VOICES FROM MINDANAO: Fear is not a good foundation for getting Mindanao out of the rut

(Mags Z. Maglana is among three “Voices from Mindanao” invited by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to share their insights on what is happening in Marawi and the rest of Mindanao on the last day of the CBCP’s 115th Plenary Assembly on 10 July 2017 in Manila)

I greet the members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) maayong buntag and daghang salamat for this opportunity to dialog with you. I also wish to congratulate Archbishop Romulo Valles for having been elected President of the CBCP.

On a personal note please indulge me as I mention that I am one of the taga-Lupon Davao Oriental, who are proud that the new CBCP President spent his high school years in our municipality.

Today, as it has been for 48 days now, my thoughts are on Martial Law in Mindanao

It would not be surprising if survey reports would confirm that majority of those from Mindanao approve of Proclamation 216.

But we must not stop at that, and instead seek to understand where the sentiments come from.


While there are those who profess approval for Martial Law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao as the manifestation of their support for President Rodrigo Duterte, the first to come from our part of the archipelago, fear is likely a major factor behind that approval.

Mindanawons today are fearful of a number of threats and dangers. A very real source of fear are terrorists like the Dawla Islamiyyah or the Maute group which has allied with the Abu Sayyaf group of Isnilon Hapilon.

It is a fear that has been magnified by our poor of understanding of these groups. Proclamation 216 has said that they are out to remove Marawi from its allegiance to the Philippine Government. But aside from the obviously propaganda-oriented video which shows them planning attacks, we have not heard much of their political platform.

To many Mindanawons, part of our resistance to terrorists is not extending to them the political stature that they crave so they can get the international recognition and support they are desperate to achieve. By their words and deeds, they mean to do harm.

We should not underestimate them, but neither should we overestimate them, and in the process unwittingly amplify their messages, and add to the historical injustices that abound in Mindanao.

But we know that dealing with them will require new mindsets and ways. And we do not just mean the Philippine security sector getting better in urban warfare. We mean developing the ability to prevent and fight back against terrorism without undermining the ideals and institutions we hold dear, the weakening or eradication of which would actually make favorable breeding grounds for more terrorists, of whatever persuasion, in the future.

So we must push back against the proposed ID system for Muslims not only because it is unconstitutional but also because it discriminates and makes people feel othered. No matter how well-intentioned, we should not let fear lend credibility to the debunked narrative of the Christian-Moro conflict in Mindanao.

Upholding inclusivity, good governance and respect for human rights in the middle of the conflict are ways of fighting those who want to weaken our social and governance institutions, and divide our peoples.

These are what are called for, instead of jokes about committing rape three times, and pushing the offensive no matter the cost to civilian lives in Marawi, which unfortunately but actually are messages that reinforce the terrorist agenda.

There have been Christians harmed, and Christian churches in Marawi damaged, but there are ways of speaking out against injustice of such nature without forgetting that more Muslims have been hurt and their masjids defiled because of the Marawi crisis.

Highlighting how Muslims stood up for and protected Christians, and the many other fine examples of shared humanity at work are active refusal of the binary storyframes that are being revived. Our common messages should be, listen to the people of Marawi, keep civilians safe, take back the city from the jaws of war and destruction.

There are also Mindanawons who are afraid of a situation where, to use the words of President Duterte himself, “the military is supreme in Mindanao.”

About 2,000 indigenous peoples (mostly Manobos) in Lianga, Surigao del Sur fled their homes last week in fear of military movements, and the presence of paramilitary forces. These are the same communities who were traumatized by the Martial Law years of Marcos, and the brutal killing on September 1, 2015 of their leaders and a school administrator which triggered their evacuation. They had just returned to their farms and villages after more than a year of staying in an evacuation center in Tandag, and again they are experiencing displacement.

Four leaders of farmers, agricultural workers and human rights organizations were held for questioning at a Davao City military checkpoint last June 28 for being “suspicious.” A long-dismissed charge of qualified theft against one of them was also used as an excuse. This has a chilling effect on civil society groups in the region, particularly since the four had no connections at all to the reason why Martial Law was declared.

By the narrative that every locality is vulnerable to terrorists who are now considered rebels, Martial Law is tragically fanning the flames of fear in Mindanao. The legality of its proclamation has been upheld by the Supreme Court, true. But it does not mean that it needs to be in place until July 22, much more continue beyond that.

Fear is not a good foundation for getting Mindanao out of the rut in which it currently finds itself. In fact it is a debilitating factor, and could undermine real change over the medium to long-term. Heightened fear will make us mistake paranoia for vigilance; compliance can easily slide down the slope of blind obedience; excessive worrying about the safety of our immediate circles may numb us to the plight of others.

We ask CBCP to help Mindanawons and the rest of Filipinos deal with our fears before they get the better of us. Before our fear of the unknown will lead to pathological clinging to the known, which is really the status quo, and the opposite of the change we have been promised to expect.

Christians have become the majority in Mindanao in just two generations after systematic migration started in the early 1900s. Mindanao’s population is now about 26 million, with migrants accounting for about 19 million.

We hope that Catholics in Mindanao would find guidance in the critical and prophetic voice of our Church leaders. We have not forgotten, and it is something we value, that among the first to have spoken out against the abuses of Marcos’ Martial Law was Davao Archbishop Antonio Mabutas who issued the statement on the “Reign of Terror in the Countryside” in 1978 condemning the killings of church workers in Davao City.

To make more obvious the obvious, we Mindanawons look eagerly to His Excellency Romulo Valles and the rest of the CBCP for inspiration that would help us overcome what Pope Francis referred to as faintheartedness, “the sin against memory, courage, patience and hope.”

And unlike the CBCP pastoral letter on extra-judicial killings which we heard, for some regrettable reason or another, was not as widely read in Mindanao churches on February 5, we hope that the CBCP’s future messages would be loudly and clearly heard by the Catholics of Mindanao.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Please email feedback to magszmaglana@gmail.com)