Interweaving narratives in our journey for peace

[Speech delivered by Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles during the University Convocation
 at Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) in Cagayan de Oro City on March 26, 2015]

I am certain that when the Board of Trustees of Xavier University decided to invite GPH panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, MILF panel and BTC chair Mohagher Iqbal, and myself to your commencement program today, they had not anticipated the firestorm that would erupt over the tragedy at Mamasapano, Maguindanao, late in January. I don’t think any of us ever imagined when we started the New Year that, just one month down the road, the Bangsamoro peace process, which was close to reaching the end of its roadmap, would be on the brink of breakdown.

Media reports tell us that some quarters have questioned the wisdom of honoring at your commencement exercises three personalities caught in the eye of that very storm. That is why I find doubly heartwarming Xavier University’s decision to stand by its invitation and to confer on my colleagues the Fr. William Masterson SJ Award and on myself an Honorary Doctorate in the Humanities – which, I must confess, truly thrills me because there is no other way I could ever earn a postgraduate degree in the normal way.

Thank-you, XU, for giving me my first toga custom-made for me. I shall wear it proudly. I am delighted to be a member of Batch 2015!

Your Trustees’ unanimous decision, taken twice, signals your steadfast advocacy of peace in Mindanao. Indeed, in our pursuit of peace, we must be steadfast. We must be careful and we must stand fast – especially when assailed by the frenzy of words and emotions that can and does harm to, rather than help, the cause of peace in Mindanao.

I started my peace work in 1986, shortly after we ousted the dictator through the world’s first ever people power uprising. After decades of painstaking effort to push the cause of peace not just in Mindanao but in the entire country, seeking to address all armed conflicts that continue to divide the Filipino nation, it is an oddly strange experience to now be pilloried and damned for standing up for peace. It is oddly strange – and sad – that, in the face of such inexplicable tragedy of 67 Filipinos, including one child, perished in violent conflict among Filipinos, the call for continuing division and war hogs today’s airwaves and social media, bent on drowning out the cries which seek dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and consensus. It is oddly strange and sad that, instead of reaching out to each other in common grief and solidarity, we now seem more divided and distrustful of each other than we have ever been before.

I will be forthright and say that this commencement address is not an easy one for me to make. I surmise that in the mind of everyone now in this room there are hard questions, and it is possible that some questions will have no answers. I certainly do not imagine that I could put these troubling questions to rest by what I say. But I believe I owe it to you, who have made the decision to stay the course in inviting us to be your special guests this morning – even more so, I feel I owe it to the graduates who must truly be at the center of attention of our gathering this morning – I owe it to you to let you know a little bit about myself beyond what has come out in media, which pieces of my personal narrative will connect to the reality of the firestorm that threatens to engulf our country today.

And so, in the course of the next half-hour or so, please allow me to share with you two stories: the first is my own, and the second is the tale of conflict in Mindanao. And, thirdly, one or two things you and I can do to help pull us through this murky chapter of our country’s history.

With your permission, I dare to begin with My story:

Here I must confess that I had in fact already drafted a few pages when I asked myself: will I not be boring you to tears, if not to death, with my account of “been there, done that”?

And so I decided to try to tell my story in a different way: as a compendium of insights or lessons learned. I hope these insights – my learnings – will be helpful to the new graduates who are thinking, wondering, and possibly worrying about the next chapter of their lives.

The first lesson is this: be original, do things your way. It may not last forever but it will be good while it lasts.

Four-and-a-half decades ago, I was sitting where you are now, fresh out of college and ready to plunge into life’s heady waters. As an English major graduate of Maryknoll College in Quezon City (neighboring school to Ateneo de Manila), I thought I knew early what I would be: a writer. Yes, a writer. But I also knew I had nothing to write about, as yet, so I proceeded to gather much-needed experience by accepting a job teaching English literature and composition to high school senior students at my alma mater.

I wanted to be the best teacher there was, so I prepared my own materials, junking the prescribed textbook as irrelevant. I introduced poetry by playing the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, even McArthur Park, icon hymn of my generation; and invented exercises to free my students to write in the same way they talk – and my students loved it. Forgive me for mentioning Rina David, Inquirer columnist, who has publicly declared that she bloomed under my tutelage. Also, I dressed like the flower child I must have felt I was then: in batik mini-skirts, my long hair keeping rhythm with my T’boli beads and bells. Remember this was 45 years ago! But it was also very hard work – being creative and original and relevant while confined in a classroom with its rows of straight-backed chairs all facing in the direction of a know- it-all teacher who alone owns the platform. After one year of fulltime teaching, I decided I had had enough of the hard work. But it was fun, and I know my students

still remember.
My second insight is this: know your DNA and affirm the best that it has given you.

What do I mean? Simply this: I am what I am and I do what I do in large part because of my DNA. My father, a pediatrician and past director of the Philippine General Hospital, quietly gave out modest weekly allowances to children from indigent families he encountered in his daily hospital rounds; and he was always on call to his patients, back in those days when physicians made house calls at all hours of the day or night. From him I got the DNA of public service.

My maternal grandmother, a founding mother of Moncada, Tarlac, who was appointed town Mayor at the end of World War II, gifted me with a strong sense of feminism, way before I ever encountered the word. And my mother, who raised half a dozen children and fostered three more, taught me that one can, and one should, bloom where one is planted. Her garden was the household and she created incredible beauty and meaning in and through mundane tasks such as cooking, needlework, and gardening that filled her life – as well as her children’s and grandchildren’s lives – up to the end of her days.

The third insight I share is this: ‘Why not?‘ is equally important as ‘Why?’

You see, “why not?” has led me down the path of alternative education, alternative careers, alternative parenting, alternative lifestyles – a cultural revolution, no less, when you are up against martial law. It has led me to leave teaching; embark on the then-untraveled, meandering path of non-profit NGO work; enter government in my golden years, and then leave it before the term was ended. It led me to take up public service a second time with a president who pointed the way to a straight path – daang matuwid. “Why not?” has caused me to choose to stand up – even when battered – again and again for peace.

But let me start where I should.

In 1972, it rained for forty days over Central Luzon and students of Ateneo de Manila, where I was employed as a project officer in its extension office, volunteered to help flood victims, first through relief work which quickly transitioned to rehabilitation and social development undertakings. This involvement would also impact on their own lives. With social work as a week-end commitment, it compelled these middle and upper class students to ask themselves: how do I reconcile a comfortable, conventional lifestyle during weekdays with gut-wrenching social work during week-ends?

This quest for alternative careers was born in the disconnect between weekday and week-end. And so Social Development Index, or INDEX for short, came into being which I founded along with Karen Tanada and Jojo Deles, who would become my life partner in embracing the joys of marriage and family life and the challenges of our lifetime social causes. INDEX’ motto could very well have been: not all roads lead to Makati, for corporate life is not the only choice there is. Pursuing a cycle of

action and reflection, inspired by the author of conscientization, Brazilian Paulo Freire, we realized that social structures are propped up by the kind of lifestyles we maintain. So how to develop an alternative lifestyle? How can you be an alternative doctor? How can your profession be of service to others?

Service should infuse one’s whole life and work, and not be a mere salve of conscience undertaken during week-ends.

Index was founded after five years of martial rule. For student activists, Marcos’ declaration of martial law had laid out the stark choice of giving up the fight and embracing convention or dropping out of school and going underground. But we found there could be another way. A more nuanced response was possible: go for training, finish a course, yes, but serve the people in your chosen profession or vocation. And, having chosen another way, you needed back-up. You had to develop a counter-culture, a group to travel with, otherwise kakainin ka or you risked burn- out.

And so law graduates, once they passed the bar, formed alternative law groups, such as SALIGAN, to do lawyering for farmers, labor unions, and battered women. Graduates of medical and nursing courses, set up alternative health centers, such as Healthdev, which sent doctors to the barrios and explored and promoted alternative, meaning more natural, healing practices. I look around me today and see familiar faces who had passed through INDEX formation programs – I knew Frs. Bobby Yap, Karel San Juan, Cel Reyes – also Jet Villarin and Danny Huang – when they were transitioning from school to profession, or vocation – which must tell people how truly old I am! Atty. Tony Lavina’s wife, Titay, was an INDEX girl. In fact, it may be said that the core of the first-generation NGO community had been very much shaped or influenced by INDEX. Truly, the pursuit of “why not?” has led to meaningful paths and new possibilities.

My fourth insight is this: charity, and equality, begin at home.

You see, while pursuing their alternative careers, the INDEX people were also meeting and falling in love and marrying. The problem started when the children came. HE pursued his career unencumbered but SHE now had the double burden of work, as in a job, and babies. Where did such blatant inequality spring from? And so, my INDEX work led to yet another questing and questioning, another door opening: that of gender, starting with the formation of PILIPINA, which is arguably the first home-grown explicitly feminist organization in the country. We probed the dynamics of mother-daughter relations, we reshaped parenting to achieve more equal sharing of its responsibilities as well as its joys, we created alternative rituals to mark the passages in our lives. I could go on for hours but I will not because, yes, I know – we have time limits.

Let me just say that the tension, and partnership, between the genders constitute such a central and delicious and non-negotiable part of my life. I could not have developed my other abiding passion, my life’s work of peace, without it.

What I have given you is a glimpse of my personal narrative. We all have our personal narratives. Knowing from whence we came defines us, gives us roots and a sense of identity, becomes source of our strength to face whatever fate may have in store for us. We treasure our personal narrative and we try to do our best to protect it so that we can bequeath it, proud and untarnished, to our children to be passed on to their children and the generations still to come.

How much more if it is a collective narrative? How much more if it is a collective narrative that goes back since time immemorial incorporating remembrance of past glory as well as torment over heart-breaking tragedies? How much more if it is, as the 1987 Philippine Constitution asserts is true for two regions of the country, namely, Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras – regions which share (and I quote from the Philippine Constitution) a “common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics…”?

And so I now turn to the other narrative. Let me talk about Mindanao – your Mindanao, our Mindanao. And since this simple primer style is not hard to do, let me continue in this manner. In this second half of my speech, let me raise four questions:

* How did my peace work start?
* What are the roots of the conflict in Mindanao?
* What are the costs of the conflict?
* What will it take to transform the conflict?

First, How did my peace work start? 
My other grand passion, peace, really took off with EDSA. EDSA in 1986 was a non-violent people’s uprising that marked the end of martial law. It was as if the conflict in Mindanao had ended. A pall had lifted from our lives after 15 long years. 
People from the various social movements were undertaking their sectoral agenda, and the Cory Aquino government was initiating peace talks with the CPP- NPA-NDF. Members of the unarmed social movements, who had also fought the dictatorship but never took up arms, felt that the peace talks were too important to be left to the combatants. We, unarmed citizens, were stakeholders too and we needed to have our agenda in, hindi lang agenda nila. Besides, what if both sides, the government and the communist insurgents, hardened in their positions, as in fact they did? What if one side walked out, as in fact happened? What then? And so the Coalition for Peace was born. 
But peace was not a sometime thing which people rallied around when there was gulo somewhere. Peace work was not seasonal but was constant, ever-watchful, building and rebuilding as many times as needed. And so the Gaston Z Ortigas Peace Institute, or GZO, was founded by Karen Tanada, Risa Hontiveros and myself, with males like Ed Garcia and Randy David helping in the birthing. GZO provided greater rigor and structure to peace work.

Let me now turn to my next question: 
What are the roots of the so-called Muslim-Christian conflict in Mindanao? We all take pains to explain that it is not a religious conflict as indeed it is not – we are not fighting about religion – but the long-drawn out and vicious conflict involves by and large, Muslims on one side and Christians on the other side.

The Statement from Mindanao, issued last February 11 by religious leaders led by Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Mindano’s first Cardinal, and joined by Jesuit presidents of Ateneo universities in Mindanao, rightly says that no one has a monopoly on guilt or on righteousness. The statement reminds us that, for 300 years, a proud Moro people stood up to Spain, the United States, and a succession of Philippine governments, colonial and republican, to defend their sovereignty and claim their homeland. They paid the price in blood – the massacres of Bud Dajo, Palimbang, and Jabidah, to name only three of a very long list. In the end, they and the lumads are pushed to the margins by the guns of Pax Americana, the waves of immigration from the north and central islands, and the shrewdness of a Torrens Title.

The Jabidah massacre, whose 47th anniversary was commemorated on March 18 last week in Corregidor, triggered the birth of the Moro National Liberation Front which, later, gave rise, to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Jabidah was a rallying cry to Muslims to rise against a government that would use them as cannon fodder in war.

In the Battle of Bud Dajo in Jolo over 100 years ago, nearly a thousand men, women and children perished – an event etched in the heart of every Tausug and many fellow Moros. There were only six survivors.

Now I wish to talk about faultlines. We know about the faultlines on the surface of the earth, which, when there is a movement of the rock on either side, releases energy which causes an earthquake. But there are faultlines etched in our national psyche as well – divisions or rifts based on philosophical, ideological, religious, or ethnic differences, which may lie undisturbed for years but so quickly flare into vicious if not violent confrontation when provoked, often unintended, sometimes by accident.

I wish to talk about two particular faultlines that help explain the undercurrent of anger and resentment against the MILF and Muslims. The Mamasapano tragedy has brought to boiling point this anger and resentment, which, in turn, threaten to emasculate, if not derail, the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

The first faultline, divide if you will, is “them vs. us,” the second is “north vs. south.” “Them vs. us” bespeaks of a deep-seated dualism cemented by culture and history. It relates to the Crusades in Europe that waged war against the Muslim Moors to reclaim the Holy Land. When the Spaniards came to the Philippines, Moors would be transmuted into the Moros of the south. Spanish colonial Catholicism then painted Muslims as the “other” – the heathen, the infidel. That this dualism is bred into our psyche resurfaced into light in the wake of Mamasapano: “Traydor ang Muslim,” “Hindi pwedeng pagkatiwalaan ang Moro.” And the unspoken: “Let the BBL pay the price.”

Party-list representative Djalia Hataman shared this story on television with Boy Abunda recently. At a leadership training seminar in Basilan, she asked a young woman from Al Barka what she wanted most, and the woman said: “Saan po ba kami

makakuha ng ID o certificate o kahit anong kasulatan na nagsasabing mabubuting tao kami?” (“Where can we get an ID or certificate or whatever document that says that we are good people?”)

The second divide is “north vs. south”: Divide and conquer. Spanish colonizers pitted local chieftains against each other, as in the Battle for Mactan, for which we immortalize the fearless Lapu-Lapu with a fish and a song. The north-south divide has ramified over time, taking root in the most unlikely places, as in Mindanao and Cebu joining forces against an “imperial” Manila at NGO assemblies.

In the furor ensuing over Mamasapano, we see a difference in the calls coming out of the south and north. Why is it that war’s alarms ring loudest in the safe confines of Congress, for instance? But close to Ground Zero, the people flee even as they cry out for peace. Other sectors in Mindanao have publicly issued appeals for peace as well: the religious – both Christian and Muslim, business – both big and micro, the academe, civil society. And rightly so, because Mindanao bears the brunt of the fighting, although the entire country must pay the price of war. Which brings me to my next question:

What are the costs of the conflict?

Fresh statistics are staggering: it is reported that there are now well over 100,000 refugees since the military launched its offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) barely one month ago. And it costs Two Million Pesos daily to feed those who seek shelter in evacuation centers. But the statistics are chilling if we start counting from the year 2000 throughout most of the decade, when war became a way of life and evacuation was synonymous with survival for whole populations in Central Mindanao and elsewhere.

For most of the decade, the death toll on both sides, including civilians and combatants, was pegged at 150,000. But other sources say it could be double that number. And that is speaking of the dead. The living must go on living even if it means being nearly forever on the run.

Do you know why the GPH panel defends to their last tattered nerve the peace process with the MILF? For three years the ceasefire held – for three years, beleaguered families and communities experienced a sense of normalcy, planting their crops and harvesting them, enrolling their ten-year olds in first grade, buying pots and pans and new clothes, daring to dream for their children’s future.

Deaths we can count. Budgets we can figure out. Injuries we can treat. But there are wounds that cannot heal.

Congresswoman Sandra Sema of Maguindanao tells the story of a woman she met when she visited an evacuation site housing the new, although perhaps not first- time, evacuees in her province. The woman had a daughter, around eight-years-old. The woman recounted how a soldier had come to talk to her and, while they were talking, started patting her daughter on the head. She asked the soldier, “Do you have a daughter of the same age.” “Yes,” he said. The woman told Bai Sandra she suddenly felt pity in her heart for him. She and her daughter were at least safe together at the evacuation site, but it was possible that he would not return to his daughter alive.

And quoting Sitti Djalia again, who, in turn, quotes a soldier friend of hers: “The moment you decide to go to war, you lose your humanity.” In war, there are no winners, only losers.

In short: the costs of war are incalculable.

Finally, what will it take to break this impasse, in the short term, and to transform the conflict, in the long term?

There are many things to say, many thoughts to share, many feelings to vent. But let me end with words from two women, one a Muslim, the other – myself – a Christian.

Tausug Sitti Djalia puts it eloquently: “Panawagan namin na alamin, intindihin, pakinggan nyo lang kami, kahit hindi kayo maniwala.” (“Our appeal is to know, understand, listen, even if you don’t believe us.”) “I ask my friends,” she says, “Is there a space for our stories?”

When Djalia declares “The Bangsamoro story is also the story of the Filipino,” it is at once statement of fact and a statement of faith. She is saying that Moros are also Filipinos, part of a nation in the making. Through the peace process and in other ways, we seek to heal the wounds of history that have pitted us against each other, because of religion, because of historical circumstances.

Let me amplify. Indeed, we are an archipelago, and therefore diverse. We are two peoples, no, we are a tri-people—Christian, Muslim, lumad—separated by creed, culture, history. Yet we have shared space and time. We have fought the invader, we have paid with our lives.

Let us celebrate our diversity, honor our differences and affirm our commonalities. We pray to the same God (Allah for Muslims)—a God of peace, justice, love, and compassion

And our greetings are nearly identical, word for word. The Christian salutation “Peace be with you” elicits the response “And also with you.” The Muslim greeting “Assalamu alaikum – Peace be with you” evokes the reply “Wa alaikum assalaam – And upon you be peace.”

Let us stop fighting and killing each other. That is a dead end. Let us beat our swords into plowshares and turn our spears into pruning hooks. Let us overcome the enmity, bias, and prejudice of generations and share time and space, weave our dreams together, so that, finally, “the Bangsamoro story is also the story of the Filipino.”

Again, thank you from the bottom of my heart and good day