Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pastel and Combat Boots

Pastel and Combat Boots
Notes from the field at the first Bike for Peace in Maguindanao and Cotabato Province.By KARL R. De MESA (Deputy Editor)

The ground is filled with the overlapping prints of combat boots. The mess hall reeks of sweat, steamed rice and trampled grass. The cadets consume their food on the beat, to the voice of their trainers’ count.

Photography by Dominic Calalo
Where we are is Camp Siongco in Maguindanao. It’s a literal stone’s throw from the Cotabato City airport and it’s also the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. The nickname of the division is Kampilan - a long, broad bladed sword of Moro origin, the same tapered weapon used by the Maranaos since the days of yore.

Around 1,000 personnel of mixed divisions populate the base excluding the cadets we’re now regarding. Colonel George Avila, Commander of the 6th Army Training Group oversees this whole operation of honing civilian mush into veritable swords fit for soldiery.

“Understanding local culture is essential in teaching our operational courses,” says Avila. “We want them to be critical which you may not expect from a military course. Out here, we need to be more adaptive to the environment.” 

We’re here to cover the first ever Bike for Peace event in Mindanao courtesy of the Office of the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and Avila’s thoughts on adaptation coupled with tolerant understanding are words to live by. They’re keys to the intricate puzzle that makes up the peace talks in South Central Mindanao. 

Maguindanao and North Cotabato, though blessed with the kind of scenic landscapes that would make eco-tourists wet their pants, are far from ideal vacation spots.

Aside from its history of violence from the government’s long standing conflict with the Bangsamoro freedom groups like the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), clan feuds make the city fringes erupt in sporadic fire fights, and praxis seizures for political power and wealth (exhibit A, the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009) have put these provinces on the margins of the country’s economic growth. And there’s the Abu Sayyaf.    

“The land here is very fertile,” explains Marvic Leonen, chief negotiator for the government’s peace panel (also Dean of the UP College of Law). “But there are many areas where they are left idle. The lands are titled but the owners are unsure if they can harvest or plant. Business men do not want to invest because of the security question. Imagine the human capital we’ve lost because of this conflict.”

Human capital meaning the infant mortality in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), of which Maguindanao is a part of, is the highest in the country. Put that in contrast to life expectancy, which is the lowest in the Republic -- stopping at an approximate of 51 years old – and you’ve got a recipe for a strange land that would like to rise but is hobbled by the very elements that make it unique.    

“Definitely these [Bike for Peace] events are a great gesture in furtherance of the peace process,” adds Leonen.  

What he’s talking about is 36 kilometers on a mostly uphill route from Cotabato City Hall to the town of Upi, in Northern Cotabato. It’s scheduled to be attacked by an expected 400 plus cyclists; from local mountain bike enthusiasts, international monitoring groups from Malaysia and other countries, and members of the various agencies that make up the government’s peace panel.    

The route itself is ideally a metaphor for the peace process. The Bangsamoros’ struggle has its roots planted in the 1960s as an independence movement, the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 crafted the framework agreement that would, in 1987, later become the ARMM – the Constitutional provision that would be the basis for the Moro people’s right to self-determination.   

While “disagreements” in the proviso’s details led to even more armed conflict, the ceasefire in 1997 calmed the groups enough to begin formal negotiations. The government under former Presidents Estrada (with his “All Out War” edict in 2000 throwing the region into a battlefield and to the fall of many MILF camps) and Arroyo (disrupted talks in 2003 and 2008) bogged down and suffered and added the sum of IDPs (internationally displaced person) to the symptoms of the region’s ills.

Which is why, after decades, having Malaysia as a third party participant-observer in the peace talks means a new outlook to everyone involved.

Prof Abhoud Syed Lingga, chief negotiator for the MILF and Executive Director of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies (IBS), extols the virtues of such an approach in his paper “Role of Third Parties in the Mindanao Peace Process.” 

He writes, ”Third party intervention in intra-state conflicts was not welcomed because it was perceived by states as interference in their domestic affairs. This attitude is changing as in recent years major violent conflicts originated at the domestic level within the state, rather than between states.”

It all just means that you can’t walk around with your head in a tizzy in Cotabato. A ceasefire is not peace, see. A cursory hunt for iced cream was an experience in being observed by the whole street. Me and my photographer went to nearly each sari sari store and carinderia on each side of the boulevard that was in sight of our hotel. There’s nary a Cornetto anywhere

The people here are wary, observant and very quiet. We stick out like sore thumbs at a palm convention. Not that the people aren’t friendly enough. No, their courtesies are impeccable. 

Lt Col Lambert Jonathan Gesolgon is our liaison officer. Everybody calls him Jigs, so we’ll do the same.

He’s young and sharp and savvy with technology. He’s an “ethical hacker” by his own admission. And he’s already done a background check on all of us a day into our stay. He produces private information like sleight of hand magic. We cringe and gasp at what he ‘s found out. He laughs easily and is tolerant of our civilian follies.

“We can easily be pessimistic about it,” he shrugs. “But optimism, especially for a soldier like me who’s about to ship out of this deployment soon, is the harder choice. I think that’s the way to a final peace agreement.”

That his choirboy looks clash with his severe white wall hair cut serves to highlight his easy going nature even more. Jigs is patient with us and bestows us with guest right. That means a well guarded place to sleep. Something not to scoff at in a place where the security risk level needs roadblocks on all major roads every couple of kilometres or so.

It is through his hospitality that we find ourselves riding a military-outfitted air boat at the Special Forces’ riverside base. The Tamontaka River is inhabited by alligators and other deadly wildlife, even as SF boats patrol the banks. Down the river up to where the fresh water meets the sea, we spot the gold-capped towers of the Bolkiah Mosque.   

The mosque is a sprawling, 5,000 square meter structure that will, when it’s completed later this year, be able to accommodate up to 1,500 of the faithful within its walls. Brunei has contributed a hefty sum to its construction and, from the sheer beauty of it as an architectural hymn to Allah, it looks like it’s been put to good use.

This may be a strange, dangerous land but every so often there are reminders of its sheer, exotic splendor. 

During meals we dined on the local staple pastel. Found in most of South Central Mindanao’s carinderias and in every soldier’s packed meal. Pastel is simple but exquisitely tasty combination of rice topped with chicken bits all wrapped inside a banana leaf. 

It’s a fixture at every roadside eatery. Soldiers carry it up to the mountains as a packed lunch. It’s also absolutely great with beef or vegetables.

“One thing I’m proud of in these current talks is that we’re talking to a very responsive and reachable rebel group,” declares Wendell Orbeso, a peace program officer with OPAPP who spends much of his time on the field talking to MILF and MNLF representatives.

May 29 and it’s the day of the bike event. The cyclists gathered at the Palasyo ng Masa city hall of Cotabato and the ceremony of speeches is expedited because every one of the yellow clad riders are raring to be off. More than 500 people have registered for this and the numbers far surpass even the most modest expectations.
“Kapag may concern tayo pwede natin silang tawagan at makausap,” Orbeso adds. Plus, we’re meeting them on a regular basis. Two weeks from now I will meet with MILF members in Davao. This is supposed to be a group that’s hiding in the mountains? It’s still a bit weird for me.”

What’s weird, too, is that there are rumors that there are MILF members participating in the bike run. But that’s a piece of unconfirmed information. They may be among us but they’re not standing up for the head count.  
As we trail the cyclists in a van through the 36 kilometers from Maguindanao to North Upi it becomes clear how diverse the populace here is (the city is predominantly Christian) and how daily life, which yearns to build from a necessity of some stability, is the same as it is in the rest of the country.

While many display the ubiquitous stickers of “I Am for Peace in Mindanao” given out by OPAPP and the rest of the organizers, every so often scattered rallyists and protesters have lined up beside the road to express how they don’t think much of the event. 

Their banners say “Kasunduan Hindi Bike!” and “Speed Up Talks!” One group is composed mainly of school children, Muslims all, in sky blue uniforms with white hijab head covers for the girls. They hail from the Markadz Jamal Bin Abdulah elementary.

Still, the yellow clad riders zoom by many towns and villages with clapping spectators aplenty. At the top of the hill, near the finish line is where the indigenous Terurais (Tedurays) make their home. At this point of the race the cyclists feel the distance acutely. No room for jokes. Only bananas and hydration at each stopover are essential.
The culminating program at the town of Upi is celebratory and has the air of a kind of victory. After all, after all the informal meetings and exploratory talks in Kualal Lumpur, finally bringing the negotiations back to its home ground means progress. The fact that the MILF have abandoned their quest for an independent state is one of the most welcome news for negotiators like Leonen and peace officers like Orbeso.

It means at the very least that there is room to move. Room to compromise and live in tolerance together. Though a ceasefire is not peace, it’s a beginning. And I am for peace in Mindanao.

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