PRES. ROXAS, North Cotabato -- At a recently held peace forum in the hinterlands here, leaders of the Manobo tribes decided to say no to arms and pursue the path of non-violence.
Some indigenous tribes in Philippines have been seriously debating whether to continue with their armed struggle or give up arms. Fortunately, at the forum, peacemakers had the upper hand.
About five tribes were displaced by sporadic battles between the Islamic tribes of Maguindanaos and Maranaos and government troops on the borders of North Cotabato and Bukidnon provinces. About 10,000 displaced tribals have taken refuge in the towns of Damulog and Kibawe in Bukidnon and Carmen and Pres. Roxas in North Cotabato since April this year.
The Manobos, known to be highly skilled warriors, adept in hand-to-hand combat, have evolved through the years into peace-loving farmers engaged in agriculture in the mountains between Cotabato and Bukidnon. Some of them got educated, settled in the lowlands and became Christians, but retained some of their traditional values.
"That's why we understand many of our people who are thinking of joining the paramilitary forces the next time the rebels get into our territory," said a participant. The forum was sponsored by the Bukidnon-Cotabato Peace Tribal Forum, an alliance of Manobo tribes looking after the welfare of internally displaced natives.
Earlier, even women leaders expressed dire exasperation. "We are not the enemies of the Maguindanaos. But why are they disturbing our peace?" said Bai Maria Lumilang.
"Being a soldier or a police officer can be a respectable way of earning a living. But is it the only legal way to have a gun and earn respect?" asked Bai Norma Rivera, a Blaan tribal invited to facilitate the discussions at the forum.
The skirmishes in the boundaries of the provinces of Cotabato and Bukidnon in the heartland of Mindanao happened in April 2003, as government troops tried to overrun certain camps presumably of rebels-turned-bandits known as the Pentagon Gang.
Timuay Al Saliling of a Carmen-based Manobo tribe and a member of the government technical working group engaged in the peace process with the Muslim rebels, said, "Those who say they are for violence are engaging in mere histrionics. They don't have power or a constituency."
"Besides, I tell them if they are serious they have to think in terms of an agenda. Why must we revolt? And are we prepared? Do we have the money to buy bullets? Weapons? Do we have enough medicines and doctors to treat the wounded? Let's be realistic: the path of peace is cheaper and more attainable for us (than that of war)."
Saliling also brought to the attention of the gathering that Maguindanaos are themselves dispossessed of their ancestral domains along the Liguasan Marsh in Central Mindanao, which had been poached by settlers eager to reap the dividends of the rich biodiversity of the region.
Datu Migketay Saway of the Talaandig tribe engaged the participants on the need to internalize a language of peace. But this left the evacuees unmoved. "He was out of context and romantic. How can we talk about the taste of peace, the colors of peace and the feelings of peace when our stomachs are empty and we can barely keep our eyes open because we are very tired and hungry?" asked a participant.
Prior to the forum, in at least 28 workshops involving 462 evacuees from seven arangays in Damulog and Kibawe, Bukidnon, evacuees chose long-term conflict transformation that would involve multi-level peace processes.
According to a preliminary report on the process facilitated by the Nasavakan Tarigunay't Bukidno't Du't Kalindaan (a federation of tribal organisations), the participants proposed that peace talks be held between and among warring tribes, among the Manobos, Christian migrants/settlers and Maguindanaos; between the government and the rebels; leaders of communities, local and regional and national governments; among the rebels and the evacuees.
The discussions also showed that the evacuees were aware of the government's responsibility towards their welfare as communities and peoples under difficult circumstances, caught in a protracted war over which they have no control.
Wilmar Ampuan emphasised: "The forum considered that the elders and leaders of these indigenous people are returning to the old ways of our ancestors for answers to contemporary dilemmas. The traditional process is long and slow but we need to use it with respect."