WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Lesson learned in Basilan

War, the most violent of violent responses is associated with the unthinking man. The thinking man, on the other hand, would not at all find himself putting his men in a position where they run the risk to be butchered like sitting ducks.


I have hopes that the ritual of shaving one's head is not a prelude to shutting down one's thought processes. But then again, I try to have faith that whatever the situation, people would use their brains instead. Unfortunately, I am also beginning to see that it seems the norm for the members of a certain organization to hang up their brains to dry on the center pole every time they need to walk out the tent.


So what is the lesson to be learned in Basilan?


I asked, and so far the best answer I got came from a thinking man, one who went to the Asian Institute of Management for theories on communal peace and bridging leadership. He found these actually workable in that beautiful island.


MGen. Raymundo Ferrer, Commanding General of the Philippine Army's 6th Infantry Division based in Central Mindanao, once had a dream for that island. It was a dream that he set out to realize when he had the opportunity, and his efforts earned him the moniker "the architect of peace in Basilan". Ferrer was assigned in Basilan in 2004 as brigade commander. He probably is the most famous living person for the residents of that island.


What happened on 10 July 2007 in Ginanta was not cause for Ferrer to give up on the dream. In the aftermath of the most shocking war atrocity to happen in recent times, Ferrer's text message is going around. It says:


"Lesson learned in Basilan: Peace is so fragile, and so structures and mechanisms HAVE TO BE BUILT while we work thru people's minds (clarifying perceptions) and hearts (healing hurts). I see this as a challenge to strengthen local peace formations and coordination between GRP and MILF."


God bless you, sir. The way the jarheads are playing up the failure of coordination between GRP and MILF, for a while there it looked like cooler heads couldn't prevail over the overwhelming tide of outrage the barbaric deed had spawned.


While he has recognized the limits of the military solution, Ferrer is a fighting man when all is said and done. As such, he understands how very thin the veneer of civilized behavior is, and how easily it could be stripped away by the more compelling bloodlust. Peace, he says, is fragile. It is a challenge. The challenge is to overcome emotion with reason and get down on the ground to build structures and mechanisms for peace. If that be tunnel vision, by all means, keep tunneling.


Still, despite Ferrer's calm and rational outlook on the disaster, the total war option is still an option according to the AFP. It took the AFP a week before the Marine commanders got relieved, and when the order did come it sounded so apologetic! It makes one wonder why the Chief of Staff has been treating the Marines with kid gloves, allowing them their creative interpretation of tactical snafus in Jolo and Basilan and even awarding them medals and promotions for their creativity.


What? We award stupidity now? We allow stupidity to be the flashpoint that would drag the entire AFP at deconstructing what was painstakingly built up in Basilan? When that happens, what is to assure the people that punitive justice remains contained in Ginanta? The veneer of civilized behavior is very thin, and by all indications, the jarheads are raring to strip theirs off. When one is not thinking, punitive and retaliatory would likely mean the same thing.


In the aftermath of Ginanta, freshly shaven jarheads are trooping to fortify their forces in Basilan, shoring up troop morale with heavy guns and constant reminders of barbaric mutilation that could very well be the fate of anyone of them. That could very well come to pass when one is just spoiling for it.


And where, oh where would Basilan be? Do the top brass care? Or is the AFP leadership experiencing tunnel vision again – complete with auditory shutdown and visual distortions – with money bags full of reward dollars and a photo op with the American ambassador in sight?


Cooler heads, please.


I'm glad to actually find some. Not surprisingly, these heads still have hair.


The Philippine Army Civil Military Operations Group is quietly working to build on the gains from employing the Ferrer model for peacebuilding. It cannot be done in Basilan at the moment because the island is now within the ambit of responsibility of the Philippine Marines that obviously have other priorities and have time and again proven to have a very, very limited range of responses to the peace and order requirements in these islands.


Last 17 July 2007, a symposium attended by 600 students was organized by the CMOG, PA in the Jolo campus of the Mindanao State University– Sulu. This was the first time that soldiers engaged the youth of Jolo in a cultural dialogue. In an atmosphere of freedom of expression, the students were encouraged to air their perception of soldiers.


This was probably the first time that the Philippine Army opened itself up for public criticism in Jolo, to allow its elements to hear firsthand the individual instances from which negative stereotypes on their category have built up, and setting the AFP on the inevitable road to examine organizational conscience. We can only pray that the efforts would eventually lead to the dawning of mutual understanding and a lasting peace.


PA Col. Lysander A. Suerte, member of PMA Class 82 and currently the Commanding Officer of the CMOG, has been in the service for 25 years. Yet, according to him, this was the first time that he had sat through a face-to-face session where he was informed of the grave misconduct of soldiers as witnessed or experienced by civilians, and young ones at that. For Suerte, allowing the young their say was like going through the proverbial wringer, one that tested his ability to take in negative feedback and still keep an open mind.


Trauma healing is a very delicate undertaking. It is a lot more difficult than shaving your head and coming out firing your big guns. Trauma healing opens up the listener to emotional reactivity that many are ill-equipped to handle. Even veteran counselors lose their objectivity and get overwhelmed by the tide of toxic emotion.


It takes maturity and the conscious will to really listen. It takes compassion to allow the other the integrity of his unforgettable memory of painful experiences. It requires courage to accommodate extremely unpleasant feedback that jolts one at the core, forever denying him the comfort of staying in denial, because now he knows.


Ferrer knows that this articulation of grievance is crucial for the offended party to excise and drain the hurt, just as it is crucial for representatives of the AFP to hear and legitimize the residents' anger and pain.


You did this to me.


Yes, I did.


There. Doesn't that exchange sound like something that needs to be articulated?


"We cannot be part of the solution if we were not part of the problem," Ferrer emphasizes, in reference to soldiers developing the commitment to heal the hurts by first acknowledging the wrongs done and caused on the residents. Justifiable or not, civilians suffer most in war.


The CMOG agrees to be part of the solution. For starters, it will push for more engagements with the youth. In Sulu, Army, Air Force, and Marine commanders have agreed on this shift in strategy and have undergone CMOG training in conducting cultural dialogue. Suerte admits that his office is still refining the delivery of the program as there is much to be learned from outside the AFP organization.


As a start, Ferrer's AIM-influenced paradigm of peacebuilding does indeed show promise. For a short while in Basilan, the paradigm of clarifying perceptions and healing hurts did work. From the mutual understanding it generated, the communal needs surfaced and the Army elements were able to redirect their efforts at helping to respond to these concerns.


And then four months ago, Ferrer's replacement left Basilan and the Marines came.


I don't think the Basilenos are going to grieve were the Marines to pack up and leave their island. They're probably wishing for Ferrer to be reassigned back where he was most effective. What Ferrer gave to Basilan is a memory that once upon a time peacebuilding was on the ground in Basilan. Someday, the conditions would again be right for it. When that time comes, the residents would be ready for it because Ferrer had shown them how and why it should be done.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Down in Jolo, they are starting to propagate the lesson learned from Basilan. Somehow, the bungling in Ginanta notwithstanding, Ferrer is right to continue to be optimistic about building a lasting peace in these strife-torn islands. (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.)