Peace by the piecemeal

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Wednesday, 13 July 2016 - Last Updated on February 5, 2017

Bidding kids goodbye, when you are a stage tita, is depressing. At the Manilakbayan solidarity night close to midnight, the lumad school kids stage an artsy reenactment of stories from Surigao del Norte. These children I met during Manilakbayan 2014 and took to the park, rode the “malaking sawa” (large snake, the MRT) with, and baked cupcakes for. They left for Mindanao after they performed.

In a flurry of red, black, and beads, they showed how the Manobo lived in the plush Andap valley, how they loved going to their school ALCADEV, and then, when the mining firms came, how the military and paramilitary came to their village. The elders had stood up against excessive encroachment into ancestral lands, and so the terror began.

This play doesn’t pretend to be pretty. The kids begin to assemble for a portrayal of September 1, 2015. Just before dawn that day everybody had been roused by the Magahat/Bagani Force militia, a group making the rounds against government critics. Two villagemen were then killed in a hail of bullets, and the school principal was found hogtied and stabbed dead inside a classroom.

The actors finish the scene in an unsettling one and a half minutes. Those playing the Magahat swoop down on the villagers; in quick, exaggerated arm gestures they have subdued the others and forced them to the ground. For the kids this isn’t just drama, this is a retelling of their personal, up close encounter with blood thirst and belligerence.

When the play shifts to the next act, the chills stay. They show the trek from their community through hills and rivers to the city center in Tandag, where they have evacuated. They mime scenes of their everyday life at a covered court: sleeping in cramped spaces, studying in makeshift classrooms, growing fruits and vegetables on scraps of land. They are back at farming too, on land that someone else owns, still longing about the acres they have left behind.

It ends with the children hollering out their demands: Disarm the paramilitary. Eject the military from their communities and ancestral lands. Cease military operations against the lumad.  Hold the killers of their leaders accountable. They are barely into puberty, and their fundamental life demands are more mature than mine.

A young girl calls on “Tatay Digong” to pursue the peace talks. “We hope we would no longer be evacuees, no longer harassed by the military and paramilitary, our leaders no longer threatened. Let us return to our communities finally to live peacefully,” she intones.

But will Duterte’s efforts at peace really make these all come true? Duterte may have pledged peace from day one, but I am wary that policies stay in place. A day before Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Reds, a UP writer and propagandist Wendell “Wanda” Gumban fell to the enemy in this war against insurgency. See, despite Duterte’s posturing, the war had carried on.

It seems the recent statement of the NPA rings true. Prior to the ceasfire declaration, they published in a note that they have observed how the military extended and intensified military offensives under the counter-insurgency program Oplan Bayanihan (OpBay) in complete disregard of new management orders to engage in peace talks. They take a not-too-subtle dig at OpBay, hyped as the program that will make the NPA irrelevant: The military is “in the vain hope of scoring some points”before it ends December this year.

I have so far refrained from talking about the peace negotiations, because there are many who know much more. I actually work on the releases of peace consultants, on some of the legal concerns. It is a task that is all too-consuming; I lose sleep many nights, and on nights that I do not, the work is there in my dreams.

But I am extremely lucky for the access to the insights of the men and women who are involved. In the memory of Wanda, I share some realizations.

An article by Rey Casambre of the Philippine Peace Center drills in the point that socio-economic reforms, the “meat of the agenda” are next for discussion. This is what the Philippine government has tried to avoid for sometime now, as it entails a change in policies, and obviously, a shift to more protectionist and nationalist economics.

Does the Duterte government understand the gravity of changes sought by the Reds? Many a talks have collapsed because one panel wants a quick political-military solution. If the problem is war, they say, why don’t we then stop shooting at each other? The other panel asserts that peace is not just the absence of violence, but the presence of justice. If the problem is political, they say, why don’t we make and unmake the laws that hurt the people?

Benito Tiamzon, an NDFP consultant, reeducates me about the process of negotiations. The peace negotiations is a political engagement. It is a massive operation that, he says, while formally brokered in Oslo, entails consultations inside and outside Philippine revolutionary territory. That is why the two panels hammered the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), so there can be open discussion and free movement of personnel involved during the peace negotiations. JASIG grants safety and immunity guarantees, including freedom from surveillance, to consultants of both panels. Thus, his arrest in March 2014 is a violation of JASIG, making it illegal. He remarks wryly, his immediate release, along with 21 others including his wife Wilma, would simply correct the mistake of the previous administrations.

Duterte earlier promised to release political prisoners in general, and peace consultants initially. I’m just waiting for the go-signal to storm the courts and prisons and walk out with clients in tow. The lumad are hungry for peace. They’re just waiting for that all-clear, to go back home. I want peace because I don’t need any more stories of Wanda, compelled by the circumstances to join the war. Before Wanda, for whom the tears keep coming now, there was Perper Cagula and Recca Monte. These were UP friends who just wanted to make this world a better place. For all of them, I’d take peace by the piecemeal if there’s nothing final yet or for sure.

*Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, Inc. (ALCADEV) is a volunteer-run institution accredited by the Department of Education that provides basic and technical education to lumad or indigenous children in communities rarely reached by government services.

Krissy Conti is a people’s lawyer, and an associate at the Public Interest Law Center (PILC).

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