Monday, November 03, 2008

Peacemaking through Healing the Past and Building the Future*

I. Mindanao Context

Since the Spanish colonial period, Mindanao has been a theatre of intermittent conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities. In 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). However, another militant group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) continued the armed struggle for self-determination.

After more than three years of negotiations, a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was about to be signed by both panels representing the MILF and the Philippine Government in Kuala Lumpur on August 5, 2008. However, the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order one day before the signing. This was due to the widespread outcry raised against the proposed MOA-AD whose contents were made public only a few days before the signing.

In the following weeks, in Central Mindanao, two MILF commanders instigated armed incursions against the civilian population. On Aug. 18, violence broke out in the town of Kolambugan and in some outlying barangays of Kauswagan in Lanao del Norte. Military operations in the Lanao provinces and in Central Mindanao have been carried out and are still ongoing. These are said to be limited to efforts to locate and neutralize the three commanders.

However, Christian communities and Muslim communities have been forced to evacuate from the areas of conflict. Relief operations have been undertaken by government agencies and non-government organizations. The Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro and Xavier University have sent several truckloads of relief goods to evacuation centers in Iligan, Linamon, Munai, and Marawi. In particular, volunteers of the archdiocese have accompanied the shipment of relief goods on Aug. 28 to the town of Munai, which is wholly Muslim. They have also sent goods to the Catholic bishop in Marawi for allocation to Muslim evacuees who prefer to stay with their relatives rather than in an evacuation center.

On Aug. 28 at Xavier University, a Forum on the proposed MOA-AD between the MILF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines was held. The clarifications presented by two members of the government’s negotiating panel and a member of the MILF’s technical working group enabled the audience, composed mostly of academic and civil society groups, to have a more balanced view of the MOA-AD.

On Sept. 15, three women humanitarian workers were held hostage on Basilan island, purportedly by the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist rebel group. Up to the present, negotiations for the release of these humanitarian workers are still being conducted.

On Sept. 24, Catholic bishops came together in Davao to follow up earlier consultations with government representatives and other sectors of society. They agreed to reaffirm the common sentiment that the peace process in Mindanao should continue and even be strengthened vis-à-vis the outbursts of violence reported in a few areas. Specifically, government officials requested the religious leaders in Mindanao—including bishops and ulama—to take the lead in holding consultations with local communities with regard to their aspirations and recommendations for lasting peace on the island. In the meantime the Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions of the MOA-AD went against the Philippine Constitution. Earlier, the administration of President Gloria Arroyo had already stated that they would not pursue the signing of the memo with the MILF.

II. Promoting a Culture of Peace
It is in this light that we can examine six dimensions for building a culture of peace in Mindanao—i.e., for healing the past and building the future of present and coming generations of Mindanaoans.

Since the mid–90’s, culture of peace seminars have been conducted by peace centers in various parts of Mindanao. Much attention has been given to the need for intercultural understanding and interfaith dialogue. In the course of these seminars, peace advocacy groups have identified six dimensions for building a culture of peace in Mindanao.

1. Personal and Family Integrity
“Peace of the heart,” notes Pope John Paul II, “is the heart of peace.” One cannot be a peacemaker if there is no peace in his heart. Likewise, building peace in every home is a first step in building peace for the community. “Integrity of mind and heart” is included in this year’s theme for the Mindanao Week of Peace—which starts on the last Thursday of November.

In several localities, activities during the observance of the Mindanao Week of Peace focus on promoting a Culture of Life vis-à-vis an incipient “culture of death.” Drug awareness and a campaign against corruption are two examples of how personal integrity and the fullness of life are intertwined. To attain these, values formation and the living out of one’s spirituality are seen as constituting a major operative value.

2. Promotion of Human Right and Democracy
The language of the modern world is increasingly articulated in terms of human rights. The Holy Fathers have praised the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of morality.” Increasingly too, modern nations have evolved their political systems towards the principles and goals of democratic rule—e.g., in terms of electoral contests; freedom of association and participation, etc. Over-all, the operative value of justice pervades the efforts of individuals as well as of civil society organizations in countering any violations of human rights.

In particular the rights of minority communities like those of indigenous people are to be respected. The articulation of new rights and operationalizing these through legislation has been pointed out. Some of these newly-accepted rights include: the rights of the unborn fetus in the mother’s womb; the right of minorities to their own culture; and the right of communities to a healthful environment. The prophet Isaiah points out that the work of justice is peace (Opus justitiae pax.) Pope John Paul II adds another dimension: that the fruit of solidarity is peace (Opus solidaritatis pax.)

3. Poverty Eradication
Extreme poverty can drive people to carry arms. At the outbreak of violence in Lanao del Norte two months ago, a group of indigenous people combatants surrendered their firearms to the military. Their story was that they had been enticed to join the rebel group by the offer of a monthly salary that was much higher than what they would usually be able to earn. Indeed, unemployment especially among the restless youth provides a ripe condition for rebellion or criminal acts like kidnapping for ransom. Government statistics reveal that the Muslim- dominated provinces such as Jolo, Basilan, and Lanao del Sur rank among the ten poorest provinces in terms of provision of basic services such as health, housing and education.

But there have been success stories too of rebel-returnees who have been given productive employment and turned away from the resort of bearing arms. Economic development generally needs to accompany peacemaking efforts. There will be no peace without development—but, in a cyclical manner, there can be no development either without peace.

4. Intercultural Understanding and Solidarity
In Mindanao, religious leaders have formed a Bishops-Ulama Conference. Over the past twelve years, Catholic and Protestant bishops have been meeting in dialogue with their Muslim counterparts, the ulama, to promote intercultural understanding. Both groups declare that their religions are religions of peace. During outbreaks of violence, including the recent ones, bishops and ulama have issued joint statements condemning the destruction and stressing that the peace process should continue. These messages of solidarity have helped restore the peace. They also convey the important point that Mindanao is not engaged in a religious war.

As an operative value, the resort to dialogue instead of arms has been stressed in interfaith gatherings. These dialogue efforts have also been tried in local circles that include pastors, priests, and imams.

5. Disarmament and Cessation of Hostilities
Calls for a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table during outbreaks of violence are oftentimes spearheaded by religious leaders of both sides. Local monitoring teams which include religious leaders have also been formed in various places to keep the peace.

Local communities have been encouraged to establish “zones of peace,” keeping away armed groups to assert the people’s right to peace. The call for firearms control is also part of these peacekeeping efforts.

6. Environment Protection
Christians and Muslims as well as indigenous people communities have joined advocacy groups against logging and mining. Protection of watershed areas that affect both upland and lowland communities has been pushed. Much still needs to be done—e.g., in cleaning up polluted rivers and safeguarding the living conditions of communities near factories and processing plants.

Stewardship as an operative value is stressed to underline the need for corporate social responsibility. Waste management practices, particularly in congested urban neighborhoods, have been introduced by local government units and non-government organizations.

In many ways, environmental conservation is a common concern among all cultural communities. A case in point are the ongoing efforts to protect the watershed area of Lake Lanao. The lake itself provides a natural habitat for the livelihood of hundreds of Muslim household living along the lakeshore. Moreover, the waters from the lake provide the source of hydroelectric power that is distributed throughout the island of Mindanao.

III. Towards a Threefold Culture

Several observers of the international scene have made dire predictions that a clash of religions and civilizations may be inevitable in our modern world. In Mindanao, for instance, Muslim–dominated and Christian–dominated areas experience occasional outbreaks of violence due to religious or cultural differences.

In this light, the six dimensions for a culture of peace provide constructive areas for healing the past by building the future together. We can summarize these dimensions by means of a threefold Culture of life, of Human Rights, and of Peace. These are all based on the core value of Human Dignity of all human beings—regardless of religion, race, nationality, or social class. Respect for the integrity of human life is translated into promotion of human rights. These in turn are the prerequisites for a just and lasting peace.

The religious traditions of our various faith communities subscribe to the values of this threefold culture. These values in one sense represent what is best in each religious tradition. In another sense, they transcend the boundaries of particular religious beliefs to build a stronger and better world for all.

+ANTONIO J. LEDESMA,S.J.

(* Commission V presentation at the 7th General Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace, 17-21 October 2008, Manila.)