WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Soldier, farmer, peace builder

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/13 December)—Balay Mindanaw’s Belle Hernandez texted me three hours after her team had left Baganga yesterday. She must have been somewhere in Trento when she finally caught a signal. She said our mutual friend LTC Kris Mortela had assumed as commander of the Incident Command Post (ICP) in Baganga. Kris (short for Krishnamurti), the former Training Unit commander and Operations chief of the 10th Infantry Division, was among the reviewers of my book on soldier trauma.

We’re friends because he once said I may not wear the uniform, but I must be a soldier in the way I understand Honor, Duty, Country. That’s Kris. He sees what people hold dear. He relates.

Yes, I heaved a sigh of relief that what amounts to martial law is in place in Baganga. I regret that there is failure of governance there. It seemed pretty obvious that it had indeed fallen apart. I had hoped drastic measures were not called for. Under the circumstances, however, I do agree it is well-advised.

It’s kind of ironic that the guy who problematized how the security sector could shore up the legitimacy of local governance would now find himself given the responsibility to put the town back in order. Kris Mortela, number one in his Scout Ranger class, would be the last Filipino soldier to want to usurp civilian authority.

Since 14 July when he assumed command of the Philippine Army’s 67th Infantry Battalion, Kris had been working closely with the mayors in his area of responsibility. There had been very little he required of his troops by way of combat operations however. Instead, he embarked on capacitating his soldiers to train for livelihood and tasked them to cascade this down to the various sectors – the women, youth, vegetable growers, and small farmers – in partnership with LGUs.

We at the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services visited Kris at his camp on November 30. The transforming Armed Forces of the Philippines had recently decided that some curriculum complement is required at the Philippine Military Academy to introduce future officers to the applications of peace psychology in military operations other than war. As one of the resource persons, I had also been asked to write some of the cases that the PMA instructors could use for analysis in their social science, humanities, and military leadership classes. I chose to write about Kris.

The Baganga ICP commander is among the first in the emerging breed of soldiers who can function in a multi-stakeholder environment. Highly intelligent, yet soft-spoken and polite, this former iskolar ng bayan can make people want to talk to him all day. Civilians find it easy to partner with him to realize his ideas for protecting human security by bringing up the economic lot of the people. Born in the farming town of Sta. Maria in Pangasinan, this Ilocano has an affinity for land and the people who work it. Now and then, he muses that he’s just about ready to trade his rifle for a tractor, if only his beautiful wife Wendy wasn’t so deadset against turning into a farm girl.

At the 67IB headquarters then, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the various academic expertise and technical skills of the soldiers were tapped as appropriate. Unit thrusts allowed them to employ their knowledge of agriculture, engineering, education, social work, forestry, and animal husbandry to teach other soldiers how to set up a demo farm in the camp so that they can train civilians. Before Typhoon Pablo walloped Baganga and their camp to the ground, 67IB troops were engaged in friendly competition over who had the best vegetable plot.

Kris encouraged his soldiers to learn skills alien to traditional soldiery. The enlisted men’s cooperative was earning from the piggery, poultry, vegetable garden, and vermiculture patch in the camp. Some of the troops were helping farmers prepare documents to register their cooperatives and people’s organizations. The soldiers were also providing support for budget planning in both the barangay and municipal government levels.

There was always something that the unit was doing in partnership with the government agencies and the civilian sectors. The 67IB mediated people’s access to government programs and donor support. Kris would even invite our center to provide inputs for the youth leadership training sessions his unit jointly sponsored with the LGUs. This became a venue for some of our students to engage the youth in Baganga and other neighboring towns.

Kris said that when people in the grassroots improve their income, they put food on the table, make improvements to their houses, and send their children to school. They earn. They gain self-respect. They become inclined to participate in community concerns and keep the peace. They’d rather not take up arms when they find that taking up the hoe instead would allow them to be better parents to their children and to sleep soundly at night.

Ten years ago, for a soldier to make this radical shift in thinking would have made Mortela unpopular in the military. He credits the influence of retired general Raymundo Ferrer and former 1003rd Infantry Brigade commander Lysander Suerte for resonating with his views on human security and people-centered approaches. Indeed, even before the implementation of the Internal Peace and Security Plan sought to introduce this paradigm shift in the military establishment, these were ideas for peace building that Ding, Dodoy, and Kris batted around in dialogue with civil society groups and the academe in Mindanao.

I haven’t seen Kris since Typhoon Pablo hit landfall in Baganga. In the days after, I had worried for him knowing how he was so looking forward to going home to Wendy when she gave birth to their second-born. Well, Kris has yet to hold the newest Mortela in his arms.

First, he has to put a town back together again.

I have no doubt that he would do it, do it well, and do it soon. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail Ilagan heads the Psychology Department and the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University.)