Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Silencing 100,000 voices

The Need for Global and Local Solidarity with Mindanao

My hands and arms are getting tired of being pulled, grasped, clasped and yanked. Is this what it feels like to be a celebrity? We’ve been driving since 6 am when we met at Freedom Park in Downtown Davao, the main city in the southern Island of Mindanao, Philippines. The plan for “Peace Power Day” was to travel a 500 km circular route through the 4 province Magindanaoan region of central Mindanao and then back to Davao. An ambitious goal for our “Peace Caravan” of 21 vehicles plastered with banners saying the likes of, “Save the Evacuees,” and, “Ceasefire Now!”

The purpose of our trip was to affirm a massive community organizing effort in Magindanao, one of the most conflict affected area of Mindanao. Magindanao is where a majority of the 300,000 mostly Muslim, internally displaced people (IDP’s or “evacuees”) live in make-shift shelters. They remain in refugee camps or living with relatives, waiting to return home in the midst of a 40 year liberation struggle that flared into open warfare 8 months ago. This happened after a negotiated settlement, called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (or MOA AD), fell apart at the last minute, forcing over half a million people out of their communities.
As an American community organizer, I wonder how it is possible to get tens of thousands of people to rally over a 4 province area of underdeveloped Mindanao Island. Yet, there is a way to organize a massive demonstration among some of the poorest people in the world, many of them refugees, dispersed over miles of dirt roads, mountainous terrain and one of the largest marshes in southeast Asia. First, is to have a few large, central rallies at major cities where people can be transported to or live locally. The rest of the demonstrators then “converge” on the national highway at smaller villages and intersections timed to coincide with the passing of the peace caravan. This is all coordinated through an extensive network of cellular text messages along the elaborate social and extended family networks of the Muslim community in Magindanao. The result - 100,000 Muslim community members, joined by Christian Filipinos, vocalizing their desire for peace.

I am riding the peace caravan with Datu Assib Ibrahim and Datu Kharis Matalam Baraguir, the direct descendant of Sultan Kudarat. Sultan Kudarat was a beloved leader in the early 1600s who fought off Christian Spanish invaders of the beautiful Magindanaoan region we’re traveling through. Though the Moro’s (Muslim) continue their struggle to reclaim just the portion of land they currently live on, Datus Assib and Datu Kharis tell me that they want to occupy the hearts of non-Moro’s first. The land that was taken away from them through years of oppression, exploitation and violence is, in some ways, incidental. Underneath the desire for a piece of earth is a desire for a home community of respect, “Bangsa-moro,” - a “Bangsa” (“Nation”) of Moro (“Muslim”). This is a place where the voice of the Moro is heard, and everyone’s voice is heard and valued in the heart. If this reality could be understood, that hearing precedes peace making, then we will have “occupied” each other’s hearts and would be able to find a way to a less violent future.

So, in the days following the peace caravan, I comb local and international news periodicals to see if peaceful rallies by 100,000 Muslims have found a way into the news, from which mainstream Filipinos might start to see the non-violent side of the Moro struggle. Though I don’t expect to find anything beyond a paragraph tucked away in the international news section, I assume Peace Power Day will be carried in the Philippine news. I am not too surprised that there is no mention of it in the international news, but I am stunned that none of the major news periodicals in the Philippines carry even a sentence about the tens of thousands of people rallying peacefully for change in a war torn society. Since there is no repressive state news blackout hiding the emerging reality of a peaceful option in Mindanao, how can this be?

As we pass through rolling agricultural and forest land and the sun sets over Liguasan marsh, hundreds of children stream out of the blue tarp covered refugee shelters lining the road. They come to shake our hands and help us hear their desire for a place of safety and nurture. I want to explain that though I am one of only a dozen and a half foreigners in the peace caravan, I represent a much larger community of people who also believe in the creation of a listening space for justice, peace and reconciliation. While an international member in the solidarity caravan notes that the presence of so many Moro demonstrators reveals the sustainability of the violent struggle for self determination, another participant hears their voices representing the cry of Muslims everywhere. While I cannot determine who is right, (and they both may in fact be right), it seems only the violent voice is heard. And that is a reality that the supposedly dynamic peace constituency in Mindanao, myself included, has yet to effectively address.

Though most of my global constituency knows nothing about the details of the Bangsamoro struggle and suffering I see here, they also affirm the fundamental importance of listening as a sign of respect and a starting place for building peace. If they were here, they would also be extending their hand in solidarity. But since they are not, while my left arm is feeling sunburned from exposure to wind and hundreds of clasping greetings, I roll down the window as we approach another group of demonstrators convening along the road. I open my hand in blessing, “Asalaam Alaikum,” I say, which means, ‘Peace to you.’ “Alaikum Asalaam,” they respond, ‘peace to you in return.’

But is anyone else listening….?


  1. A really, REALLY good way to get a meaningful start to the peace process underway would be for the perpetrators of the "liberation struggle" to lay down their arms.

  2. Hi Jeremy, this is a powerful piece and does point out the medias role for good or ill in conflicts. Keep up the writing. I'm happy to read the work of a CJP graduate! Ruth