Dancing in the Rain: Peace in the Philippines

As our flight from the Philippines descended into Denver International Airport, the pilot reassured us that the smell of smoke was not coming from the plane, but rather the surrounding forest fires, which had engulfed Colorado. For the next weeks, the fire(s) consumed not only the state, but the news, local conversation and the thoughts of those who live here. While my home remained at a safe distance from the ongoing fires, fear persisted around us. Fear, not of existing fires, but of the possibility of fire; at any moment, lightning could strike, winds could pick up and the place we call home would be engulfed in flame. Having just returned from the Philippines, the underlying feeling of fear was all too familiar.

Mindanao, where Jeff and I lived, is home to a decades-long war between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 60,000 lives. 2 million internally displaced refugees. In 2008, the Philippines had the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (more than Sudan, more than Colombia). As astonishing as the statistics may be, they only tell a small part of the story. Perhaps the war’s most devastating mark has been the culture of fear that pervades the country. Those located in Luzon, the northern part of the Philippines, tend to lump all of Mindanao into one large, terrifying hotbed of armed conflict. The fear is also present throughout Mindanao – mostly in places that are relatively removed from violent clashes. Those who live in Davao are terrified of central and northern Mindanao, those who live in northern Mindanao are afraid of the island provinces, and the list goes on…

During our six months in Mindanao, this fear entered into daily conversations: people surprised that we would choose to live in Mindanao, intense worry from neighbors when they discovered we had just traveled to “delicate” (delikado) regions of the island. Sometimes subtle, sometimes surprisingly direct (one neighbor suggested Jeff arm himself before going to central Mindanao) –the underlying sense of fear wrapped itself around even the most quotidian aspects of life. Interestingly, the fear seemed more intense for those who had not directly experienced violence; their fear was not of existing violence, but of the possibility of violence. At any moment, violence could erupt, a bomb could go off and this place called home would be engulfed in flame. And while this fear is not completely unfounded (small bombs did go off in places we were working) it is greatly exaggerated. One of the major challenges for those working to build a culture of peace in the Philippines is to begin breaking down the culture of fear that exists.

Interestingly, our Filipino counterparts from regions hard hit by the violence were far from paralyzed by fear. On the contrary, they willingly entered into the most precarious situations. One colleague, Deddette Suacito, experienced the trauma of the kidnapping of her coworker. After months of sleepless nights and high anxiety, she was able to broker a release. Deddette continues to work in highly delicate situations in Basilan, a province that has been particularly hard hit by the war. When asked why she chooses to continue her work after experiencing, directly, what so many others fear she responded, her eyes welling with tears, “At the end of the day, when I look at their faces I see people, like me. I have to help them. We are all human.” Much later, as we began to say our goodbyes, Deddette joked with us about coming back to the Philippines with children. “Next time, you come with your 5 children to Basilan. I will show them the beauty of our island. I will show them our white sand beaches and crystal blue ocean. I will teach them how to dance in the rain.” While her intention was nothing more than a joke, the profundity of the statement struck a chord deep within me that continues to resonate: I will teach them how to dance in the rain.

Deddette is not alone. I met dozens of peace practitioners – many directly affected by the war – who carry with them a capacity to dance in the rain. Their joy at times seems almost misplaced in the face of devastating violence – and yet it has allowed them to cultivate an effective, strong civil society focused on bringing peace to their land. Today, it appears that they are on the cusp of making their dream of peace a reality. A report recently released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) found that in the last 6 months, there were zero armed clashes between the MILF and the Government of the Philippines. The last recorded skirmish occurred in October 2011 in Basilan. This week marks a particularly important milestone for the Philippines as the GPH and MILF peace panels completed another successful round of peace negotiations, (despite efforts from a radical fringe group to thwart the peace talks).

On April 24, the GPH and MILF peace panels signed a framework for the final peace agreement. The “GPH-MILF Decision Points on Principles” provided a major breakthrough for the national peace talks, which many thought might stalemate just one month earlier. The mutually agreed upon decision points demonstrate both groups’ authentic desire to sign a peace agreement. During the July session of peace negotiations, the two panels made substantial progress in identifying concrete and realistic mechanisms towards realizing a New Autonomous Political Entity (NPE) for Mindanao, which further demonstrates the earnestness of the two parties to come to a negotiated agreement. On May 18, I joined the Multi-Stakeholders Caucus on the GPH-MILF Peace Talks, a caucus that brought together civil society organizations across Mindanao to engage with the peace panel members from both the MILF and GPH. At this meeting both Dean Marvic Leonen, chair of the GPH peace panel and Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF peace panel expressed “cautious optimism” for a signed peace agreement between the two warring parties: “I can see a small light flickering at the end of the tunnel…it is not a light I have seen before,” Iqbal asserted during the session, a rather remarkable statement coming from someone who has been part of the MILF peace negotiations for the last 15 years. Of equal importance is the response of the civil society, who quickly developed action points in support of the peace talks. Those who have lived and worked in war-torn countries know that a national peace agreement, while an important step towards peace, is really only the beginning. Successful transitions from armed conflict to sustainable peace are largely dependent on the people on the ground and the strength of the civil society. What makes the potential for sustainable peace a real possibility in the Philippines are the steps being made simultaneously by high-level leaders and grassroots organizations; From the national level to the local level, a sincere move towards peace is being made in the Philippines. Three specific examples come to mind:

  1. On March 8, for the first time in almost 492 years, the Moro (primarily Muslim) tribes of Mindanao gathered together with Indigenous tribes of Mindanao to celebrate their shared kinship. In an earlier blog, we documented the Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony, which brought together 31 tribal elders who chose to reaffirm their shared ancestry and commit to the five pillars of kinship established in the traditional peace pact of their ancestors: cooperation, mutual sharing of information, mutual protection of life, recognition and respect, and mutual obligation to help the needy. These tribes, many who have spent the last decade fighting one another, chose to come together to not only acknowledge their shared ancestry but commit themselves to respect and protect one another. Walee Roslie, a member of the International monitoring Team in Mindanao reiterated the importance of the gathering for the stability of the national peace agreement, “This event confirms the support of the individual tribes for the peace process and is a key factor in stabilizing the region. Without stability, peace cannot move forward.”
  2. On June 5, two Basilan families, known for one of the most violent clan warfares (rido) in Mindanao signed a peace covenant. In the presence of their children, grandchildren and members of the community Mujiv Hataman embraced Jum Jainuddin Akbar, effectively ending the decades of fighting between the two clans and set a new precedent for the younger generations. According to those close the families, Hataman and Akbar had spent a good part of the previous year negotiating and working towards the unity of their clans, culminating in the signing of this peace covenant. “Today, Basilan has become whole again. The Basilan family is now complete. We now have a son,” Mrs. Akbar said. One of the most cited forms of violence in Mindanao is clan warfare, or rido. In February, I attended a caucus with the Ceasefire Monitoring Teams where members of the Local Monitoring Teams cited rido as a significant concern to the ceasefire and success of a potential peace agreement. The significance of the peace covenant between the Hataman family and the Akbar family goes well beyond the borders of Basilan and spoke to the need for reconciliation between clans. “Forget about pride. If you want to have real peace and unity, you must learn to swallow your pride for your children, for your people,” Hataman insisted, encouraging clans throughout Mindanao to follow a similar path towards reconciliation. At the beginning of this month, a similar effort to address rido occurred in Lanao del Sur where the Pinagundo Clan launched their genealogy or Salsilah. According to Steven Rood, an expert on the conflict in Mindanao, these genealogies have “proven useful in helping to solve the persistent clan conflicts.”
  3. Earlier this month, the “Bangsamoro General Assembly” held at the main MILF camp, Darapanan in Maguindanao brought together close to 200,000 participants and observers to listen to their leaders on the MILF peace process. These leaders included the Malaysian Facilitator of the GPH-MILF peace talks, a representative from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the International Monitoring Team, members from the national congress, governors and local officials from around the region. Perhaps most notable were two representatives from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who the MILF historically broke off from and who, until recently, have had strained relationships with the MILF. In an unprecedented effort to strengthen the peace process in Mindanao, the MILF and MNLF leaders met together along with the OIC and expressed their desire to create a Bangsamoro Coordination Forum. While the General Assembly proceeded, officials from the Commission on Election were simultaneously making their way into the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao for a re-registration of voters, a process that many have applauded. As Steven Rood noted in his blog, “the confluence of [these] two rivers of people showed that energy for change is certainly surging in these areas. One can only hope that the energy produces genuine progress towards peace, prosperity, justice, and democracy for Mindanao and the Philippines as a whole.”

While each of these events on their own are not enough to suggest that lasting peace in the Philippines is a real and imminent possibility, the combination of these events certainly points towards a bright future for the Philippines. One cannot help but feel a surge of hope in the midst of this continued “energy for change.”

Of course much is still needed for a signed peace agreement. The next round of peace talks, scheduled for the end of August, will continue to identify mechanisms to implement the 10 principles; from power and wealth sharing in the NPE, to strengthening the Shari’ah judicial system, to upholding basic human rights—including the right of women to meaningful political participation, the road towards peace is still long and tedious. But hope is beginning to poke its head through the cracks where fear is slowly eroding.

Today, as I watch the rain pouring down on the dry Colorado mountain tundra; the valley below my home slowly changing from gold to green, I can’t help but dance in the rain.

Drinking from the Pool of Talaandig Wisdom

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 On February 10, we had the honor of visiting the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon, Philippines, where we spent several days learning about Talaandig traditions, spirituality and indigenous practices of peacebuilding. The Talaandig consider themselves the “Guardians of the Mountain” (Jeremy Simons with Datu Migketay Victorino “Vic” Saway. Guardians of the Sacred Oil and Comb). 

“Go to the forest,” Datu Vic advises, “Listen to the Creator. Everything starts there.” And so, nestled among the mountains of Bukidnon, surrounded by the “leaping greenly spirits” of the pine & palm, we began our conversation with Datu Vic.

In recent years the Talaandig have started to vigorously re/claim their traditions, spirituality and land. Datu Vic explained that while studying cultural Anthropology and the religions and traditions of indigenous groups worldwide, he kept asking himself: Who am I?  From Where do I Come? His journey towards self re/invigorated his desire to re/member, sustain and continue the deep spirituality and traditions of his Talaandig tribe, in the midst of the ever-growing pressures to conform to conventional society.

For decades, the Talaandig’s way has been threatened: by the fighting factions and ongoing war in Mindanao, by multi-national corporations and by colonization and globalization. In an effort to confront these outside influences – and maintain connection to their ancestors, their land, their spiritual leaders and their traditions – they have begun the School for Living Tradition, educating their children in the Talaandig way.

They want to re/member with their children.

As Datu Vic says, the children must “drink from the pool of the ancestors –of the living, of the dead, of the spiritual world” – so that they can carry the Talaandig into the future. They must understand the past – all of the challenges the Talaandig have overcome – so that they, too, can become guardians of the mountain.

For the Talaandig, Creation began with 3 gods who came together at the Bublusan Balugtu, or the “sitting place of the rainbow.” The first was a 10-headed god, called Gumagang-aw, some heads were crying, some shouting, some arguing. They were loud. They were emotional. Gumagang-aw was the “forbidden god.” But Gumagang-aw was not evil. In fact, Gumagang-aw held the soil for creating.

The second god, Magbabaya, was “the god of creation.” Magbabaya held the power of life.

The third god, Agtayabun Migbaya, was the “god of peace.” And it was on Agtayabun Migbaya’s outstretched wings that Magbabaya and Gumagang-aw lived. Only Agtayabun Migbaya’s wings were expansive enough to hold in balance the two gods: Love and Anger, balanced together; Despair and Joy, balanced together; Life and Emotion, balanced together; And there they rested, in perfect harmony, on the wings of peace at the “sitting place of the rainbow.”

In order to create life, Magbabaya and Gumagang-aw needed one another. Creation was not possible with only one. Both forces are at work in the spirits and in the people. They relied on Agtayabun Migbaya, the god of peace, to create a peace pact for Creation.

For the Talaandig, Creation began with a peace process. From this peace pact, the gods breathed life into the natural world and eventually the four tribes of Mindanao emerged, the Talaandig, maguindanao, Maranao and Manobo.

The Talaandig ancestor, Apu Saulana, was given the role as peacekeeper. Saulana held the sacred jar of oil and comb, which he used to comb out the tangled hair of conflicts between clans.

The Talaandig have a lived-experience of metaphor, which lies at the core of community healing and reconciliation. These metaphors are employed through traditional rituals and practices. Blood corresponds to water, flesh to land, voice to the words of life, bones to trees, breath to air, body heat to fire, the soul relates to the creator. All elements of earth that give life are found in the body (Jeremy Simons with Datu Migketay Victorino “Vic” Saway. Guardians of the Sacred Oil and Comb). These elements are brought into the ritual sacrifices, in communion with one another and the spiritual world, to cultivate healing and reconciliation.

The metaphors are not just symbols, they are alive in the Talaandig traditions, alive through the communion with their ancestors. As Datu Vic says, “The spirits are the true custodians of land.”

When we arrived to talk peace, the Elders, Mothers for Peace along with Datu Vic and his wife, prepared the sacrifice of chicken, inviting water (blood), flesh (land), voice (life), bones (trees) to our communion. We communed together, inviting all the ancestors and spirits into our sharing, so that our conversations held the fullness of the natural and spiritual world, intertwined together.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of Talaandig spirituality lies in their ability to transcend dichotomies. Physical/Spiritual. Metaphorical/Experiential. Life/Death. Good/Bad. For the Talaandig there are no dichotomies, only different realities simultaneously occurring and interacting in the fullness of the world. In fact, We need both realities — “Bad does not mean evil, there is a time for the bad as well – there are times when anger and despair are needed, like when we must confront and acknowledge injustices.” It is only when both the 10-headed god and the god of creation are imbalanced that we experience conflict, only when they fall off the wings of peace that we witness violence and disorder. Peace is not found in the absence of Conflict, but in the balance of these seemingly contradicting realities.

On March 7, more than 1,000 people will gather at the Talaandig Hall of Peace to perform a re/affirmation of kinship pact between all of the indigenous tribes of Mindanao, including the Bangsamoro (Muslim) tribes. We will have the privilege to witness the Talaandig tribe invoke, once more, the sacred oil and the comb: working through the knots of conflict that have persisted between the tribes of Mindanao for decades. The tribes will once again re/turn to the forest. listen to the creator. And ask themselves: Who are we? Where do we come from? 

And together, we will journey once again towards the sitting place of the rainbow, in search of the rest and healing found on Agtayabun Migbaya’s wings of peace.