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!

In the Waters of Sulu

We boarded MV Trisha Kerstin 2 departing from Zamboanga to Bongao, yesterday at 4 in the afternoon. We were told that we set sail at 7 in the evening, but due to a ‘steering problem’ we departed Zamboanga at 3 in the morning. Not a very good experience for a first-timer. But surprisingly, passengers never complained, as if it was to be expected – When in Rome… Well, in Zamboanga, expect the unexpected and remember to keep a cool head.

I woke up this morning to a stunning view of Basilan and other islands, the gentle sun peeking from the low hills. From our vantage point, it looks like only one island, but the stacked-up hues of blue betrays the illusion. One man pointed to an area and said it was Malamawi. Oh, the names of these islands smell of adventures and ancient tales! 

Breakfast was spartan. A cafeteria sells hot water and cup noodles. We bought our noodles and bread in Zamboanga, so we only had to buy hot water for 50 pesos. I noticed the ship’s plan posted in the cafeteria and realized it’s a Japanese cargo ship, intended to transport vehicles. MV Trisha, of course, was modified: another floor here, bunkers there, and cots everywhere on the 2nd and 3rd floors, the first reserved for cargoes. 

It is a Babel here. Languages I’ve heard are Tausug, Sama, Bisaya, Tagalog. I have yet to find a Bikolano so we can add our language to that list. Include also chicken, goat and dog talks. To pass the time, I noticed that people resort to smoking, talking with strangers, staring at one point in the horizon, sleeping, watching a movie, and more sleeping. It’s easy to strike a conversation. Choose a random stranger, ask something, and maybe out of boredom or sheer friendliness, the other would gladly open a conversation with you. The hard accented Tagalog is hard to understand at first, but I survived. I find it dangerous to talk about certain topics though. A stranger asking your views on politics, the Zamboanga Siege, or your opinions on Nur Misuari, is best to be avoided. 

Entering the waters of Sulu, one cannot miss the number of boats fishing for sardines, tamban. Our last count puts them to 44. Large nets trawl schools of sardines and I can’t help but wonder how fishing in this area is being regulated. Over-fishing is a possibility. 

MV Trisha passed right in front of ‘Lupah Sug’, Jolo, Sulu. Although quite far, I noticed it is a sprawling community. A large mosque with 4 minarets cannot be missed by the eyes. Several mountains, extinct volcanoes perhaps, tower the island. My companion, a Sama from Laminusa, pointed at Bud Daho, site of a terrible massacre of an entire community in 1906. Surrounding the main island are several other smaller islets with dazzlingly white beaches. Some inhabited, some not. In one islet, a community enjoys the white beach right at their front doors. On closer inspection, the architectural design of their houses are uniquely theirs, supported by stilts with their roofs like 2 trapezoids on top of one another. To the right and left of this community, long stretches of white sand beaches tempt an eager soul passing by in his old, heavily-converted Japanese ship. 

Before reaching the waters of Tawi-Tawi, our friend pointed at 3 island to the left side of ship. He said that in between the islands of Tara and Siasi is Tara Strait, where legends say a snake and a Sarinaga (dragon) fought. One island was cut into two because of that fight, and until now signs of that battle can still be seen in the area. I can only dream of collecting stories such as this to share with the children. Tell them of our heritage, our treasures of identities. 

We have just entered the waters of Tawi-Tawi, but we still have 5 more hours before reaching Bongao. On our right, another string of islets seating on turquoise water beckons – here on the edges of our country, beauty needs no announcements, she is a revelation.

5:40 pm, October 15 aboard MV Trisha Kerstin 2

Notes on Peace: In Ciudad de Sambuwangan

The rugged coastline came into view as we approached the airport of Zamboanga City, Sambuwangan to the ancient Sama people. This was only my second time to visit this city. The first time was a quick stopover as we transitted for Tawi-Tawi. But this second visit, only days after the ‘Zamboanga Siege’ and with the city still trying to salvage itself from the trauma of those days, brings out various emotions in me. 

Down below us, as we neared land, houses on stilts grew larger, ships lining the coast calls eager young men and women to a better life perhaps in Sabah, while flooded houses also grew more vivid – reminding the plane’s passengers of yet another recent calamity that hit the city.

I searched within me, if I’ve come prepared. Have I read enough materials on this siege? How much do I know of the ethnic diversity in the area, to better understand the situation? How sensitive am I to woundedness? Will anyone be ever really prepared to face such monsters as trauma and grief?

I joined a group from the Ateneo de Davao’s Al Qalam Institute of Islamic Identities and Dialogue to map out the network of collaborators in the Sulu Zone which includes Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The institute’s aim is to train people from these communities to be peace advocates among their people. I feel really blessed that I am part of this project, even if only in the beginning stages, because this area sorely needs such intervention. I am of the belief that peace in this area is possible, but people from the community must first understand the different circumstances, contexts and present conditions prevailing in the Sulu Zone and beyond it. Peace works, as I understand it must not take on an attitude of imposition, a top-down business that relies heavily on imperial Manila, driven by it’s own notions and prejudices. Instead peace works must take on a participatory approach that depends on a community’s aspirations, narratives, and worldviews. The community itself must aspire and work for it. It may take years, with our generation not seeing its fruition, but at least we rest in the assurance that we haved sowed the seeds of lasting and inclusive peace.

Our group has come to the city of Zamboanga when its wounds have barely healed. Bienvenidos a Ciudad de Zamboanga! declares a poster in its airport, but a heavy sigh is perceptible, as audible as a wall riddled by bullet holes. Scars of the tragedies are palpable: several houses have hung the Philippine flag to show support to the Government Forces, several Sama Dilaut families stranded with their boats parked in one boulevard because their houses are no more, stories of the siege and floods fill hotel lobbies, thousands still in evacuation centers around the city, a mandatory 10:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew, and of course, one will not miss the army men in the city who have become as ubiquitous as dust in a library. It is almost like martial law is in effect. But never have I been more emotional when we finally set foot in barangay Sta. Barbara, ‘ground zero’ of the Zamboanga Siege. 

The morning of October 13, we were invited by Fr. Bert Alejo, SJ to attend what I understood only as just a repainting of a mosque damaged during the siege. I was partly surprised when we were blocked by a group of military, asking us of our purpose in Sta. Barbara. It turned out that the whole area, including Rio Hondo and Sta. Catalina have been cordoned off, quarantined. We had to call Fr Bert while he in turn let the secretary of Zamboanga Mayor Beng Climaco talk to the officer for us to finally enter the area. 

The silence was the first to hit me. It was eerily pregnant in the mid-morning sun. Conversations were hushed and only greetings of welcome from friends punctuate the silence. The mosque, as it turned out, was riddled by bullet holes, its minaret, where two female snipers of the MNLF were positioned, turned into a coarse sieve. ‘Riddled, ‘ I surmised was such an apt word after all. Instead of just ‘being perforated,’ the minaret was a real riddle, an enigmatic piece of that mosque, a riddle of what transpired on September, piercing the sky, perhaps even asking the heavens for answers.

As we gathered together on the rooftop of the Sta. Barbara Mosque sharing that same indifferent morning heat, I felt the unmistakable collective aspiration to rebuild, not just infrastructures but most importantly, relations. Speeches were made, allusions to light conquering darkness were referred to, calls to unity were pronounced, God was called to bear witness and give guidance. Are these not the same pronouncements and prayers of the other group, of the ‘enemy’? I had to make sense of the senseless-ness, if I can. If anyone can.

Several groups joined in the symbolic act of repainting the mosque’s minaret. And as a symbol, several interpretations may be presented: reconciliation of Muslims and Christians, mending the gaps between the two religions, or the conquering of a bitter chapter in the city’s history. A fitting symbol indeed, if we also consider the fact that the mosque was named after a Christian saint.

Perhaps we can also reflect on the name Barbara, from the Greek Barbados and Arabic Al-Barbar referring to foreigners or ‘barbarians’. Who is the real foreigner in Sambuwangan/Zamboanga when Sama, Sama Dilaut, Tausug, Chavacano, Bisaya and other groups call it home? Perhaps the damaged minaret calls us to reflect on how we exclude or marginalize the other, and how this othering has caused so many wounds among our people.

I want to end my reflections on that day with an experience in Fort Pilar.

I went in line to touch the cross near the altar at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pilar. I observed several devotees in the line pointing to a bullet hole in a cement vase. A mother with her child was in front of me and the mother explained to the child that it was a bullet hole from the fighting in September. The child stared at it for several seconds, and I can only begin to imagine the images that passed by his wondering eyes. How many people, on their way to touch the sacred image, saw that same bullet hole and what it represents, and prayed, really prayed for peace?

Teaching Peace, Developing Tolerance, Instilling Sensitivity

I grew up in an extremely pious Catholic city. Every year, thousands of devotees gather in Naga City to show their love to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, bringing with them a multitude of thanksgivings and prayer-requests to Ina. The festivity during the nine-day novena itself has become a cultural icon, the celebrations referring to the city while the city prides in being the steward of this devotion – Pueblo amante de Maria. But looking in retrospect, with me now immersed for two and a half years in the cultures and struggles of Mindanao, I found myself asking questions on religious tolerance and sensitivity, of challenging my worldview as a Taga-Naga Catholic and to reflect on the level of tolerance given to non-Catholics in and around Naga. How, for instance, are we portraying our pagan past in performances like street dancings during the Peñafrancia festival? How much space is provided for the narratology of non-believers in the public discourses? How are we excluding non-Catholics when we institutionalize such religious events? I believe such questions must be addressed in pedagogy.

Developing a curriculum and reforming methods of instruction with a particular sensitivity to diversity in cultures and religions in the Philippine context is an imperative in promoting peace and in pursuing a society marked with respect and acceptance of the ‘otherness’ of the other.

We are in a point in our educational history when great leaps and bounds are being done not only in the adding of two years in Basic Education but also of reforms being done in curriculum and classroom instruction. This is also an opportune time to integrate subject matters or topics relating to peace, and in amending certain topics that have been deemed passé, obsolete or culturally insensitive. Methods of instruction in the classroom must also be changed to cater to more and more plural ethnicities, backgrounds and religions of the students.

For instance, in teaching Grades 6 and 7, a crucial time for transforming attitudes and biases of students, greater emphasis on multiculturalism can be done. This includes, among other things, the use of literary samples from the different ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines in teaching Values Education or in other suitable subjects. In English subjects, literature tends to lean in favor of English writers and Western categories of literature when in fact, there is a treasure chest full of literary gems from the Indigenous Communities which may be carefully translated to English without losing its soul, and not packaged in a Western literary category, but as it is. In this way, students may be able to appreciate the diversity of cultures, and also, of worldviews in the Philippines. 

Religious intolerance may be corrected by choosing carefully the topics, examples and methods of instruction. Students must be given the freedom to express their beliefs in projects, or written compositions, without feeling betrayed by the prejudices in the textbooks or the way the teacher delivered the lesson. This point begs an example. The ‘Moro-Moro’, (which in fact was a type of theater in several Luzon areas) for instance, as a type of Philippine theater play may not be omitted on textbooks but instead used as a jump-off point for students’ personal reflection on their attitudes towards Muslims – a movement towards conscientization that can be strengthened in higher year levels. 

It must also be clear, in the development of curriculum, to refrain from generalizing that the wars in Mindanao have been caused by the gaps in the relationship of Muslims and Christians when in fact, several studies have already concluded that the hardening of ethnic and religious identities were the consequences, and not the causes of conflicts in Mindanao. Students must be given input on the political and socio-economic conditions of Mindanao to better understand how conflicts are triggered and identities mustered in wars. This can be iterated in the Social Science subject and emphasized on Values Education.

How do we teach the ‘Mindanao Problem’ to students outside Mindanao who have never been directly impacted by the many challenges in Mindanao? By putting Mindanao right at their doorstep. I, for one, am a product of an educational upbringing where Mindanao seems to be so far off from my own community. By bringing into the fore how this ‘Problem’ directly and indirectly impacts on the students’ own community, a better interest might be attained. By giving emphasis on Mindanao’s indispensable contribution to statehood and nationhood, ranging from contributions on cultural diversity to economy and contributions to the nation’s collective symbols and narratives, Mindanao becomes a bedfellow to the student who lives in a mountain community in Camarines Sur. 

Instilling sensitivity of the other requires that we move out of the tribalistic frame of mind that is often characteristic of many groups here in Mindanao. This pervading tribalistic attitude is marked by insensitivity to non-members of the ‘tribe’ or group and shuts any sense of the pursuit of the common good, and takes personal and tribal affronts to wars and violence against this ‘other’. It fences in the ‘tribe’ away from the nation and away from the global world, taking into consideration the good of the tribe or even in some instances, only the private, individual good. This lack of the sense of the common good, of this ‘my tribe’ attitude needs to addressed as one of the primary causes of conflicts in Mindanao. A Sama Banguingui youth, for example, can identify his or her role in a globalized world, or identify his or her contribution to nation building. This must be addressed not only in education but also in agencies working for the development of Mindanao like the Mindanao Development Authority. Public interests, the summation of interests of those individuals comprising Mindanao is imperative in any development plans, of which education holds a key role. By addressing the dearth of the sense of the common good in education and development plans, we can imagine a movement from the tribal good and on to a good that serves the nation (or even nation/s in the context of Mindanao) and the global world, which ultimately, serves the community.

A change in attitude is required of every citizen, most particularly the young, if ever this is to be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, with its core deeply rooted in forming culturally-, peace-, and environment-sensitive citizens not just of the immediate community but also of the nation and the global world who sees him/herself in the web of human relations. This is an education that is not cold-hearted but is committed to the ethics of care, valuing the other not because he or she is a victim of injustice, but because the other is valuable per se.