Saturday, November 1, 2008

RESOLVING MINDANAO CONFLICT


(Editor's Note. We find this speech delivered by Mr. Art Bonjoc during the Mindanao Peace Forum held at Grand Caprice Hotel in Cagayan de Oro City very informative. This is also the reason why we are publishing it here.)

Two men went fishing the whole day. As it was almost evening, they started to row their small boat back to the shore. Suddenly, a storm came and big waves hit their boats and it capsized. The one immediately swam to save his life. The other was struggling, screaming as he could hardly swim because of the backpack he was carrying. His companion shouted at him to leave the baggage behind and swim for his life. And both of them safely reached the shore.

It is very laudable for many sectors to find ways of resolving the conflict in Mindanao by holding tri-people dialogues, Christian-Muslim Forums, Christian-Muslim-Lumad (Indigenous People) Conferences, Multi-ethnic symposia, GRP-MNLF peace talks, GRP-MILF peace negotiations, and more, but for many years now conflict still occurs in this rich, beautiful island, every now and then.
Just like that fisherman who struggled to swim for his life, we can never reach the shore of peace and prosperity if we will not leave the baggage of ignorance, hate, and prejudice we carry behind our backs.

I’ve been a broadcast journalist for about 15 years and covered the wars in Central Mindanao. The growing animosity can also be attributed to media for being so insensitive in handling the Mindanao situation. Conflicts remained unresolved because of ignorance and prejudice - ignorance of history and culture, and prejudice towards the Muslims.

You heard the words “Muslim rebels”, “Muslim separatists” “Muslim terrorists” and “Moro fighters” but not “Christian rebels”, “Christian fighters, “Christian terrorists”, “Manobo rebels” and the like. Unfortunately, the former seems to be acceptable in the mainstream media, guilty including the international journalists.
“Isang negosyante ay binaril ng dalawang armadong lalaki” pero kung Muslim ang involved? “isang negosyante binaril ng mga armadong muslim!”
Most of us know that the word Muslim means submission to the will of God or Allah. How can God’s subject be, at the same time, a rebel or evildoer? And this ignorance has become contagious that has been adapted as a norm. Now, if you’re a Muslim, how will you feel that you are labeled as a rebel or insurgent or worse, a terrorist?

Prejudice in the media towards the Muslims is still prevalent. Many think they know the situation better than the stakeholders themselves and have become calloused to the feelings of Muslims.
How can we help the media become an instrument of peace and reconciliation? And how can we as a people heal the wounds of the past and prosper Mindanao?
Few weeks ago, I saw US Senator Barach Obama accepting the nomination as Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. This is first in history that an African-American runs for the highest position in America. For the first time in history also, the US has a Secretary of State who is also an African-American, a woman, Dr. Condoleeza Rice.

When Rice and Obama were given this very historic feat, did we ever hear them say that this is now the time for the Blacks to rule America? Did we hear Barach Obama and Condoleeza Rice exhorting the blacks to support them for the Whites to realize they are already in power and have become influential? Of course not!
In America, you can practice your profession whatever that will be, you can buy properties, you can have a house, a car, a happy family no matter who you are or what your race, color, religion, or traditions are. Because in America, they look at you there as human beings, as equals.

Of course, America is not a perfect country. Many people vehemently criticize its policies, particularly its foreign policies. But it is still a great nation because of its great people.
If there are people who were so hurt, oppressed, dominated, deprived, maltreated, discriminated, marginalized, manipulated, these were the blacks in America. They were sold as slaves, treated as animals, had no rights as human beings. They could be beaten to death by whites, not allowed to go swimming with whites in their beaches, not permitted to be in restaurants and in hotels when white people were there. They were not even allowed to play golf and other sports dominated by whites.

For 500 years they were in extreme agony. What they only desired and prayed earnestly then was that they be treated as humans, as equals.
Today, you see not only blacks in America, but browns, yellows, reds, and more. African-Americans dominate the sports arenas, famous in showbiz, have become successful entrepreneurs, professionals, etc. They live happily there with their loved ones because in America, they don’t look at themselves as Christians, Muslims, Indians, Asians, etc. They look at themselves as American people. During elections, you see a great divide between Republicans and Democrats. But even before the election is over, one of the candidates can dare to concede and throw full support to his rival, for after all, that’s only politics, and the American people are more important than their political ambitions or positions.
Mindanao has been plagued with wars and many conflicts because of politics and religion. Politicians, who also become propagandists, have divided the people and deprived them of genuine social services, land reforms, sound economic programs, infrastructure projects, and many more.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Christians pride themselves of being the supreme religion of peace. Muslims also brag as such. And local and international media treat the conflict in Mindanao as a religious war.

Al-Jazeera’s News recent headline was read, “Muslim extremists attack Christian Communities”.
Let me ask you a question, are Islam and Christianity ours? No, these were brought to us by foreign conquerors.
In 1300’s, Shariff Kabunsuan, an Arab-Malay trader and missionary, arrived in Mindanao and spread Islam. In 1500’s, Ferdinand Magellan came and Christianized Mindanao and the entire country.

A lawyer friend of mine who yearns for peace in Mindanao like me, told me once, “Bay, kung nagkikita si Magellan at Shariff Kabunsuan sa alapaap, sigurado’ng nag-a-apir and dalawa at nagsasabing, ‘tingnan mo yung mga loko-lokong Mindnaoan, nag-aaway dahil sa relihiyon na binigay natin sa kanila!”

Before the 13th century, who were we?
We were a peaceful nation. Trade and commerce were already vibrant that Arabs and Spaniards and other aliens were so attracted to our robust economy. We already had our own system of government – though, not the kind that we’re used to. Chinese traders were already here way before the other foreigners; the Indons, the Malays, among others lived harmoniously with Manobos, Hiligaynons, Bagobos, Maranaos, Tausugs, Samals, Badjaos, Maguindanaos, and other tribal people.
Religion is not bad, don’t get me wrong. But that should just be personal - between you and your God! It should not be something that you have to brag about and impose forcibly on others. It should not be compared with other beliefs or faiths because when we start using religion as a tool to advance our personal interest, it no longer becomes godly.

Granting that early Mindanaoans were discriminated, severely oppressed, persecuted, and treated inhumanely, what must we do? Do we have to keep on holding on to our grim past?
The conflict in Mindanao will never be resolved until we stop romanticizing our past. We can only have a glorious future if we will be able to forgive and forget. Both the Bible and Quran teach forgiveness. When Peter asked if he has to forgive those who trespassed against him up to seven times only, he was admonished by the Lord to forgive them seventy times seven times!

The blacks in America were able to do that. It was a painful decision. It was a supreme sacrifice. They forgave the whites and forgot the evils done to the Africans.
How do we know that we have already forgiven those who oppressed our Mindanaoan forefathers? If we start telling our children that Christians, Muslims and Lumads are the same. That we are one people! If we stop brainwashing our children against Christians, Muslims and Lumads, then that would be the start of a bright future for Mindanao.
As parents, it is our duty to inform our children that we are all one. There is no reason to be divided. There is no excuse.


Christian parents, tell your children that it our responsibility to love the Muslim and do not instill fear in their hearts and spread the lies that Muslims are traitors.
Muslim parents, tell your children to trust the Christians and just like what Allah said, we have to be compassionate to others even to those who do not belong to the faith.

You let the children play in the park, they don’t care who their playmates will be. You will hear them laugh and sing. Their voices become one. But when we, adults, show prejudice against one another, our children will be influenced by it and live with it which will result to animosity and hostility. Therefore, it is our fault why there are still prejudices present in our society, whether it be pronounced or not.
As media practitioners, it is our solemn duty to inform the public without prejudice and biases towards Muslims. And when we report about conflict, we could put premium in our stories that would empower the citizenry and not divide the country. We could start by setting aside words that would jeopardize relationships among Mindanaoans. Let’s stop using the words “Muslims” alluding to rebels, criminal elements and delinquents. Our stories should not be confined to “them” and “us” or “us versus them”.

In ABS-CBN NorthMin, I make it a point that the voices of all stakeholders, not just MILF or government, should be heard. We must be wary of the propaganda. Because in war, propagandists will move heaven and earth to influence the media in ensuring that their self-serving advocacies and political interests be propagated.

As Filipinos and Mindanaoans, it is our responsibility to correct our perceptions about one another. In my journalistic career, I’ve been covering Central Mindanao and I’ve seen Christians and Muslims living together in harmony. Protecting each other and helping one another in times of need.
When the MILF attacked Kolambugan in Lanao del Norte on August 18, priests, nuns, Christians, and other villagers were hidden by the Imams inside their mosque. Now, tell me if it was not a proof that we can integrate into one community and live peaceably despite our differences?
And the greatest challenge of all is for government to focus its efforts in addressing the areas of neglect. That our leaders set aside their prejudices towards Mindanao, That our officials be compassionate in helping the poor in Mindanao, That those in position be firm enough to penalize the corrupt both National and Mindanao leaders who just enrich themselves and oppress their constituents by pocketing government funds, depriving the people of the basic services. That the distribution of wealth will be equitable and not put Mindanao at the bottom of the list of priority projects and programs.

How I wish to see that day when the President is a Maranao or Maguindanawan, or Tausug or a Manobo or Bagobo or Hiligayon. And he or she becomes president because she is a Mindanaoan, a Filipino, a human being, qualified, true and honest, and not because she or he is a Muslim or Christian or Lumad.
May the Good Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Great Architect of the Universe hear us and answer our prayers for Mindanao and the Philippines. So mote it be!


Art Bonjoc, Jr. is the Area News Manager of ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs in Northern Mindanao and multi-awarded broadcastjournalist. He once chaired the KBP Chapters of Southern and Central Mindanao. He is also an active member of the Peace and Conflict Journalism Network (PECOJON).

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