WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: In our small way

It was International Women's Day, and there was no end to activities that
bonded women in celebration of empowering sisterhood. I was and will always be
with my sisters in spirit- Women's Day or not. Never mind if my sisters don't
know it sometimes. I know so.

Also, I could have been in Midsayap for the peace summit, but I gave up the
slot reserved for me by my home institution in favor of Maya Vandenbroek, an
AB Mass Communication instructor who demonstrates much promise at putting ADDU
in the consciousness of the Mindanao community. It did give me a moment of
unease when her mom, my friend Norma Javellana, forwarded her text message
from Midsayap that said, "Sus, Ma, nasakpan ko sang intelligence guy sa
military nga nagsulti ko'g 'buanga sa military' kay I interviewed some
evacuees who told me that the military stole the things in their houses as
civilians were fleeing the fighting. Gikuha akong name sa military! Tell you
tomorrow."

I asked Maya to get the soldier's name, his unit, and the name of his
commanding officer in case anything untoward came out of this incident. I felt
distinctly guilty sending young Maya out there, knowing just how enthusiastic
she is about the academe's role in, among other things, pushing for a
desirable resolution to the peace negotiations in Mindanao. I know Maya worked
Davao and Sarangani. But Midsayap is a different playing field altogether, and
the occasion of the peace summit might not have been enough excuse for some
quarters to suspend their vigilance on security matters. Later that night, I
breathed a sigh of relief when Maya texted back that she was okay.

Paddy's invitation had been on short notice, giving us little window of
opportunity to mount the event. I however understand how rare it is for
military units to come together for something like what he was proposing. The
invitation had me reviewing the recommendations I proposed from the findings
of the military rebellion paper I did some years ago. Here's the salient quote
from among my research recommendations:

"…(Military) Preservice training should include exposure to the culture in
civilian sectors to enhance dialogue, understanding, and closer working
relationship. This would do much to prevent the (development of the) elitist
thinking that nobody else feels as patriotic as the soldier. More
importantly, this would introduce the soldier to the notion that non-military
organizations have other ways to see and do things such that he may be able to
adjust his expectations in synergistic endeavors with them."

Having committed that on an academic paper, I guess there was only one way for
me to reply to that invitation. So Women's Day found me among soldiers in
their home territory. I was joined by Prof. Mae Matias-Fernandez and a handful
of students.

Unlike I who literally grew up in military camps, my students have had very
little association with soldiers. Unlike I who have seen up close the shining
moments and the nadir points of soldiery in the Philippines, my students have
very little experience of the soldier beyond the fact that he has guns and
that wherever he goes, he automatically evokes fear.

Getting students and soldiers together was, to my view, important at this
point. Soldiers and students belong to social categories that have the
potential to shape the emerging social reality in these islands.

Wherever soldiers are sent, as members of the organization legitimized by our
society to wield justifiable violence, they have the means to change the
balance of power in the community. God forbid that they enter blind to the
historical roots and the cultural elements to the situation that they are
called to pacify. That could do more harm than good. We have enough examples
of ignorant soldiers shooting themselves on the foot and setting off a wave of
resentment and anger to compound what is already there.

In particular, I remember a battalion commander operating in Central Mindanao
who painted "MILF" on his unit's tanks during the 2000 all-out-war offensives
against the MILF in Central Mindanao. His version of the acronym meant "Mga
Ilongo Liberation Forces". This instance of cultural insensitivity he
authorized in the land where, through the employment of land laws the
enforcement of which was backed by the military institution, Ilongo settlers
displaced Muslim residents, fomenting bitter strife to last several generations.

Years later, I asked him what he was thinking when he did that. Well,
according to him, "MILF" vs MILF sounded like a morale-boosting slogan to his
ear. Cariño militar. That was all there was to it insofar as he was concerned.
He was, after all, an Ilongo.

To the soldiers' credit – yes, including that battalion commander, wherever
they are sent on assignment, most of them try their best to "win the war" and
uphold the law. But in Mindanao, not all the laws are just. Perhaps it needs
to be pointed out to the soldier that oftentimes in these islands, the face of
the enemy is the face of a man defending his homeland. Under normal
circumstances, that is the kind of heroism that our soldiers can relate with.

ADDU students, on the other hand, may not yet fully understand enough to claim
their power to influence public discourse and fiscalize consensus-building,
policy-making, and political decisions on communal issues. I have enough faith
though that someday they'll grow into the role and become informed,
responsible, participative, and conscientious citizens of Mindanao.

In particular, most of the students I brought trace their ancestry to Muslim
tribes. Many among them however are somewhat divorced from their cultural
roots, having been acculturated through Jesuit education and assimilated into
the dominant globalizing Filipino culture. My 30-minute take on the historical
background of why soldiers are – and are likely to be for a lot longer time –
in Mindanao was an opportunity for some of them to brush up on the history of
the Muslim peoples. Some of them, I believe, were hearing for the first time
of the systematic marginalization their peoples went through in the hands of
colonial and State administrations.

War and violent responses that characterize troubled communities in Mindanao
are not that deeply rooted in the young. We look to the young for hope in the
future, for them to track peaceful ways to resolve differences.

Contact and dialogue are a starting point to impart the kind of knowledge that
dissolves the in-group/outgroup dichotomy, allowing participants to see
members of a stereotypical category as human beings like themselves who can
through their eyes see the world in a certain way, limited by the options
available by virtue of identity. Dialogue goes a long way in setting the
ground for peaceful coexistence amid diversity.

And as students and soldiers easily brushed elbows at boodlefight after two
hours of politely talking it out, it gave Col. Padilla and me the occasion to
celebrate the fact that in Mindanao we keep forging new ways to work for
peace. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the
opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology,
Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University
where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to
[email protected]. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)

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