Mindanao: Something’s Happening Here

Nov 1, 2009

There’s something happening here…

Editor’s note: The connections between the BPFNA and the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches is deep and rich. In the first of two installments on her recent trip, Lee writes of her work with CPBC colleagues, Feraz Legita, Deli Baclagon and Henna Baclagon, on the islands of Mindanao and Panay.

These are tense times with an escalation in conflict of all sorts and in all contexts, families, churches, mosques, neighbourhoods, communities, groups of communities, as political tensions spill over. Social and economic crises – both part of the global story and with their own Filipino peculiarities – are exacerbating political crises: peace talks have broken down amidst armed encounters amongst and between the Philippine Army, the National Democratic Front/Communist Party of the Philippines/National People’s Army, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front with Abu Sayyaf stepping up kidnappings for ransom. Extrajudicial killings and election-related violence seem to be ramping up towards the May 2010 general elections.

Above the muddied streets, once more, post-typhoon, filled with jeepnies and tuq-tuqs, pedestrians and the occasional SUV, an inauspicious meeting was assembling. The large sanctuary of a Pentecostal church dwarfed the modest handful of participants. Amongst those seated in a semi-circle of benches before a lectern is the Pentecostal bishop, his presence signifying, to me at least, an unanticipated endorsement of the proceedings.

A few minutes earlier, as Feraz, Henna, Deli and I had mounted the steps to the second floor sanctuary, the young woman at the registration table handed me a half-sheet of paper, the programme for the morning. Halfway down I read: ‘Insights and Reflections from our Guest’. I flipped the paper: oh; moi.

The MC for the event, Mary Grace, welcomed all who had come and invited a singer-songwriter and artist, well-known to this audience, to sing. Slouching into the microphone, black curls framing a face lined with the history of his people, he addressed the gathering in Ilonggo, the Hiligaynon language peculiar to the province of Iloilo, on the southern end of the island of Panay. Vehicle of Peace was a song clearly familiar to his audience and it began with a couple of lines in English: ‘Some may say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one…’

Briefly, several speakers offered ‘testimonies’: the secretary-general of the BAYANi-Panay, Edgar Pelayo, Esperanza Hervilla, regional chair of Bayan, Lucy Francisco of GABRIELAii, a national coalition of women’s organisations, and José Ely Garachico, a stooped man of indeterminate age, thin, still bearing about in his body bullets meant to kill him. He repeats the story, not for these, for whom it would have been already oft-repeated, folkloric, but for me.

Ely was behind the wheel of a borrowed jeep on the evening of 12 April 2007 when their vehicle was cut off by a large SUV on a heavily-populated road in Otón, Iloilo. With him in the jeep were Nilo Arado, an agrarian reformist, and Luisa Posa-Dominado, member of an élite family and a leader of an organisation for ex-detainees. Armed men leapt from the SUV and pulled the three out of their vehicle, tossing Nilo and Luisa into the SUV. As Ely staggered in the roadway, he was shot repeatedly and left for dead. Their stolen vehicle was found two days later, torched, in Barangay Guadalupe, northwest of the city. Nilo and Luisa remain unaccounted for, presumed dead.

To lead a campaign in favour of agrarian reform, real reform; to lead campaigns for the release of political prisoners, for an end to torture in the Philippines, an end to the demonic triplets of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation; to challenge the mechanisms and agents of a political culture of corruption and dynastic privilege, to defy the local and national collaborators of international mining companies seeking permission to deforest, pollute and strip-mine your lands and contaminate your rivers; to work for dialogue across boundaries of religion, to re-tell a history of transmigration, eviction and land theft when religion draws simpler, clearer conflict lines in a post 9-11 Manichaean ‘second front on the war on terror’iii Philippines – is to court crucifixion.

The groups in this room are labelled ‘communist’ and thus legitimate targets in the domestic war on terror. On the stairs just below us and in the street outside the door are government agents loitering with intent.

In a later, afternoon, conversation, Esperanza relates with laughter an exchange with her husband, something about the possibility of being a widow, again. Filipinas and Filipinos laugh, a lot; a bulwark, perhaps, against the suffering.

Landing in Ozamiz, Zamboanga province, we three, plus pastor Jhun who has come to meet us, squeeze into a tuq-tuq that takes us to the bus station; there we will board a bus for the town of Imelda, named by someone thirty years ago to honour the one who is most famous where I come from for her shoes.

It’s rainy season, typhoon season, and the greens of the paddies, fields and forests of bamboo, dinakaran, and towering royal palm are brilliant through the thick streams of water that render opaque the passing landscape. As the deluge tapers, the bus speeds up, careering up and down twisting, narrow roads variously tucked into hillsides or suspended above verdant canyons. The bus slows down as we wend our way through villages alive with communal activity: children running, playing, returning from school, rucksacks on their backs, accompanied by emaciated, bedraggled street dogs, the bitches swinging engorged teats, puppies coming up behind; young boys tossing balls into netless basketball hoops on potholed courts; fathers urging on plough-yoked carabao through red-soiled fields or stretched out in a hammock at the end of the day, mothers sitting in the doorway of bamboo and thatch houses, picking lice from the heads of their daughters, or pounding clothes on rocks below the overflowing cataracts or aqueducts that collect the abundant seasonal waters.

Typically Filipino, the conversation around me, though in Illongo or Magindanao, is sprinkled with anglicisms that provide content clues for the foreigner. One of the conductors sits himself down next to Feraz and questions her closely about the green-eyed, fair-skinned passenger; he’s never seen eyes anything but brown or black and stares, intrigued. A woman across the aisle from me switches into English and peppers me with questions: what’s your name, why are you here, where’re you from, where’re you going, do you have children, how did you get here, how much did it cost, where did the money come from to pay for the trip? It’s a dangerous place to be truthful. Ozamiz is not a good place to be, someone had texted earlier, unbeknownst to me; don’t you know it’s Kuratong Balelengiv basecamp.

Everyone is to choose a date in the history of Mindanao. Someone shouts out 1521; I hand him a card on which he is to write the date. Then 1542. Then a large gap: 1886; 1898… 1935; 1946, 1957; then: 1965, 1986, 2001… An earlier game of ‘lifeboats’ reduces the number of puro, pura Mindanoans to two; everyone else has come from somewhere else. Their history begins, it would seem, with Magellan – Hernando de Magallenes, as the Spaniards called him – his arrival, his defeat by indigenous leader, Lapu-Lapu, and his death on the Cebuano island of Mactan. Sometime later in the afternoon, we get to EDSA I and EDSAv II, the glory days of People Power that sent first Marcos and then Erapvi packing.

The Muslims who were supposed to be here did not appear; perhaps not surprising. It’s Friday. The venue was changed at the last minute to a church, rather than the neutral-ground, originally-planned location; above the rough-hewn pulpit: Jesus Christ, King of the World. How many of you have ever been in a mosque? No hands are raised. Imagine how risky it must feel for Muslims to come in here. Someone says, Muslims are closed-minded. Christians are not.

In the course of the historical story-telling, someone, the Subanon, whose generations have mixed their bones with these soils since beyond memory, wants to note the late 1950s presidential edict that decreed transmigration – out of the crowded northern island of Luzon to the spacious and fertile lands of Mindanao. Christians crossing into the promised land, someone said. Like Hebrews into Canaan, Jews into Palestine and Christian settlers into Mindanao, people with no land to a land with no people. But we were here, says the Subanon, whose grandfathers as far back as forever were datu, leaders and keepers of the story, tillers of the commons. A convert from the polytheistic shamanism of his ancestors, Octaviano reminds us, in the course of a role play, that the land was held communally. When the settlers came from the north, the Subanon were easily displaced, neither latifundistas nor landholding peasants with deeds, with papers that somehow prove patrimony. Religion has nothing to do with it, just another chapter in an ancient story of expropriation, oppression and insurgent response.

i Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or the New Patriotic Alliance, was formed in May 1985 but with roots in the early Marcos years, from 1965 onward; Bayan is the national organisation of which there are dozens of local chapters, while Bayan Muna is its recently-formed (1999) political arm.

ii GABRIELA is a nationwide network of grassroots organisations, institutions, and programmes, founded in 1984. Its aims include a self-reliant, sovereign political economy geared to the needs of the people, one that accords equal value to the role of women in production, ownership and distribution, that addresses issues such as human rights, poverty, globalization, militarism, violence, health, sex trafficking, censorship and other issues affecting women. There are regional and provincial chapters; the US chapter is known as GABnet.

iii George Bush’s post-11 September 2001 designation has come with millions of U.S. State Department military funding and an influx of U.S. ‘advisors’ – in spite of a revised (1992) constitution that forbids foreign forces operating on Philippine soil.

iv The Kuratong Baleleng began as an anti-communist vigilante group but has become a diversified kidnapping, smuggling, and extortion syndicate, outsourced by groups as such Abu Sayyaf.

v Named for the Manila Avenue (Epifanio de los santos), formerly Highway 54, where hundreds of thousands of Philippine citizens peacefully gathered to successfully remove oppressive presidents in 1986 and 2001.

vi The movie star president, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who was ousted following charges of national plunder, was pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and is now, remarkably, campaigning for the presidential elections in May 2010.


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