KISSA AND DAWAT: Bangsamoro Insider-Mediators are also in transition

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 22 October) – An insider-mediation group was supported by the United Nations Development Program as an informal network of some 130 people from across the diverse backgrounds of Bangsamoro and trained on mediation and negotiation skills. The capacity building was facilitated by the Clingendael Academy in the Netherlands. The academy is considered one of the largest independent diplomatic training centers in the world. Annually, more than two thousand professionals from all over the globe participate in their courses delivered at the Clingendael Institute.

I am one of those in the pioneer group trained by Cligendael to be insider-mediators. At that time, the focus was on intra-Moro unity in pushing the gains of the peace process forward. Aside from our training, I remember the Minsupala-wide consultation we did to give stakeholders within Bangsamoro a rare space to talk about collective position, interest and needs. I emphasized “Minsupala”, because the group I headed was able to mobilize key leaders from various Moro sectors not only from Western Mindanao, but also from the Sulu Archipelago and Palawan.

On Wednesday (October 20), I had the opportunity to attend a Clingendael online training on Intercultural Communication for Insider Mediators. Our trainers were Maaike Aans, a specialist on intercultural communication and Mark Anstey, a specialist on mediation. Other insider mediators who were with me in the training include Musa Saguila, Atty. Algamar Latiph and Shalom Allian. There was also a participant from the Mindanao Development Authority and two other participants from the African continent.

The first topic was to consider the interdisciplinary nature of culture and look at its common characteristics as there is no universal definition. What we say as culture is actually a social code of behavior; that it is learned, and not biological; it is shared by a social group but it does not mean individuals are the same; it is passed down through generations; it is dynamic, not static or written in stone, therefore unchanging; it is relative, therefore experiential; it is complex, therefore a result of socioeconomic and political factors and is not delineated by national boundaries.

In the case of the Moro culture, the identity itself was an exonymic imposition of the Spaniards on a recalcitrant and unyielding population in Mindanao, Sulu Archipelago and Palawan (Minsupala). It may be monolithic because of its population, but within it, Bangsamoro is a conglomeration of 13 diverse ethnolinguistic groups. Another strong binder for the Moro culture aside from its political opposition to colonial regimes is these ethnolinguistic groups’ adherence to the Islamic faith. As pointed out by Anstey, culture has utility, it gives a sense of identity and cohesion. Aans pointed out that as culture may be a binder for in-groups, it also informs us that there can be out-groups who identify differently. In the process, political transitions, such as the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa, may change who have access to political powers through democratic process, but there can also be “marginals”, who continue to be in the periphery despite the democratic change.

The second topic considered was Edward Hall’s “Culture Iceberg” reminding us that as there are obvious physical manifestations of culture coined as “surface culture”, there are also abstract sets of beliefs, ideas and thoughts that constitute “deep culture”. As insider mediators, we are reminded of how deep an impact culture can have on both the process and output of a mediation. Joseph Shaules in his book “Deep Culture: The Hidden Challenges of Global Living” (2007) reminds us of the difference between intercultural contact and intercultural adaptation. For many of us, interaction and travels may have led us to intercultural contact, but intercultural adaptation is associated with deep culture, as framed by Shaules, “the unconscious frameworks of meaning, values, norms and hidden assumptions that we use to interpret our experience”.

The third topic is taking another look at 1948’s Shannon and Weaver’s Communication Model. But this time looking at it through the lens of intercultural communication, reminding us the essentials – senders and receivers are not just individuals, but can also be groups; language and non-verbal actions are codes to remember when encoding and decoding; channels are not necessarily linear or one way, it can be multi-linear and interactive. In discussing channels, we also consider the noise that can influence the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of communication. M.M. Kobiruzzaman in his article on “Communication Noise” (2019) identifies these barriers as physical, physiological, psychological, semantic, and cultural noise.

The conversation on noise reminds us of a unique challenge to the Bangsamoro. We do not have a shared language. We who call ourselves Moro – Meranaw, Maguindanaon, Iranon, Tausug, Yakan, Sama, Badjao, Jama Mapun, Panimusan, Molbog, Kalibogan, Kagan and Sangil – speak to ourselves via Filipino, the national language, or Arabic, for those products of Madrasah education, or even Bahasa for those in Sabah, Malaysia or in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Thus, the socio-linguistic and pragmatic challenges are ever present. One Moro regional official even posed the question, “so do we need to evolve a common language for ourselves?”. I do not know the answer. But I can point to the fact that our Islamic affiliation has allowed us to evolve an Arabic-based orthography, called Jawi and Kerim across several ethnic groups. The Old Malay of the Nusantara (insular Southeast Asia) was also written in Jawi script.

The fourth topic is on intercultural communication. Anstey reminds us about the two tiers of intercultural relations. The first one is about communication between cultures. The second tier reminds us that improved communication does not necessarily lead to acceptance and may even widen cultural divides. The first tier addresses the challenges of the “surface culture”, the obvious physical differences and how we are adapting to accommodate or to tolerate differences. However, the second tier is about the world of the “deep culture”, the core values and rituals, and differences in social organization, authority relations, sense of justice, and views on women, sexuality, and religious beliefs. In this sense, we can be open to having a family from a different culture as a neighbor as a consequence of urbanization, but as our neighbor expressed their norms, this is where our accommodation and tolerance come into play. A city-dweller Moro can accept a non-Moro neighbor, but how well a Moro adjusts to a neighbor having dogs as pets and preparing pork dishes is a question of tolerance.

Which leads us to the fifth topic on Culture Matters. This is where cultural relativism comes in. This is where insider-mediators need to be sharp especially when they are already in a mediation process. Their sharp appreciation or poor lens can influence both the process and outcome. As an example, Anstey reminds us that a highly educated person from a particular culture may well be prepared to mediate from the perspective of competence, but the same person may not be acceptable to conflicting parties who see the person without credibility because of the absence of cultural markers that make him an acceptable mediator or leader. In the same manner, an outside mediator may not have “inside information” about conflicting groups, but may be viewed and acceptable to conflicting parties because of the perception of neutrality.

Therefore a clearer communication lens and competence in intercultural communication are important, especially for insider-mediators. As Musa Saguila said, to have more of seeing than just looking, and to have more of listening than just hearing. Here the insider mediator’s patience can be the crucial bridge building needed to narrow the divide that underpin the whole conflict. Atty. Latiph posed a question around how insider-mediators can discern the difference between personal and collective position, interest and need. Our secular education demands that when we communicate we look into the eyes, but there are cultural norms that tell us to look down or to defer to a leader or elder and not to interrupt them, more so argue with them.

At the last part of the training session, a satirical video was played leading us to consider pitfalls in intercultural communication, such as stereotyping, ethnocentrism and essentialist assumption. It came to mind that the role of insider-mediators in Bangsamoro did not end with the adoption of the Bangsamoro Organic Law nor with the MILF’s assumption to government. Our role has just evolved into a wider realm of opportunity and relevance if the Government of the Day would like to add meaning and substance to its claim of moral governance and inclusion.

(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)