PEACETALK: In the name of what? Hill 224 and the cycle of oppression

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/15 August) —  Several actors figure prominently in this recent armed conflict:

First and foremost is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters or Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement who harassed military installations in the middle of Ramadhan allegedly to avenge the death of a comrade last June;

The military who, under the constraints of the current GPH-MILF peace talks maintains a defensive position considering that Camp Omar of the BIFF/BIFM is still technically an MILF camp;

The government on all levels, whose access to the press and cyberspace seem to manifest that emergency relief assistance will already address a situation that repeats itself over the years.

In this week-old crisis, everybody who has something to say has already been given considerable time and space on radio, print, television and the internet despite the Habagat floods in Luzon.  The faces of suffering (with children as the easiest sympathy-generating tools), the inhumane living conditions in evacuation centers, the sights and sounds of guns and weapons of destruction, images of reporters with fancy gear in the battle zone, the humanitarian response of rice, medicines and photo ops, the illogical numbers of IDPs – are all the same; only the dates have changed.

Can we still learn?

In this light, may we call upon specifically the media to go beyond the usual reportage.  This should help initiatives, i.e. the privilege speech last July of ARMM Sectoral Rectoral Representative for IPs calling for a legislative inquiry into the real situation symbolized by Hill 224.  Statements issued by IP leaders (both men and women) to declare Mt Firis as a zone of peace still seem not to etch itself in the consciousness of decision-makers, much less the general public.

The rampage that started in the Mt Firis Complex is more than the current peace talks.  It is a case of land-grabbing, neo-colonialism, development aggression and annihilation of culture rolled into one.  While it is true that IDPs now start to languish in lowland evacuation centers and truly deserve help, the media can generate action with their sense of fairness and nationhood by covering the plight of the indigenous peoples.  Do we really have to wait for the IPs to shed their non-confrontational nature for them to earn precious air time or newspaper space?  Accounts are replete with how IP names were used several times by different sectors either for election purposes or in order to avail of humanitarian and development assistance.  Whether it changed their lives for the better is another story.

The Indigenous Peoples (Teduray, Lambangian and Dulangan Manobo or TLaD) know that their ancestral land covers 189,534 hectares with a perimeter of 211 kilometers in Maguindanao alone. [The 289,286 hectares documented by Cotabato-based Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) already covers parts of Sultan Kudarat Province].   This indigenous knowledge has been passed through  centuries through oral tradition using natural markers like rivers, rocks, trees among others.  The IP concept of ancestral domain is “private land owned by a community,” and community in this case refers to the three IP groups.

IAG further states that “…between 2002-2006, various Muslim Mindanao Acts created new municipalities carved out from Mt Firis: Datu Unsay, Datu Saudi, Guindulungan, Shariff Aguak and Talayan which were inevitably ruled by Maguindanao Mayors.  Recent regional laws also removed 12 coastal barangays of Upi to form the Datu Blah Sinsuat municipality, and renamed the Teduray ancestral domain portions of Dinaig town into the Datu Odin Sinsuat Municipality.”

Faced with the challenge of the Regalian Doctrine where “all lands not otherwise clearly appearing to be privately-owned are presumed to belong to the State” the TLaD have united themselves to have what is left of ancestral domain be given a title on which, under the present IPRA law can only be issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

Interestingly, the ARMM chose not to be covered by the IPRA law when it was passed in 1997.  Assurances were made that being autonomous, it can take care of its own IPs who comprise around half a million, or 20% of its population at that time.  Though excruciatingly slow, efforts are underway to have an NCIP or its equivalent in the ARMM.

Not known to engage in armed confrontations to resolve conflict, the IPs retreat to what they think are safer grounds every time they are harassed. What they consider as ancestral land have now been made either camps by revolutionary groups, or subdivided into municipalities, and titled to be their own by political families.  Calls to let them move to evacuation camps which are near the highway are met with the uncertainty that the land that they will return to will already have become logging sites, camps or plantations as what happened in the past.

We appeal to the media to interview the mayors of the affected municipalities and ask why they allowed these atrocities to flourish; what are their political plans and how they intend to finance it.  It would be good to see what type of businesses flourish every time displacements occur.  If the answers are incomprehensible, maybe the questions are not precise.   If things are better left unsaid, it is understandable that someone’s life may be at stake – or maybe documents can talk.

We call on the Mindanao Humanitarian Team who has the collective capacity and expertise to triangulate data submitted by local government units.  Let it not be said that spoilers of the peace have higher intelligence quotients in terms of numbers.

And to the consumers of news, a spectator public that has expanded exponentially through social media, may there be more discernment in what is read or heard.  May we not be multipliers of lies and half-truths as, according to Socrates, slander becomes the tool of the losing debater.

While all issues and discussions will not fit into this one article, it is clear that self-pity will not solve the crisis symbolized by Hill 224 either.  Let us help duty-bearers, policy-makers and each other come up with research-based and informed actions.  Only proactive response will do justice to the faceless indigenous peoples who have long been marginalized.

In the name of peace.  (PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wishes to share his/her piece on peace in Mindanao. Aveen Acuna-Gulo is the Project Manager of IPDEV, an EU-funded project for the recognition and empowerment of indigenous peoples in the ARMM.  IPDEV is implemented by the consortium of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Institute for Autonomy and Governance and Development Consultants.  The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU, KAS, IAG and DEVCON)