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Pursuing peace

“The work of barbarians” was how an Inquirer headline (quoting a Navy officer) described the beheading of five of seven Marines killed in a battle with Abu Sayyaf elements in Sulu some weeks ago.

Twenty-five other Marines were wounded in the clash, and public reaction to the killings was swift in condemning the atrocities of the Abu Sayyaf. Some private citizens even texted friends to convince them to show up at Camp Villamor when the remains of the slain Marines arrived to show civilian support for the heroism of soldiers engaged in defense of the republic.

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To be sure, there is a difference between the bandit group Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the separatist organization with which the Philippine government has been engaged in on-again, off-again peace talks for the past decades. But in the public mind, Moro rebels are Moro rebels, and the Sulu massacre could only have worsened the image of Muslim separatists, and Muslims in general, among the general population.

So it’s against this backdrop that we should consider the audacity and courage shown by P-Noy in meeting with MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim in Japan. The private meeting was considered as a preliminary move before the formal peace negotiations begin. So far as we know, no secret “agreements” were forged during those talks, even though politicians and commentators have been busy formulating conspiracy theories and issuing dire warnings. But that it pushed through at all is already a good and positive sign.

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But while everyone commends the good will expended by the President in making the effort to go to Japan to hold talks with Murad, few have noted the similar good will on the part of the MILF chairman, especially given the bitterness over the Sulu affair.

On balance, it would seem that Murad had more to lose in risking the trip and talks in Japan. Opposition to any sort of compromise with the government is quite powerful among the Muslim insurgent community, and if P-Noy risked a lot of political capital in extending the hand of peace to Murad, Murad risked his credibility and leadership among the community.

Which is why I think we should take the talks at face value: as an encouraging initial step before the formal talks commence, a sweeping away of any lingering doubts or suspicions regarding either side’s sincerity or willingness to arrive at an acceptable agreement.

Negotiations have yet to take place, and it would have been foolhardy for the President, for one, to weaken whatever bargaining positions the government panel would take when the formal talks begin. Why is it so difficult for people to believe that the meeting was but a show of good will and good faith? Aren’t those what are most needed at this time, so that both sides in the peace talks approach the negotiating table with a clean slate, and with clear intent to conclude the talks with a workable peace?

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Many times on this trip, I have had occasion to wonder what role the media play in advancing peace or exacerbating the conflict. When we cast doubt on the sincerity of the parties taking preliminary steps towards peace, are we not prematurely jettisoning any chances for a reasonable compromise?

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I had previously mentioned the comment of a Colombian journalist that members of their community have chosen to keep themselves “aseptic” in their coverage of the conflicts between government forces, para-military organizations and the different insurgent groups. The reason for this, she said, was that the media were leery of taking sides, and so decided that “objective” coverage was the way to go.

Perhaps she was referring specifically to the need to avoid editorializing, or to show a semblance of partisanship. And yet, being part of the mainstream media, the Colombian press has no choice but to speak to the status quo, or at least defend the institutions of democracy.

But if the media, in Colombia or the Philippines, are to have any editorial or reportorial position at all, I would think it is to promote peace, to endeavor to bring an end to conflict, and encourage any steps taken towards advancing agreements among the different armed groups.

Skeptics seem to believe that any talk of peace is a sign of weakness or co-optation. And yet the constituency for peace is not limited to military and insurgents, it covers as well civilians caught in the crossfire, and the rest of the nation who must pay for the growing defense budget with reduced allotments for basic services like education and health.

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If anyone has a stake in bringing an end to armed conflict, it would be ordinary men, women and children who are periodically displaced and are forced to live lives of uncertainty and insecurity in crowded evacuation centers, risking their future ability to generate income and bringing an abrupt end to their children’s education.

It is not for us in the secure urban centers to pooh-pooh any approaches to peace, since we do not face the daily consequences of living with danger and threat. Rather, should we not, first of all, listen to the stories of ordinary folk living with conflict, and ask them what it is they really want, what they think it will take to finally silence the guns, what more is needed to ensure the peace will last beyond the current administration, and that armed conflict will not erupt anew.

Building the peace will require more than a signed agreement or sincere handshakes. It will mean remaking the conditions that led to injustice, violence or poverty in the first place; it will mean addressing the wide gulfs in ethnicity, culture and understanding that lead to alienation and prejudice.

It will also mean the media more aggressively pursuing the peace.

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TAGS: Abu Sayyaf, beheaded Marines, MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Philippine Marines, President Benigno Aquino III, Sulu
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