Essential truths from inspiring people
A lot has been written about the Mindanao peace process and the Bangsamoro Basic Law that is needed to implement the agreement that came about after years of negotiation. My engagement and that of the UK government in the Philippine quest for a settlement began seven years ago. Alongside the negotiators, politicians and opinion formers, we have pored over the details. But, while this is important, sometimes details hide fundamental and essential truths.
One essential truth is that all previous attempts to find a solution in Muslim Mindanao and in turn deliver stability and security to the Philippines have failed. People in authority have not universally accepted the fundamental responsibility that they have to deliver peace. Instead, some have pointed to inadequacies of others, more often than not blaming the community as a whole for its predicament. Now more than ever, it is essential that inspiration replace pessimism.
In the minutiae of the law, justice can often be overlooked. Those who benefit from the status quo mask their true intent with obfuscation. People who fear change point to problems rather than solutions. It is easy to say what they think is wrong but few have ideas as to what would make it right or better. I once went to our government’s experts for an answer to a thorny question of constitutional process. My wise counsel peered at me over his glasses and said: “Dear boy, you are asking the wrong question. Tell me, what would you like the answer to be?” It is possible to derive inspiration from this simple process of reverse thinking.
More recently, I found inspiration where I least expected it. Our task was to select inspiring people from the 1,000 who applied for a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom.
The British government’s Chevening Scholarships are designed to help build future global leaders. We take some of the best young minds and help them through masters-level education at universities of their choosing in Britain. In return, we ask only that these people return to the Philippines and make a positive contribution to their country.
This year, we have our largest batch yet of 28 Filipinos. The tripling of scholarships has been financed by the United Kingdom as well as corporate sponsors in the Philippines. For the next academic year, we earmarked a few places as Bangsamoro Chevening Scholarships. These are for people who can put their skills and leadership to the cause of peace and development in Mindanao.
I thought the applicants would consist of human rights activists, government officials or peace campaigners. We have received some excellent applications from these sectors. But what we had not expected was compelling applications from the medical sector, agriculture, the army, police, judiciary, banking and others. The applicants told us something interesting was happening—that people in greater numbers and from a variety of backgrounds were putting themselves forward to gain skills needed to make a difference in Mindanao. Inspiring and thoughtful people believe that peace is attainable. They had ideas to make meaningful change. Their plans and optimism are some of the early signs of a positive view of the future.
It was inspiring and uplifting that people of different religions, ethnic and social backgrounds identified themselves as potential Bangsamoro Chevening Scholars. Some were from outside Mindanao. We saw people whose friends had been killed in the conflict and wanted their memory to be served by not having others suffer the same fate. Every background and story was different. But all had the same goal.
The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) was sealed to national and international acclaim over a year ago. It is easy to forget the emotional outpouring of joy among people in the Philippines. Young and old, men, women and children, Catholics and Muslims, all had a glow of optimism. The unrelated, but tragic, Mamasapano incident and both informed and superficial perceptions of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law may have diminished hope. But the peaceful purpose of the CAB and the aspirations attached to it remain as clear as ever.
Translating the essence of peace into effective law is important. But the law by itself cannot speak of the anguish, faith and needs that people or the different committed individuals and groups want to make. The dry text of the law cannot change the historical narrative that has airbrushed out of the minds of generations of students the heritage of this country before Magellan arrived. Legislation alone will not turn into livelihoods for impoverished people or extend the lives of children and expectant mothers or connect communities through essential infrastructure. A bill does not of itself influence the mindset of those who see violence as a means to achieve their ends. The will of entrepreneurs to invest and grow is rarely diminished by challenge. They understand the calculation of risk and reward. What they do need is legal certainty and assurance of good governance. These outcomes will come from people who are inspired to do difficult things and challenge paralysis rooted in fatalistic thinking.
What the Chevening applications tell me is that there are young leaders who want to make Bangsamoro a part of the Philippine success story. They do not want their chance to make tangible progress replaced by a vacuum that draws the extremist narrative that we have seen in other parts of the world. They also tell me that peace is the precursor for prosperity and development for all of the Philippines, not just Muslim Mindanao.
As a diplomat, I fully recognize the importance of detail and law. But sometimes it takes conversations with bright inspiring people emboldened with optimism to remind us of fundamental and essential truths. Now, 28 Filipinos are about to embark on a journey from which they will return as people committed to a Philippines that is truly peaceful, stable and prosperous. It is possible for every Filipino to be inspired by essential truths.
Asif Ahmad is the British ambassador to the Philippines.