KISSAH AND DAWAT: Peacebuilding amidst the current pandemic

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 28 November) – I am thankful to the Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance (ZABIDA), in particular to its executive director Espie Humida, for the invitation to join the virtual launch early Thursday evening of the Mindanao Week of Peace IMWOP) celebration in Zamboanga City.*

This year’s celebration was officially announced through the Zamboanga City Executive Order 609, series 2020, signed by Mayor Beng Climaco, declaring the period From November 26 to December 2, 2020 as the Mindanao Week of Peace[1].

Among the key activities in November are the “Lavabo” for Peace, a public handwashing campaign in line with the pandemic; interreligious response forum to the COVID-19 pandemic; “finding inner peace,” an online mental health workshop; a sendoff motorcade as a tribute to the pandemic’s frontliners; an online orientation on urban gardening as a strategy for climate change mitigation; a solidarity visit to the historical journey of the “Mindanao Week of Peace”; a virtual workshop on creative arts around sketching, painting, origami and digital arts; and a youth movement forum on the environment.

In December, there is an online entrepeace to support small business owners; a series of fora on international human rights week, mental wellness for barangay health emergency response teams (BHERTS), a virtual youth camp and culminating in a yearend Christmas solidary event[2].

This year’s theme is “Continuing the Peace Advocacy amidst the Current Pandemic”. The theme is not just to set the focus of the activities stated beforehand. Importantly, the theme set the tone for reflection, action and learning of individuals, groups and organizations involved in peacemaking and peacebuilding through the coming year.

In the current pandemic, this implies that we actors and stakeholders need to be optimistic while at the same time religious in following the established health protocols. To be optimistic is to have that strong sense of hope that we will have access to the vaccine soon, In Sha Allah (God willing), by next year. The presence of the vaccine will align COVID-19 with all other diseases that we are prevented from acquiring or protected through immunization, such as polio, tetanus, influenza, hepatitis, rubella, measles and so on. Despite the fact that these diseases are more infectious and older than Covid19, they did not create havoc as with the latter simply because we had vaccines to protect ourselves from them.

The real challenge for us is how to conduct our peace advocacy while we are in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic. We have found the social media, online and virtual platforms as well as broadcast media (radio, television) as workable alternatives to face-to-face interaction. We have found strength among each other despite the fact we are physically miles apart; and narrow the physical distance through text audio and video calls with each other any time of the day and any day of the week as needed. Mental health, which before the pandemic was marginal in our consciousness, has taken centerstage and this we should continue even after the pandemic. The suicide cases, though small in frequency, should be enough to mobilize us to continue not only in creating awareness about mental health but in empowering ordinary folks with needed skills that allow them to look after themselves in a positive manner[3].

Even when we have been immunized next year, the challenge of peacebuilding remains. How do we then calibrate our peacebuilding in a post-pandemic situation? Will it be back to what we used to undertake prior to the pandemic? Or are we taking lessons from the pandemic as well? How can we make our peacebuilding better than before and better forward? How can we have a wider reach? How can we make our advocacy more meaningful?

The second consideration from the theme is need to define what we mean by peace advocacy. Is it as basic as information, education and communication (IEC) that is so familiar with our health workers? Beyond the question of modality is also the question of content – what is the ‘peace’ are we ‘advocating’? One way to look at this is through the themes of “peace education framework” popularized through the Notre Dame University peace education program[4].

Cultivating Inner Peace. When we talk about peace advocacy, we talk about ‘inner peace’ or ‘personal peace’, that is, peace begins within us, and with each one of us. Personal peace is about self-development and mastery. It is about our spirituality as a source of strength whether such is religious or secular in nature. We need this in Mindanao as much as those in the more urban parts of Luzon and the Visayas where different forms of peacelessness exist. At the core of every religion and philosophy is our shared humanity, and this too is a source of our personal peace.

Building Cultural Respect, Reconciliation and Solidarity. Another is about ‘multiculturalism’. As people become mobile and actively migrating to and from, either for work, study or residency, we should also be moving mentally towards recognition and upholding of diversity. Places, where there are relative peace and opportunities abound, are attracting people from other places to the point of changing demographics. Just as we are now physically closer and diverse within such places, we also need a cosmopolitan mindset to go with it, i.e. despite of our diversity, we can be a unified community. We are now in the 21st century and we have become one global village, a village with all forms of diversity present. Respect and tolerance build our diversity. Without it, we will be vulnerable to the ills of homogeneity, ethnocentrism, racism and xenophobia. Importantly, a cosmopolitan mindset is also crucial among our political leaders so that majority-minority and diversity issues cannot and should not be politicized.

Living in Harmony with the Earth. Peace is not just the absence of war or violence. We are now in a century where the environment matters as much as the focus and the energy we have expended in preventing and countering war and violence. The destruction we have done to our environment is catching up with us that we are now in a ‘climate crisis’. Climate change is a euphemism for the climate crisis. The United Nations said, “Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly.”[5] Therefore, environmental peace is integral part of our peace advocacy.

Dismantling the Culture of War. War and violence have always found justification. But we should not allow this to continue. As such, we need to advocate for the widening of democratic spaces where grievances can be resolved through active non-violence or through non-killing. I first learned the concept of nonkilling through Dr. Macapado Muslim, then Chancellor of  Mindanao State University in General Santos while we were working on teacher-training initiatives for those teaching Arabic language and Islamic values education in the public school. Dr. Muslim learned this from his mentor Dr. Glenn Paige who popularized this concept in his 2002 book. Dr. Paige defined “nonkilling as the absence of killing, threats to kill, and conditions conducive to killing in human society”. Therefore, the challenge for state and society is how to pursue its goal and address its challenges without resorting to killing or violence. Conflict is natural, killing is not. Justice and compassion can be pursued without engaging in violence or war. We need to be critical about the martial solution to people’s grievances. Active non-violence is therefore another dimension of our peace advocacy.

Living with Justice and Compassion. Even if we are away from communities riddled by protracted conflict or those coming out of violent conflicts, this only implies we are not in a situation of direct physical violence, but injustice exists in other forms. Indirect forms of violence, such as cultural and structural, exists even in cities and towns where direct armed conflict is absent. Structural violence includes the growing wedge between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots, the educated and the non-educated, the gated subdivisions versus the slums, and so on. Structural violence exists where the wealth are concentrated in the hands of the few while the majority continues to be illiterate, poor, marginalized and disempowered. Cultural violence exists in a multicultural society like ours in the Philippines where the Moros and other minorities have to fight for their rights, including protection and promotion of their own indigenous systems, though different and separate from the mainstream. Where minorities are stereotyped and portrayed disparagingly and where Moros have to contend with regular negative portrayal, such as association with violence, e.g. “Moro terrorists” and “wala kaming Muslim dito” implying there is peace where there is no Muslim in their midst. Correcting the indirect structural and cultural violence in our midst is also part of the peace advocacy reflected in this year’s theme of the Mindanao Week of Peace.

Promoting Human Rights and Responsibilities. Whether in a conflict situation or not, in pandemic or not, in a conflict zone or not, our human rights is integral to our humanity. This can not be compromised. We have come a long way to get where we are now. Therefore our peace advocacy is also, the continuing the promotion and respect for our human rights based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976, 1989); and including, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)[6]. However, just as we expect to exercise these rights, we should not also forget the corollary responsibilities to such rights. For example we can’t expect our elected leaders to do the right thing, if on election day, we refuse to hold them to account for their actions or exercise our voting rights responsibly. They were elected by our votes, and as long we do not vote wisely and responsibly, we will continue to have a number of elected leaders who care more about themselves and the perpetuation of their familial dynasty, instead of people’s welfare. This is something for us voters to reflect as October of next year will be the filling of candidacy for the 2022 elections.

Peace schema of knowledge, skills and values. Finally, the theme of the Mindanao Week of Peace 2020 includes the word “continuing”. Whether we are a novice or an old-timer in peacebuilding, we need to make sure we are prepared for these tasks. There are many who call themselves “peace advocates” but their views are not holistic but divisive; their actions and values are anything but peaceful.  One way to look at our preparedness to continue in the path of peace is to ask ourselves – do we have the knowledge, skills and attitude needed for a peace advocate or peacebuilder? In peace studies, there is a so-called peace education schema of knowledge, skills, and values. In terms of knowledge, as a peace advocate or peacebuilder, we need to ask ourselves – Do I have a working knowledge of holistic peace, conflict and violence, and peaceful alternatives? Do I have so-called peace skills, such as reflection, critical thinking, imagination, conflict resolution, empathic listening and group building skills? Do I have values of global and ecological concerns, cooperation, openness, tolerance, social responsibility and positive vision? If not, then maybe, it is time to learn anew or re-learn these again. Perhaps, it may help un-learning those that are inconsistent with our identity as “peace advocates”. For peace advocates are not just about such words, but are defined by our actions and values that people see in us. We can’t conscientize people to trek the path of peace if they see us unpeaceful or not genuine in our deeds. We convince people to trek the path of peace by our example.

Assalamu ‘alaykum! (May peace be with you!)

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)

*(Inspired by the annual Week of Peace in Zamboanga City which was initiated by the Peace Advocates Zamboanga, the Bishops-Ulama Conference started in 1999 a Mindanao-wide celebration it dubbed ‘Mindanao Week of Peace.’   President Joseph Estrada issued Proclamation 207 on November 5, 1999, declaring November 25 to December 1, 1999 “and every year thereafter” as the Mindanao Week of Peace, “to provide a venue for the expression in various forms of the peace aspirations of the people of Mindanao and for convergence of peace initiatives.” On November 3, 2000, Estrada issued Proclamation 408, resetting the date of the MWOP to the last Thursday of November until the first Wednesday of December of every year thereafter. On November 26, 2001,  President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Proclamation 127, reiterating Proclamation 207. The theme of this year’s Mindanao-wide celebration is “Dialogue Towards Harmony.”– MindaNews)

[1]https://web.facebook.com/bengclimaco/photos/a.10151676138223014/10157974012223014/

[2]https://scontent.fdvo1-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/127032985_10221325506984920_3087491585299530107_o.jpg?_nc_cat=103&ccb=2&_nc_sid=8bfeb9&_nc_eui2=AeHknoYFIg8FffsIDFLkelG5cD2kdebp549wPaR15unnj4lvhxNxt-MJgw0Z8EsIXBY&_nc_ohc=hJNP0khr_jwAX9d0_k_&_nc_ht=scontent.fdvo1-1.fna&oh=af897bc31eafc23299f462ffe15caf9e&oe=5FE70EF0

[3]This is one reason why I accepted an invitation from the regional association of accountancy students in Western Mindanao as a resource person on mental health and taking off from my professional background as a registered nurse.

[4]https://www.slideserve.com/gusty/integrating-peace-education-in-the-curriculum-the-notre-dame-university-experience

[5]https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/

[6]https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html