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Rebuilding community trust key to lasting peace

Commanding Officer Col. Carlyleo Nagac of the 5th Special Forces "Primus Inter Pares" Battalion, based in Barangay Kablon, Tupi, South Cotabato, whose battalion became the prime mover in breaking up the Dawlah Islamiya terror group, including other communist terrorist groups such as the New People's Army holding lairs in some of the hinterland barangays of South Cotabato. (File photo of PIA Region 12)

The recent disintegration of the terrorist Dawlah Islamiya (DI) Maguid faction is only an initial step that must be sustained to attain lasting peace, an official of the Philippine Army said.

Col. Carlyleo Nagac, commanding officer of the Philippine Army’s 5th Special Forces (SF) Battalion, pointed out that “this is just the beginning of our job. What is heavier here is how to sustain our success.”

Kasi, hindi pwedeng PR lang itong na achieve natin [Because it can't just be PR all we have achieved]. ‘Di pwedeng unang hakbang lang tayo [It can't just be the first step]. We have a very far road ahead of us in terms of peace,” he told the Philippine Information Agency.

In the later part of 2023, the Department of National Defense declared the DI Maguid group, which had its roots in Barangay Lapu, Polomolok, this province, dismantled. 

For this feat, the 5th Special Forces “Primus Inter Pares” Battalion, under the operational control of the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade, received the prestigious Campaign Streamer Award from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during the 2023 year-end AFP command conference at Camp Aguinaldo on January 15, 2024.

Apart from the 5th Special Forces “Primus Inter Pares” Battalion, the Provincial Government of South Cotabato, led by Gov. Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. (left), was also officially recognized for its efforts in the dismantlement of the DI Maguid group in a ceremony on January 29. (Photo by Danilo Doguiles/PIA Region 12)

Knocking off mutual distrust  

Nagac said winning the fight against the terror group required breaking down the long-standing distrust between the government and the community, which he emphasized was merely a matter of miscommunication.

The army commander admitted that at some point the government was unable to deliver basic services to the people of Lapu and its neighboring Muslim villages of Bentung, Sumbakil, Lumakil, and Koronadal Proper, but only because civil servants perceived dangers in going to the area.

Ang nangyari is miscommunication. Feeling ng community, na-exclude sila, na discriminate sila. Tapos pinagkakaitan sila ng serbisyo dahil sa religion nila. Sa side naman ng gobyerno, whether LGU o line agencies, dahil meron naman talagang history of violence, takot silang pumasok kaya hindi nila ma-deliver ang services,” Nagac explained.

[What happened was a miscommunication. The community feels that they are excluded and that they are deprived of basic services because of their religion. On the government's side, whether LGUs or line agencies, they are afraid to enter because there is a history of violence, so they cannot deliver the services.]

To help convey the intentions of the government towards resolving conflict and eventually engage with the families of the rebels, government troops needed a bridge with the community.

This effort led the government to a respected community leader, Basit Nilong, who was later elected as punong barangay, or barangay chieftain of Lapu. 

With chieftain Nilong as a link, the government troops succeeded in initiating talks with the community and later facilitated the entry of both the government and private sectors for more peace and development efforts. 

The initiative led to the surrender of four rebel leaders in the later part of 2022 and 24 more returning to the folds of the law in 2023.

They were enrolled in the government’s Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (ECLIP) for financial and livelihood support and other forms of assistance provided to former rebels.

Meanwhile, conversations with the entire community focused on addressing misconceptions.

Kinausap natin sila, na hindi totoo ang akala ninyo at lagi kayong nasa isip ng government agencies natin pero, siyempre kailangan namin ang tulong ninyo,” Nagac further recounted.

[We talked to them, informing them that what they think of the government is not true and that they are always in the minds of government agencies, but, of course, we need their help.]

Tanong namin sa kanila, kung takot ang mga taga-gobyerno para sa kaligtasan nila kapag pumasok sa inyong lugar, sa palagay ninyo papasok pa sila? Sagot nila, hindi talaga sir,” Nagac went on to say.

[We asked them, if the government people fear for their safety when they enter their place, do you think they would still enter? They answered, no, they will not, sir.]

Residents of Barangay Lapu and neighboring villages received basic services in a Serbisyo Caravan on January 26, 2024. (Photo by the Provincial Information Office, Provincial Government of South Cotabato)

Strengthening community trust

“How did we strengthen the trust of the community?  Of course, with the delivery of services. Dinala natin doon ang iba’t ibang mga line agencies. Pinakita natin sa kanila kung ano ‘yong mga opportunities waiting for them as part of the program of the government,” Nagac said.

[How did we strengthen the trust of the community? Of course, with the delivery of services. We brought different line agencies there. We showed them what opportunities were waiting for them as part of the government's program.]

Non-governmental organizations, including Dole Philippines, Mahintana Foundation, Inc., and their partners, also joined in delivering services to the community.

Just recently, the Provincial Government of South Cotabato, the 5th SF Battalion, national line agencies, and non-government partners conducted a serbisyo caravan for residents of Barangay Lapu and surrounding villages, where the community was provided basic services and oriented on government programs and projects such as those provided by TESDA, DepEd, and DOLE. 

The move resulted in the community gaining interest in availing of government assistance, such as skills training from TESDA, establishing inland aquaculture, and developing the community as a tourism destination. 

Sabi nga namin pwede magkaroon tayo ng working title na ‘From Terrorism to Tourism’ [We thought that we could have a working title of 'From Terrorism to Tourism'],” Nagac said.

On January 30, AY Foundation, Dole Philippines, and Mahintana Foundation turned over two newly completed Madaris learning centers to the community in Lapu and in Barangay Magsaysay, another Muslim community in Polomolok.

Construction of the concrete Madaris buildings was funded by the AY Foundation, but labor, equipment, and machinery were provided by the 549th Engineering Battalion.

For his part, Nilong welcomed the attention that his community has recently gained from the peace efforts.

Malaking pasalamat ko na bumubuhos na ang mga project sa aming lugar [I am very grateful that projects are now pouring into our area],” Nilong said during the turnover ceremony of the Madrasah in Sitio Bio, Barangay Lapu. 

“For the first time, itong lugar na ito naapakan ng general. Dati rati ang mga umaapak dito mga kumander lang. Malaki ang pasasalamat namin. Ang pangako namin, i-maintain namin ang peace and order para makakapasok ang mga ibibigay nyo pa sa amin,” he assured as he committed his all-out support.

[For the first time, an Army general has stepped on this place. In the past, those who stepped here were only commanders. For that, we are very grateful. We promise to help maintain peace and order so that the government assistance you give us can enter.]

Responding to the promise of maintaining peace, Nagac emphasized that there’s an exchange for government help, reiterating the concept of a give-and-take.

Sinasabi namin, oo tutulungan kayo ng gobyerno, pero may kapalit yan. Ang kapalit dito ay kailangan ma-develop ang kakayayahan ninyong tumayo sa sarili ninyong paa, maging productive member ng gobyerno. Hindi kaya ng gobyerno na bigay na lang ng bigay,” he elaborated, as he opined that the government peace effort is heading in a good direction toward ensuring the welfare of people in the communities formerly affected by decades of insurgency.

[We say, yes, the government will help you, but there is a price. The exchange here is to develop your ability to stand on your own feet and to be a productive member of the government and society because the government can't just give and give.]

Nagac rationalized that sustaining the gains of the peace efforts in the area requires sustaining success, which he said does not end with the government and its partners addressing the needs of the community but also requires the participation of the community. (DED - PIA Region 12)

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Harlem Jude Ferolino

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