Mindanao, Depth, Peace

Mr. Mariano de Guzman, Asst. Schools District Superintendent; Dr. Sonia Teran, Principal of the Naga City Science High School; dear teachers, parents, completers, friends, Good afternoon. Maayong hapon sa atong tanan!  Heyu kimmel be kedeen! Assalamualaikum warakmatulahi wabarakatuhu!

I bring with me the warm greetings of our sisters and brothers in Mindanao, our hope for a just peace and sustainable development for all, and a prayer that you students of Naga City Science High School become men and women of moral integrity and social conscience, leaders for those of us in the peripheries of Philippine society.

It is truly an honor to be here with you this afternoon. Notwithstanding the fact that it has been a personal dream of mine to speak in my alma mater. I am also a Naguenian, an alumnus of Class 2003. I remember with fondness the years of pimple-inducing academic works, the long tests of Mam Teran, the reporting on Asian nations with Mam Hernandez, the stern “shhhhh, this is a library!” of Mam Infeliz and the challenging research with Sir Acabado. But I also remember vividly the sun setting, painting the sky red and gold, a cool breeze sweeping freshly mown grass,  friends making tambay around the flag pole, and the sudden stench of Balatas — curiously fruity, inducing laughter from among friends. Indeed, one does not become a Naguenian without getting used to that smell.

Believe me when I say that I know how you are feeling right now, relieved and happy to finally graduate from the gruelling demands of analytical geometry, trigonometry, research, and physics, but at the same time feeling a sense of dread — for the uncertain future, for the gravity of what’s waiting for us after this completion ceremony.

In anthropology we call this completion ceremony, a liminal stage, a neither-here-nor-there.  You move on to another rung in the ladder of basic education, onward and forward to Senior High School, as of yet a new frontier, an uncharted territory in Philippine education. You march on to the promise of the K to 12 Program — a realistic chance to go to college or perhaps to earn a living immediately after graduating from Grade 12, all career pathways that, as our theme suggests, will be the “tagapagdala ng kaunlaran sa bansang Pilipinas,” like the proverbial boat ferrying the nation to greatness.

I speak to you now both as a son of Naga and a son of Mindanao. There is an old saying among the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi that man should strive to be like the kamote rather than the kamoteng kahoy. For you see, the kamote, because it spreads its roots, will not die once you uproot it. The kamoteng kahoy, on other hand, with a single root, will ultimately die once you tear up its root.

I guess I have become that kamote; calling Naga, Davao, and Lake Sebu in South Cotabato homes. I have become friends with Luzon and Visayan settlers, Moro, and individuals from different indigenous communities. Only when I lived in Mindanao did I truly understand the issues haunting and tormenting Mindanao, what they referred to as the “Mindanao Problem” now being rebranded as the “Mindanao Opportunity.”

In our quaint city of Naga, Mindanao is but a far-off place; so far from Manila! So far from Naga! In our national imagination, Manila is the center of everything. Those outside it is considered rural, provincial, promdi, second-rate, marginal. In the 1980s it is often portrayed in movies that when one wants to get away from the problems of Manila-life, he or she will say: “Magpapakalayo-layo ako ng Maynila. Pupunta ako sa Davao.” In that imagining, Mindanao is at the edge of the world, where the sea perhaps falls down to the abyss.

Friends, dear guests, and students, I come to you now to bring Mindanao to your doorsteps. Let her in.

The conflict in Mindanao has roots tracing back to the colonial era and the dynamics of exploitation and resistance that marked that period. From the 16th century until 1898, Moro sultanates fought the Spanish colonial regime and manage to maintain much of their cultural and political distinctiveness. However, it also set the stage for deep-seated mutual mistrust. It was only with the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines from Spain at the turn of the 20th century that Mindanao became incorporated into national structures, and its lands were claimed for settlement.  People were dispossesed of their lands, their cultures considered savage and uncouth.

Today, there are multiple armed combatant groups operating in Mindanao, including the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization also poses a threat to local residents. Treaties and peace talks were made though much ground has yet to be covered.

The conflicts in Mindanao need to be placed within their broader social and economic contexts. In Mindanao, poverty and lack of social opportunities are both drivers and outcomes of conflict. Although the region is agriculturally fertile and resource rich, decades of conflict have left the area among the most impoverished in the Philippines. Economic deprivation, when coupled with a sense of injustice, often inflames conflict. It remains clear to most ARMM residents that their poverty is not a natural condition but rather the result of political choices; local communities perceive willful government neglect, encouraged by deep-rooted discrimination toward ethnic Moros and their adherence to Islam.

Aggressive development projects and the widespread implementation of extractive industries in indigenous territories has also worsened Indigenous Peoples’ marginalized situation. This includes corporate mining, large dams and other energy projects, massive agribusiness, eco-tourism, among others, which are also seriously undermining the peace, security and development of indigenous communities. Their adverse impact include the destruction of livelihoods, the environment, land, resources and properties and has also caused conflicts, divisions and the erosion of indigenous socio-political systems. As I speak, perhaps another mortar claimed a father in Maguindanao, or a farmer activist killed while voicing out the impunity of the state.

I introduced to you the story of Mindanao to give you a sense of urgency and a context to the oftentimes muddled issues troubling Mindanao. Many government and grassroots initiatives to forge a lasting and just peace have been made, some making its impacts, most are band-aid solutions, it would need the concerted efforts of each and every citizen, all of us, to make this elusive peace a reality. Peace necessarily begins with us.

How do we proceed? As individuals, how can we contribute to just peace in Mindanao and the world? Be involved. Do not be a passive actor in this project of nation building. But most importantly, a change in attitude will be required of us, most particularly from you, the young people, if we want peace to be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, with its core deeply rooted in forming culturally-, peace-, and environmentally-sensitive citizens not just of our immediate community but also of the nation and the global world, individuals who see themselves in the web of human relations.

We are in an age where superficiality marks the pervading culture, especially of the young people. We spend so much time on memes, fads, and viral videos of cats on the internet. We wage trolling wars on facebook, stalking the Kardashians, trivializing the Kathniels, Aldubs, and Jadines of the imagined social media world. We sorely lack depth. We miss out the essentials. Our conversations have become virtual and insubstantial. We have put a misplaced value on the number of facebook and instagram likes to affirm our egos. Where is depth? Where is meaning? In this pervading superficial attitude, how indeed can we build relations and communities of friends?

I urge you to go out there — go out to the real world where poverty, injustice, and corruption need to be addressed. Be involved. Witness. Engage in dialogue. Peace in our communities, peace in Mindanao, peace in the world, can only be achieved when we deepen our understanding of clashing issues and when we open our vulnerable selves to the other. We can contribute to interreligious and intercultural dialogues when we pull ourselves away from the superficial and begin to engage in the depth of meaning, value, respect, trust, and love.

As you move up the academic ladder, how can you cultivate more depth in your life and contribute to a more compassionate and peaceful society? Let me share with you some of the advice of Maria Popova:

Do not do anything for awards or status or money or approval alone. Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that offer deeper rewards.

Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.

Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations.

When people try to tell you who you are, do not believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.

Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living.

Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.  The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. The flower does not go from bud to blossom in one burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

And finally –

Seek out what magnifies your soul. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.

As you move on to Senior High School, cultivate depth in your person, and build, nourish personal relations based on mutual trust, respect, and love. Remember to do things with joy. The Sufi master and poet, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, wrote: “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” When you feel that joy rushing like a river, trust me, you’re in the right direction.

Again, my congratulations to everyone!

Dios an mabalos!

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