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Across the river into the cornfield

AS I write this, there is live TV coverage of the moments before the “last Sona,” the final chance for P-Noy to “report” to his vaunted bosses, the Filipino people, on the accomplishments of his administration for the past year.

Other presidents, and the other State of the Nation Addresses by the President himself, also focused on plans and promises, accomplishments by which to judge the performance of the administration by measuring how much has been achieved as compared to the signposts the leadership itself set.

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But this is a different Sona. True, there’s about a year left for P-Noy in office, but no one, I would guess, still expects dramatic changes or landmark successes. Instead, we find ourselves in winding-down mode, with officials wrapping up legacies and hoping to ride out their last months in office with a minimum of controversy and leaving at least some mark by which to be remembered.

So there is a hint of melancholy, of early nostalgia about the event to take place in an hour or so. It will be the beginning of many farewells, of a long, slow walk into the sunset. True, P-Noy is still a young man, with plenty of life (but not a love life?) left in him. But he is marking a coda to his political life. I very much doubt he will follow his predecessor’s path both in seeking another, minor post and in desperately fending off charges of corruption. My hope for him is that he will leave the Aquino name unsullied in the time he remains in Malacañang, and in the many more years he will be living as a private person.

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Judgments and verdicts will rain down on P-Noy and the administration he is about to bring to a close. For the moment, my prayer for him is that he finds the right words to sum up the years since he asked us to join the journey he initiated, and shine a light on the path we are to tread, at least for the next six years.

* * *

I STOOD on the other bank of the river, too much of a coward to even attempt the slippery clamber up the rickety bridge. I gazed at the muddy waters, flowing and eddying, glistening in parts in the late morning light.

I was drawn to prayer, to say words in my mind to the 44 members of the PNP Special Action Force, many of them killed in the cornfield just across the water; to the 17 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front joining their comrades on the banks where I was standing; and the three civilians living in a nearby village or wandering into the fray. “May you find peace, may your souls find rest, may your deaths not be the cause of an unfinished peace and continued violence in this land.”

Unknown to me, across the river in the middle of the cornfield, my companions in the conference, called without any irony “Beyond Mamasapano: Reporting the Bangsamoro Peace Process,” were engaged in the same exercise. Religious leaders with the group: Fr. Jonathan Domingo who works with the newspaper The Mindanao Cross; Rev. Luis Daniel Pantoja, who is with the PCEC Peace and Reconciliation Commission; and one of our Muslim participants led the rest of the group in prayer and reflection, gathering in a circle amid the green corn stalks.

It was the reason I decided, at very short notice, to fly to Cotabato City for the conference. I wanted to see for myself, though many months after, the site of the firefight that has nearly (may it only be “nearly”) derailed the peace process in Mindanao.

* * *

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TO BE sure, the landscape has changed somewhat.

A few meters away from the bridge of Mamasapano, the rickety wood-and-bamboo structure that has become emblematic of the entire tragedy, a new bridge is being built. There are concrete piers on either bank of the river, but wooden planks are being laid on the metal beams.

“The original plan was to construct a concrete bridge,” a community volunteer said. “But the residents requested that the bridge be made of wood, so that tanks would not be able to cross the river using the bridge.” As I gathered, military tanks have become, for the residents of the remote and previously inaccessible barangay, fearful symbols of war and violence. I could only imagine how the residents, waking up that early morning, quaked in their huts when they saw the line of tanks on the edge of the highway and heard the gunfire from both sides of the small river.

A small, still rough road leads from the highway and across the river, some distance from the symbolic bridge.

In many ways, the Mamasapano “massacre” has served to open up an area previously closed to the outside world, an MILF-dominated hold-out where even forces from the nearest military outpost would not dare enter. Will peace usher in progress and participation in this neglected village?

* * *

THAT is one of the questions raised in the two days journalists from all over Mindanao and from Manila assessed the way the media have covered not just the peace process but also Mindanao itself—its history, its social and political upheavals, the search for a peaceful solution to the violence that has become synonymous with the locale.

Personally, the past weekend was a living, vibrant lesson on Mindanao, on the lessons to be learned from its past, present and future.

Too many times, we the media in Manila tend to offer the answers even to questions we still ask ourselves, pretending we are sure of their rightness. In the next few days, I hope to share with you some answers arrived at, but also questions that continue to be asked.

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TAGS: Mamasapano, Media, Mindanao, opinion, President Benigno Aquino III, SAF, Sona, SONA 2015
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