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100,000 strong peace caravan fails to make news in 40 year-old Philippines conflict

   
 


Some of the 100,000 strong peace caravan in the town of Kabakan, North Cotabato province, Philippines.

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The Hon. Datu M. Baraguir, Sr. is the direct descendant of Sultan Kudarat (1590-1671) – a hero among Bangsamoro Muslims who led against Spanish invasion and ruled most of Mindanao. Datu Baraguir accompanied the peace caravan, and serves the Mennonite led peace ministry as strategic adviser on Bangsamoro Culture and Historical Narrative.

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MMay 8, 2009
- Jeremy Simons

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — My hands and arms are tired of being pulled, grasped, clasped and yanked. Is this what it’s like to be a celebrity?

We’ve been driving since 6 am. The plan for “Peace Power Day” was to travel a 500 km circular route through the four province Magindanaoan region of central Mindanao, starting and ending in Davao City. An ambitious goal for our “Peace Caravan” of 21 vehicles plastered with banners proclaiming “Save the Evacuees” and “Ceasefire Now!”

The purpose of our trip is to affirm a massive community organizing effort in Magindanao, one of the most conflicted areas in Mindanao. Magindanao is where a majority of the 300,000 mostly Muslim, internally displaced people (IDP’s or evacuees) live in make-shift shelters. Eight months ago, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA AD) fell apart at the last minute, foiling the possible end to a 40 year liberation struggle and forcing half a million people out of their home communities. Now they wait in refugee camps or live with relatives.

I am a recent addition to this partnership ministry of Mennonite Church Canada and Peacebuilders Community – and I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew. How will it be possible to get tens of thousands of the poorest people in the world dispersed over miles of dirt roads, mountainous terrain and one of the largest marshes in Southeast Asia – to rally over a four province region? It turns out that an extensive network of cellular phone text messages and elaborate social and extended family networks do the job: 100,000 Muslim community members, joined by Christian Filipinos, vocalize their desire for peace in a moving wave of demonstrators converging on cities, villages, and major road intersections.

I am riding with Datu Assib Ibrahim and Datu Kharis Matalam Baraguir, the direct descendant of Sultan Kudarat – the beloved leader in the early 1600s who fought off Christian Spanish invaders of the lush Magindanaoan region through which we are traveling (Datu means chieftain or monarch).

Though the Moro (Muslim people) continue their struggle to reclaim nothing more than the portion of land they currently occupy, Datus Assib and Kharis tell me that they want to occupy the hearts of non-Moro’s first. The land that was taken away from them through years of oppression, exploitation and violence is, in some ways, incidental. Underneath the desire for land is a desire for a home community of respect. They dream of a nation-place, where the voices of all people are heard and valued in their hearts. Hearing precedes peace making, they say; only then will a less violent future be possible.

* * *

In the days following the Peace Caravan, I comb local and international news periodicals to see if peaceful rallies by 100,000 people have made the news anywhere; my hope is that mainstream Filipinos might start to see the non-violent side of the Moro struggle. Though I don’t expect to find anything beyond a paragraph tucked away in the international news section, I assume Peace Power Day will be carried in the Philippine news – but I am stunned to discover that none of the major news Philippine news outlets carry even a sentence about the massive crowds rallying peacefully for change in a war-torn society. How can this be? I am not aware of any official news blackout hiding the emerging reality of a non-violent peace option in Mindanao.

As we pass through rolling agricultural and forest land and the sun sets over Liguasan Marsh, hundreds of children stream out of blue tarp-covered refugee shelters lining the road. They come to shake our hands and share their desire for a place of safety and nurture. I want to explain that though I am one of only a dozen-and-a-half foreigners in the peace caravan, I represent a much larger community of people who also believe in creating a listening space for justice, peace and reconciliation. While one of my travel-mates notes that the presence of so many Moro demonstrators reveals the sustainability of the violent struggle for self-determination, another participant hears their cries for peace. While I cannot determine who is right, (and they both may in fact be right), it seems only the call to violence is recognized. And that is a reality that the supposedly dynamic peace constituency in Mindanao, myself included, has yet to effectively address.

Though most people in my personal global circles would know little about the details of this particular story of struggle and suffering, I expect they would affirm the fundamental importance of listening as a sign of respect and a starting place for building peace. If they were here, they would also be extending their hand in solidarity.

But they are not. So, with my increasingly sun and wind-burned arm reaching out the window and clasping hands, I reach out once again as we approach another group of demonstrators convening along the road. I open my hand in blessing. “Asalaam Alaikum,” I say, which means, ‘Peace to you.’ “Alaikum Asalaam,” they respond. “Peace to you in return.”

And I wonder if anyone else hears.

Jeremy Simons was born and raised in the Philippines and has been living in Mindanao since 2008 as a Restorative Practices Consultant and International Solidarity Liaison worker with Dann and Joji Pantoja, Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Mindanao. He can be reached at jeremy@peacebuilderscommunity.org