My Mindanao: Peace at long last?
Mindanao has been my cradle for more than two decades. I grew up in a predominantly Christian town of Tupi, in South Cotabato, where I rubbed elbows with Muslims and Lumads. I was lucky to be born in a place where cultures co-exist despite diversity.
But as I grew older, I came to realize that this part of the archipelago has a lot of issues. I realized that in some parts of the island, political and religious tensions are rife. When I went to college at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, it was then that I came to know more about the so-called “conflict” in the South on a deeper level.
You see, my Mindanao is one of the richest in terms of natural resources. Aside from securing almost the country's iron reserve, it also produces over half of the country's total pineapple, corn, coffee, copra, cocoa and abaca products. In fact, my home province of South Cotabato is home to a various fruit plantations and mining ventures. But despite these godsends, some parts of Mindanao remain poor. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is where the highest poverty rates are, the lowest literacy rates, and the least access to health and education. (READ: Bizmen on Mindanao's dev't: We must do our part)
The reason for the “Mindanao conflict” in the South is deeply intertwined with various factors such as the colonial legacies and a scrawny central government. After the colonization by the foreign powers, many of our Muslim brethren were displaced and dirt poor. Add to that the proclivity of some "Christian" Filipinos to discriminate Muslims (and Lumads) which gave them the idea that they’re being left out. This fueled the separatist movements, led by radical leader Nur Misuari, which started in the 1960s.
The Philippine media’s attention on the island was not of help, either. For the longest time, Mindanao landed in the news for all the negative reasons: kidnappings, terrorist bombings, and violence.
That is why I always cry foul when the Manila-centric media does not care to specify the town affected – and lazily labels the scoop as “Mindanao.” This irresponsible style of reporting gives the impression that the whole island, all of its 26 provinces and 6 administrative regions, is erupting in violence.
It only seemingly becomes a concern when there is a threat to national security. And this is actually one of the reasons why I and many Mindanaoan netizens blog. We try to provide positive alternative news that is rarely published in the dailies. We believe that bringing out positive and truthful news in the open is one of the best ways of letting other people know that change is happening and that there is still hope.
Living here in Mindanao, I see events unfold with my very eyes, which all the more made me realize how important this issue is. Over the years, insurrections and skirmishes taint our mountains. And these wars did nothing but water the land with crimson blood and take the lives of rebels, soldiers, and civilians.
In 2008, I volunteered to go to war-ravaged towns in Lanao del Norte days after the towns were attacked by rebels. It was a horrible sight: houses were burned, and townspeople were displaced to the evacuation centers. This same feeling of grief gripped me also last year when I visited Barangay Rio Hondo, in the infamous “Zamboanga City Siege.” It has been estimated that the conflict for the past four decades has already resulted in about 150,000 casualties. Filipinos are fighting their fellowmen; this has to stop.
Since the advent of the separatist movements, several programs of the government were devised but to no avail. This country witnessed botched attempts and half-baked agreements to secure peace. From the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, 1996 Peace Agreement and the 2008 MOA-AD, it did almost nothing regarding the plight of Muslim Filipinos. It seemed that “genuine” peace remains as elusive now as it did then.
But come to think of it, peace has always been something that both the Christian migrant-settlers and Muslims wanted. I remember what Associate Solicitor General Karl Miranda told me last year. He narrated to me that during the months before the infamous “all-out-war” of the Estrada administration in 2001, he and some government officials went to Camp Abu-Bakr in Maguindanao.
And what struck him was that when they went there, top MILF officials hugged them and welcomed them in peace. A question lingered in his mind: why is there conflict if both of the parties’ ultimate goal is peace? But if we all wanted peace, why has it become so elusive in Mindanao?
That is why the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), last Thursday, March 27, is such a historic moment. The structure is different from the "debased" ARMM. The new agreement provides for a bigger assembly lead by a chief minister not popularly voted but chosen by the assembly. Other changes are also regarding the wealth-sharing and the Bangsamoro having its own police force. A more devolved tax system will take shape. But of all these features, I believe that the most important result the process is that it promotes lasting peace.
Sure, there are people quite skeptic about the entire idea. In an interview with former Senator Nene Pimentel, he told me that the problem is that the agreement is “non-inclusive” as other insurgents were left out. There’s also the possibility of more "breakaway" groups. Other academicians believe that it would just be the same as the ARMM.
The signing of the comprehensive agreement may yet be the easy part. The true challenge is to provide Filipino Muslims the fruits of good governance. If the new entity remains to be a mere concept that allows dynasts to rule, I fear that we will not achieve lasting peace.
Leadership, particularly getting better leaders, is part of the solution. So will capacity-building and institution-building. I believe that a new breed of Muslim leaders, visionaries, and intellectuals will be the catalyst for change. And ultimately, as long as the conditions at the grassroots remain the same, real peace will never be achieved. (READ: 'This is the crowning glory of our struggle')
We need to recreate the “culture of peace." We need to wipe out our baseless prejudices and instead have a tolerant mindset towards people of other ethnicities. We can focus on what is important, try to understand each other, and find common ground – instead of looking at where we differ. If we strive to treat other people like a brother, treating each other justly and fairly, there would be no conflict and the rest will follow.
Our country, like a human being, is an integrated whole. When one part of the human body is sick, the rest suffer. On a similar note, if Mindanao remains mired in conflict, then any aspiration for the Philippines’ long-term economic and social development will remain like castles in the air. Without a sense of Filipino nationhood, we would not succeed.
While it is true that the future remains uncertain, I believe that the only choice for us is peace. That is why I am supportive of this current progress on the Bangsamoro. That is why I am still hopeful for a peaceful Mindanao. And that is why I would like to see things unfold for the betterment of my fellow Filipinos in this lifetime. – Rappler.com
JR Lopez Gonzales is blogger and a law student from South Cotabato. He currently writes for the MSU Law Gazette. Visit his blog 'Politikalon' here.