Homeless in our own homeland
“How many times have you heard it said that it is not time to talk about women? They heard it in Cambodia, I am sure. So have they in Timor Leste, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea. And surely they have too at the Moro National Liberation Front. I suspect they heard the same things we are hearing now that there are more important things to fight for or against, to discuss, to achieve and to win, and so on and so forth. First the Khmer Rouge; or the Indonesian military; or self-determination. We are told that when the struggle is won, women win or when the struggle is won, we can start tackling your issues. But we know it isn’t and hasn’t been so.”
- quoted from the speech of IRENE M. SANTIAGO, Chair and Chief Exectuive Officer of the Mindanao Commission on Women and Convenor of Mothers for Peace. (Ms. Santiago is well-known nationally and internationally as a strong advocate for the improvement of the status of women. She has also been deeply involved in the peace process in Mindanao as former member of the Philippine Government Panel Negotiating with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.)
At the frontlines I found my fair share, and struck a deal with destiny.
In Mindanao, my beloved homeland, the endless struggle of the Islamized natives or Bangsamoros for self-determination and preservation of cultural identity, which dates back to the Philippine colonial period, has claimed so many lives and caused so much devastation and disenchantment over the years. This struggle came to a head after the Marcos administration carried out the Jabidah massacre in 1967 (approx. 28 to 64 Moro recruits trained by the military) which signaled the first Muslim secessionist movement – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). When the government’s peace talks with the MNLF resulted to a peace accord signed in Jakarta in September 1996, the state faced a fiercer battle as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) took over the secessionist rebellion, and to this day the solution is yet far from sight.
My involvement in government’s peace efforts started in 2001, right after President Estrada carried out his all-out-war policy against Muslim separatist rebels, the MILF, that resulted to enormous devastation, casualties, injuries, and nondescript pain and disillusionment. Victims in the battlefield, with “collateral victims” in the neighborhood, were then struggling to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives, fending for themselves amidst the gruesome aftermath, as they explored burned shelters and devastated farmlands for whatever was worth salvaging. Internal displacement rose to two million, mostly women and children, rendered homeless in our own homeland. Widowed wives and mothers fend as solo parents while sisters and daughters were forced to hard labor for survival. Families lost their able men as brothers and fathers were killed or are engaged in combat in either side of the armed conflict.
At this juncture, Muslim, Christian and indigenous women leaders of Mindanao, including my former superiors in the government’s peace process; Irene Santiago, Sylvia Paraguya and Diosita Andot, with 1973 Miss Universe Margarita Moran-Floirendo, established the Mindanao Commission on Women (MCW). Believing that no peace agreement can be implemented or can peace be sustained without the leadership and participation of women, MCW then mobilized, educated, persuaded, and lobbied to make women’s issues central to the decisions about peace, with key pursuits on peace and multiculturalism, poverty reduction, and politics and governance.
Barely had the armed conflict victims recovered when, in 2003, government’s pursuit of criminals after sporadic bombings and terror attacks in many parts of Mindanao allegedly perpetrated by Jemaah Islamiyah-linked Abu Sayyaf bandit group again led to mass evacuations due to armed “mis-encounters” between government troops and rebels. This pursuit sparked armed confrontations, bombings, abductions and ambushes, and, automatically, my work shifted to the battlegrounds - facilitating meetings, consultations, courtesy calls and press conferences as well as rallying stakeholders, observers, partners, allies and authorities into addressing atrocities and ceasefire violations. The task was overwhelming, with combatants pointing accusing fingers as to who drew first blood, while constituents continued to suffer the consequences.
Spontaneously, MCW launched “Mothers for Peace”, a campaign demanding for ceasefire and for government and MILF to return to the negotiating table. The campaign was successful, creating a broader peace constituency all over the country. MCW then decided to transform the campaign into a movement as Mothers for Peace and Youth for Peace, with main thrust on the creation of peace circles to strengthen and expand the movement’s mass base and make peace-building part of women’s day-to-day lives.
In parallel effort, government sought assistance from World Bank to address humanitarian, rehabilitation and development issues, which took me to war-torn communities on joint needs assessment as World Bank and United Nations representatives looked into causes of the problem. We faced petrifying ordeals in communities wary of promises and disillusioned by too much abandonment and neglect.
In July 2007, a gory incident shocked us. The Philippine Marines who were engaged in rescue operation of abducted Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi in Basilan were ambushed, with 14 troopers brutally murdered, 10 of whom tortured, mutilated and beheaded. The MILF rebels owned up to the ambuscade but denied the beheading. Angered, the military hierarchy issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the surrender of the perpetrators. My college classmate in the Commission on Human Rights pleaded that I inform authorities on the panic and tension building up in Basilan owing to the ultimatum. As urgent as it was imperative, I called up superiors and authorities in government, NGOs, civil society groups, embassies and international organizations - rallying support to lift the ultimatum, as unspeakable fear mounted among innocent civilians. Our unified efforts paid off, as a joint fact-finding team was formed to investigate the incident.
Yet, despite sincere, grueling and consciously exhaustive efforts of both government and MILF leadership to solve the conflict, spoilers found their way to ruin and derail the peace process. In August 2008, in what could have been the biggest breakthrough in the peace talks with the Muslim rebels, we rammed into a dead end when Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order preventing the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). It was shockingly painful because we worked it out hard and long, and extremely embarrassing since it was hosted by Malaysian government, witnessed by foreign dignitaries and covered by international media. The verdict of the petition of local government leaders to stop MOA-AD signing came a day before the actual event, when all those involved, including observers, witnesses and reporters, had already spent time, money and effort to be present.
Inevitably peace talks collapsed and the problem blew out uncontrollably. On the ground “renegade” rebel commanders went rampaging, burning houses and wreaking havoc in local communities. These escalated into armed encounters with government troops resulting in massive evacuations, with internally displaced persons (IDPs) pegged at 400,000. A taller order and fiercer battle ensued in the Supreme Court as we fought oral arguments to defend the MOA-AD.
When, finally, Supreme Court declared the MOA-AD signing unconstitutional, peace negotiations receded to square one. President Arroyo dissolved the government peace panel and issued a new mandate which sent me facilitating consultations, meetings and workshops with stakeholders and all protagonists in the peace process in a whirl of inputs gathering, information campaign and peace advocacy.
Surprisingly, through pain, humiliation, frustration, apprehension and disillusionment of a noble pursuit wronged and a journey derailed, an unexpected blessing arose from the fiasco. It sparked a national controversy that sent even cab drivers and sidewalk vendors talking about ancestral domain. What had once been confined to stakeholders exploded into national debate and international concern. Suddenly, we found the platform we worked in vain to achieve, as plural interest ushered into meaningful understanding and clearer vision of the peace process. Social preparation, once dismally lacking, became the guiding light, catapulting ancestral domain issue from negotiating table into public landscape.
At the peak of the crisis global concern heightened. Ambassadors and foreign dignitaries from the USA, Organization of Islamic Conference, Non-Aligned Movement and European Commission, as well as representatives of international organizations like World Vision, Oxfam and United Nations System did the groundwork, visiting conflict-affected areas and evacuation centers to assess conditions, explore options, and effect solutions. However, as foreign assistance poured in, negative issues relating to aids and donations complicated matters. Some refugees relied on dole-outs and rations and refused to leave evacuation centers. It was all the more difficult to deal with repatriation, relief and recovery.
Government and donors confront myriads of increasing challenges in effecting solutions, with displacements aggravated by untoward incidents and natural calamities, like clan wars and flooding. Although the Paris Declaration encourages government and donors to take broader perspectives in looking at unique issues in such conditions, to maximize benefits of relief, recovery and stabilization efforts by conducting joint assessments, promoting flexible funding modalities, working in harmonization with local communities, and looking at the wider agendas of conflict prevention, state-building and peace-building, it became obvious that any strategy in dealing with displacement due to armed conflicts necessitates adaptation, particularly where local ownership and capacity are weak. Ms. Mary Judd of World Bank Philippines noted that the prevailing context poses unique challenges to effecting solutions, with prevailing and continued insecurity, limited capacity, competing agendas, corruption, lack of coordination, and lack of clarity among military, humanitarian and development interventions, whether perceived or factual. She further observed that dealing with the problem of IDPs cannot be achieved without considering political dimensions, social dynamics and contextual challenges. Despite government’s technical orientation and donors’ apolitical stand, addressing the issue involves political engagements. Alignment and coordination of interventions from the national to local level must be clearly defined by mutual accountability. Unfortunately, focus on process rather than impact tempts government and donors and their recipients/beneficiaries to concentrate on how to deliver rather than on what to achieve.
To re-open the aborted peace talks and address armed confrontations and internal displacement, President Arroyo issued Administrative Order 267 creating Task Force HELP-CM (Health, Education, Livelihood and Progress) for Central Mindanao, intended to alleviate the plight of the evacuees and reduce impact of conflict on communities, as well as pursue “humanitarian offensives” to address the root causes of conflict. Once again I was whisked into the frontlines. Among victims and combatants, my pain was doubly excruciating because they are my own. Surprisingly though, amidst strife, devastation and disillusionment, I marveled at the goodness, resiliency and spontaneity of my people and the beauty and splendor of my homeland.
While interviewing refugees and sometimes facilitating delivery of relief goods and services, I see myself during the dark days of Martial Law I grew up with. The disillusionment, pain and fear I see I know so well – of widowed wives and mothers, orphaned children, helpless and toil-worn sisters and daughters; women and children whose husbands, fathers and brothers were debilitated, killed or are in combat.
The resumption of peace talks in 2009 highlighted the Civilian Protection Component of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) under guidance of international humanitarian laws. Further, recognizing the crucial role of interested countries and international non-government organizations, an International Contact Group (ICG) was formed in order to exert necessary leverage towards sustaining trust and confidence of all parties.
Remarkably, deep involvement in the pursuit of peace in Mindanao is spreading and rising. Surely, if the protagonists recognize and respect the rights of all stakeholders; if relief, rehabilitation and recovery are effected alongside efforts for sustainable development; if technical cooperation is pursued as to empower local communities through capability-building, skills training, livelihood assistance and education; if peace talks, consultations and dialogues are conducted not within the confines of security mechanisms but alongside confidence-building measures; and most important, if government commits to deliver basic services to its people with the political will to uphold the primacy of the peace process, peace in Mindanao will be attained.
More relevant to the quest for peace is that women involvement is increasingly visible. Women organizations are on the rise, working for peace, social justice, gender equality and human rights. The Kamindanawan position paper for peace negotiations in Mindanao declared that “If women negotiated the peace agreement, it would be more than just a settlement. It would be fair and enduring.” This is reinforced by the National Survey on the Participation of Women which reported that “Most Filipinos view female public officials as superior to male public officials with respect to efficiency, honesty, selflessness, sensitivity to the environment, and, of course, concern for women’s welfare.”
We resonate with Chanthou Boua of Kampuchea in her book “Children of the Killing Fields”, declaring that “Post-conflict societies inherently mean that people, especially women, are exhausted, particularly after a long protracted conflict. They have overwhelming tasks to fulfill in response to the situations mentioned above, usually with limited resources. Women have the added responsibility of nurturing the family livelihood. In post-conflict situations, with so many pressing issues to contend with, the social issues facing women are often low on the agenda.” Significantly, women voices are growing clearer and louder globally.
Despite the odds, I am confident we will conquer the crisis because I see people I know so well, friends and relatives - amidst strife and among victims. More so, involvement of women is a major factor in this gargantuan pursuit for peace. While I stand by my state, they suffer with my people. Right where risks are real and battles are fought, they live the toll and embrace consequences, working hands-on in unflinching commitment to save our homeland. They pursue solutions through local governments, non-government organizations and civil society groups, lending hands to donors and volunteering services to heal the wounds and stand on guard. It reinforces my faith and conviction that we will conquer this misfortune and finally find redemption. With hope and courage I envision genuine, equitable and durable peace for my people.
There’s no telling when the strife in my homeland ends, or when the suffering of my people abates, but we know the solution is in our hands as we journey with commitment and steadfast solidarity. We will move forward with unrelenting faith and courage, and seal our destiny for a peaceful and progressive Philippines!
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard from corners of the world.