Waging peace | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Waging peace

/ 03:59 AM August 24, 2011

The word “rebelde” has become generic in the Philippines and can refer to the members of any of several groups that have taken up arms to fight the government.

While armed encounters between the rebels and government have dropped in recent months, perhaps because of ongoing peace talks, the situation is still one of simmering tensions, ready to erupt into a conflagration involving an entire town, or even several towns. Civilians flee, if they can, sometimes never to return to their homes. Where there are rebelde, there will be bakwet, the latter term derived from “evacuees,” which is mild term because what we really have are refugees.

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What’s so unacceptable about all this is that we have had these cycles of simmering and boiling for decades. Among Asian countries, we have the longest-running communist insurgency. The New People’s Army (NPA) dates back to 1969, but represents a breakaway from the Huks, who go back to World War II.

The other major rebellion we have is that of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), founded in 1977, again a breakway group from an older rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) also founded around 1969.

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Living on the edge

Imagine living in a place engulfed by these rebellions for more than 30 years. We know the armed conflict leads to many deaths and injuries. But we forget the toll these conflicts take in terms of day-to-day life.

Last Saturday I had a graduate class in medical anthropology where we talked about how parents use supernatural spirits to make their children behave. One of the students, Noemi Bayoneta-Leis, interjected and talked about growing up in Basilan, where several rebel groups have been operating. Now, she said, she could understand why their parents and elders were constantly scaring the children with stories about assorted night creatures. It was to keep the children inside the homes.

Later, driving home, I remembered an incident from the early 1980s, when I was in a Kalinga village that was in an area of conflict. Night had fallen and a Kalinga mother was trying to calm down a crying child. She would knock on their walls while calling out, “Solchacho, solchacho.” It took me some time to realize it was the Kalinga way of saying, “Soldado, soldado.” She was using “soldier,” rather than aswang, to tell the child to stop crying, the knocking on the walls mimicking soldiers demanding to get into the house. I learned later that there had been many encounters in the area, during which mothers would frantically try to get their children to keep quiet, fearful that any kind of noise would draw gunfire to their homes.

There are many more places like Basilan and Kalinga, where people live on the edge. But because the conflicts today seem largely to be on low-intensity mode, we tend to forget the importance of the peace negotiations. Recent news about progress being made in talks with the MILF made it to the front page, but it’s not the kind of news that people take up to discuss.

We need to think of these peace negotiations as part of a national agenda. Without that peace, we remain severely hobbled as we try to develop economically and socially. Without that peace, we continue to have new generations of children growing up cynical, angry, scared and scarred.

Last April Teresita Quintos Deles, the presidential adviser on the peace process, gave a talk on the Philippine peace progress at an Asia-Pacific gathering of Quakers, held in Taytay, Rizal. The Quakers wanted her to talk because of our long tradition of pacifism, which has translated into a refusal to take up arms even in times of war. Quakers have also come to be known for their expertise in conflict resolution and are often brought in by the United Nations (and its predecessor the League of Nations) to help with various international peace negotiating panels.

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Deles shared her reflections, as well as “lessons-in-progress” from the ongoing peace negotiations. She reminded Filipinos in the audience that the government has in the past been able to sign peace agreements with two armed groups: in 1986 with the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) and in 2000 with the RPMP-RPA-ABB (most familiar mainly as the Alex Boncayao Brigade), representing various groups that split away from the New People’s Army (NPA).

But she also pointed out that even with these two groups, the peace process remains unfinished because “they still frame their existence . . . as armies,” an oblique way of saying that a return to armed struggle is still possible, even as government now negotiates with the MILF and the CPP/NPA/NDF (Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front).

Absence of war

Deles was empathic about President Aquino wanting to finish the peace negotiations early in his term and that these talks are only part of a larger program around peace and security. She mentioned a chapter on “Peace and Security” in the new Philippine Development Plan for 2010-2016 and quoted a passage: “Peace is not just the absence of war or conflict, but it is the sum total of the conditions that ensure human and social well-being in all dimensions.”

She spoke of the difficulties in the peace negotiations such as consensus-building, dealing with splinter groups and balancing transparency and confidentiality. But even more difficult are the “complementary tracks” to address the causes of armed conflict, from a “rationalization of national land policies” to “governance reform” and “bringing an end to impunity on extra-judicial killings and human rights violations.”

To try to wage peace, I thought, these tracks will sometimes not just be complementary but central to the peace talks. What, the rebel groups will rightly ask, do you have to offer us if we are to lay down our arms? As far as the armed groups are concerned, and the communities in which they have their strongholds, these are not rebelde, but defenders of their rights.

The Quakers listened intently. Later the group watched the film “Lupang Hinirang,” by Ditsi Carolino, about the farmers in Bukidnon who made their way to Manila to air their grievances, and sugarcane workers from Negros on hunger strike after one of their compatriots was shot to death by a hacienda guard.

The Quakers listened. Many wept realizing how very difficult our situation is in the Philippines.

On the website of the Australian Quakers is a strong statement that summarizes a vision of peace with justice: “Refusal to fight with weapons is not surrender. We are not passive when threatened by the greedy, the cruel, the tyrant, the unjust.”

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TAGS: Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA), Ditsi Carolino, Huks, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), New People’s Army (NPA), peace process, Peace talks, quakers, Teresita Quintos Deles, World War II
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