they want the government to buy it so they can split the proceeds and move on.
“They told us they want to set free the land," Moya said. "They want to let go of the land because it only reminds them of death, ambuscades and other things.”
The families’ violent dispute over the grove goes back nearly 40 years. In the year 2000, their blood feud erupted in a much bigger conflict that drew in government soldiers, engulfing much of Mindanao in violence.
"Rido" is a generations-old method of settling scores between opposing families or even within family units. The retaliatory fighting can involve thousands of people because the families involved are clans, which include not just parents and children but also their many cousins and other relatives.
Moya says one side in the coconut farm conflict happens to be Muslim and the other, Christian. Some on the Muslim side are also members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while some on the Christian side are with the Philippine military.
“So they have dual personalities when they shoot at each other as a member of the MILF and the other as an Armed Forces of the Philippines, it becomes another layer, which we call an institutional war," Moya said. "It’s not just simply protecting who harvests it."
Because military and rebels were involved, the government declared “total war” on the region’s Muslim separatists during a three-month period in 2000. Three thousand people died and hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced.
Blood feuds over land disputes, power or simply preserving one’s “good name” are not uncommon in the Muslim Mindanao region. These feuds play out in rebel country where separatists and the military regularly clash and where weapons are easily accessible.
As a longtime peace negotiator in Mindanao, Moya has firsthand experience of how these disputes over land and other local issues affect peace negotiations between the MILF and the Philippine government. A major component of the Muslims’ push for self-determination is for their lands to be recognized as their own.
Anthropologist Francisco Lara says it is critical for the government to have an acute understanding of how these peace talks play out in local politics.
“The Philippine government is negotiating with the MILF and part of that outcome can be an expansion in the size of the autonomous region," Lara said. "So you will find some clans being afraid about the loss of their vote banks if their districts are apportioned to another town or to another province. This will lead to some concerns and, of course, recourse to violence to make sure that those towns don’t vote to be part of another province. That’s how the link happens.”
The issue of clan violence historically has not been a major factor in government peace talks with separatists. But in 2007, a report by the Asia Foundation that tracked blood feuds in the southern Philippines going back some 75 years found that the violence between clans was driving much of the separatist violence.
The administration of President Benigno Aquino says the government is responding and putting an emphasis on addressing rido disputes.
The government’s top negotiator Marvic Leonen says his office tracks rido incidents in Muslim Mindanao on a weekly basis to try to predict when flare-ups will occur. He also says some Philippine military units are being trained how to intervene in violent clan disputes.
“We take the solution of the rido problem - generally and specifically for each conflict - very seriously," Leonen said. "And, as a matter of fact we think that it will also figure out in terms of the final political settlement.”
Leonen says land disputes especially among factions of Muslim separatists are more prevalent than government-versus-separatist clashes. He says both parties in the national negotiation process recognize a need to provide security and a functioning judicial system for every citizen in the conflict area.
“And then also we have to look at the delivery of justice," Leonen said. "Much of the rido is because of unredressed grievances and of course in an area where there has been a failure of governmental support, then it is so easy to just pick up a gun and settle the problem yourself.”
There are some who remain skeptical that the government can handle the issue. Fatmawati Salapuddin has been mediating for more than 20 years between feuding clans in her southwestern island province of Sulu. She says the blood feuds are now part of the region’s political process.
She says more often than not, elections actually contribute to rido in the region.
“What I can say about rido that emanates from the electoral process is that it is a challenge on how we can conduct elections with people who are responsibly looking at not just trying to get power out of it but doing governance," Salapuddin said. "Well you see, people run for elections because of the power and the resources that they get … not because they know how to govern.”
Salapuddin says even government agencies, such as land titling offices, that could help sort out some of the conflicts, are intimidated by local leaders. She says the region, which is geographically remote from the central government, has basically been left to its own devices.
“National government does not involve itself in the rido. There is no system really, of how to resolve it, how to place it in the entire system,” Salapuddin said.
She says despite the government’s pledges to do more to solve these local disputes, she has doubts that the issue will be substantively addressed in national level peace talks.