Revisiting Old Wounds: There is Hope

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KAUSWAGAN, Lanao del Norte (MindaNews) – Fifty-seven-year-old Elisa Recla lived all her life in Barangay Tacub in this town. But there was a day in August 2008 that she could not forget.

At dawn on August 18, 13 days after the botched signing of the already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on the Bangsamoro (MOA-AD) between the government and the MILF, members of  the MILF under Abdullah Macapaar, more popularly known as Commander Bravo, staged simultaneous attacks in the towns of Kauswagan and Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte.

The rebels were furious on the opposition against the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) forged by the MILF and government peace panels.

Late afternoon of August 4, when the government peace panel was en route to Kuala Lumpur for the formal signing of the MOA-AD the next morning, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the government chief negotiator from signing the agreement.  The signing was aborted and in October, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-7, declared unconstitutional the MOA-AD but noted that it “can be renegotiated or another one will be drawn up .…”

The attacks left at least 36 dead in Kauswagan and Kolambugan and terrified residents who had to flee to safety by boats at sea.

The rebels also burned houses in Barangay Libertad, formerly known as Barangay Lapayan.

“We cannot forget what happened [eight years ago]. We had to run to survive. Others can’t forget too, especially those who lost loved ones,” Recla said.

“We lost our house that time, all devoured by fire,” she added.

Recla said she and her neighbors had to run to the beach in Barangay Tacub to find boats that would take them away from their burning village, to the safe embrace of neighboring Iligan City.

Many of those who stayed behind were killed by the rebels.

Recla hopes that time will eventually help them forget the sad experience. She is hoping that the violence won’t happen again  because war isn’t easy.

Kauswagan native and peace advocate Musa Mohamad Sanguila said one needs to look at history to settle the conflict in this place. The land disputes here between Maranao natives and Christian settlers is a “microcosm of the land conflict in Mindanao,” he pointed out.

Trouble began, he said, when the Americans came declaring the whole island of Mindanao as public land, declaring that sultans and datus no longer had power over the land.

In 1903, “Christians / homesteaders” – settlers from Luzon and Visayas – were allotted 16 hectares of land each and corporations 1,024 hectares but none for the “Non-Christians / Moros and Wild tribes” as the Moro and Indigenous peoples were referred to then. In 1919, settlers were allowed to own 24 hectares each, corporations 1,024 hectares  and “Moros and Wild tribes” at 10 hectares each. In 1936, the number of hectares was reduced from 24 to 16 for homesteaders, constant at 1,024 hectares for corporations and only four hectares for the “Moros and wild tribes.”

“That’s the law. Is that a just law?” Sanguila asked.

Although the American declaration on lands was a real estate issue, the move led to something even more devastating – the marginalization and minoritization of the Moro who, along with the lumads, were the original settlers in Mindanao.

Sanguila said this “historical injustice” was perpetrated for so long, handed down from generation to generation, and the issue has still not been resolved.

Some of the disputes escalated into bloody confrontations, dragging the military and the Moro rebels along the way, escalating in the 1970s but still continuing until the present.

He said countless Moros have died in the violence, including a number of massacres in Kauswagan.

“If you haven’t addressed the historical injustices, attending to them only superficially, it is just like treating cancer with Paracetamol. Hatred will remain in the heart.”

Sanguila said he suspects that some of those who joined the MILF in the 2008 attack may have been descendants of the victims of the atrocities of the past. “While I condemn the act, it is human nature,” he added.

Meanwhile, the attempts at forging a peace agreement in Mindanao progressed in the last few years, with the signing in October 2012 of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) between the GHP and the MILF. Almost a year and a half later, the final agreement, dubbed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), was finally signed.

But the peace process again suffered a major setback in January 2015 after the Mamasapano clash in Maguindanao, wherein 44 members of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police died in a clash with MILF rebels and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the attempt to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin hir alias Marwan. The MILF also suffered 17 fatalities, while five civilians died in the crossfire.

Abelardo Moya, who once worked with Sanguila in Pakigdait but is now with the Mindanao Peace Building Institute Foundation, said the clamor to have a genuine and durable  peace is still strong among the residents of Lanao del Norte.

“They have high expectations on the Duterte administration that finally there’s someone seriously looking at the problem of Mindanao,” he said.

But he warned that “to be able to have genuine and operational peace, you have to put that in a law.”

The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has faced strong opposition in Congress.

For Sanguila, “the BBL is dead already.”

He said that while the BBL was drafted well by government and MILF negotiators, a lot of its important provisions were either altered or deleted by legislators. Sanguila claimed BBL was “ gang raped” in Congress.

“Our problem here is you’d have to go through many levels. Even if it’ll be approved by Congress, you still have the Supreme Court,” Sanguila said.

Moya is more hopeful even though the Duterte administration’s “language has now changed.”

“Somehow the BBL has been overshadowed by the discourse about federalism,” he said.

“I think the people of Kauswagan will accept the peace effort of the Duterte administration whether or not it is in the context of BBL or towards federalism,” he said.

Meanwhile, in January 2017, Duterte finally appointed members of the expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) tasked to draft a new BBL.

Sanguila, however, said he has reservations over this latest development, because whatever the BTC can produce will still undergo the same process as before – through Congress and the Supreme Court – and thus will suffer the same fate as the first attempt.

But despite this, Sanguila vowed to personally continue working for peace for as long as it takes.

“As a peace worker and as an NGO worker, I have to hope everyday. Because if we should stop working on this, who else would continue the work?” he said.

“I already explained to my children and grandchildren, to my neighbors and my family, that there is hope,” Sanguila said. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)

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