I see the large island of Mindanao every time I walk the beach. Close as it is, and even though most people there speak roughly the same Visayan dialect as my neighbors do, iit’s a very different place. Our little island is soft and warm, and life on the coast is easy-going. Siquijodnons smile a lot. Even at a distance, Mindanao strikes me as hard and imposing. It mountains tower over the sea and lightning often flashes there at night. As our little prop plane made its descent into Cagayan de Oro on the north coast a couple of weeks ago, we passed very near the neighboring island of Camiguin, which supposedly has the highest concentration of active volcanoes in the world. The place just reeks power.
I was going back to Mindanao to speak at a peace symposium. The island hasn’t seen lasting peace since the Spanish tried to colonize it a few centuries ago. They were never entirely successful. Neither were the Americans or Japanese, or the many Philippine administrations which sent waves of settlers there from other parts of the country beginning in the 1930s. The indigenous tribes that have been in Mindanao for thousands of years and the Muslim communities that established themselves centuries before the Spanish arrival continue to claim their ancestral lands. The Muslims have been insistent about it. Their resistance took its contemporary shape in the 1970s with the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Several years of heavy fighting left about 100,000 dead and a million refugees. The Marcos dictatorship eventually made an uneasy settlement with the MNLF, and in succeeding years, MNLF forces have been more-or-less integrated into those of the nation. Other Muslim factions, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf, have not come along peaceably.
The MNLF was represented at the symposium by all of its commanders in the northern region down to battalion level and led by their Assistant General Secretary (pictured below, signing a peace covenant at the conclusion of the event).
When I mentioned to one of the symposium organizers that I wanted to spend a few days in the mountains to learn a little about village life, he introduced me to the Secretary, who promised to guarantee my safety “110%”. He took me to a General, who gave me his cell number and his signed photo ID (as proof of our relationship) and offered to arrange an armed escort if I wanted one. That’s a nuke where a flyswatter will do; the mountains near Cagayan de Oro aren’t dangerous; but I appreciated the grand gesture.
At the symposium I sat next to the gentlemen below, who turned out to be associated with the Sultan of Maguindanao.
I’m not aware of any connection between the Sultan’s family and the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao shortly after the symposium. I’ve exchanged quite a few texts with the Sultan’s son, on the left above. During the “picture picture” mayhem after the conference he insisted that this young lady give me her number too.
Apparently it improved my mood. The girls even got the MNLF guys to lighten up during the photo session.
They could not convert them to a new hand gesture.
It was encouraging to learn that a Turkish-based Muslim group, Risale-I Nur, is promoting a peaceful and scholarly brand of Islam in Mindanao. Their president (below left, at his home) was a gracious host, and the kind of guy who could become a real friend.
He filled my suitcase with about 50 kilos of books published by his organization and invited me to speak at their big conference in Istanbul. The Italian gentleman second from the left has worked for peace in virtually every major trouble spot in the world over the past couple of decades. Second to the right is the patriarch of one of the most prominent Muslim families in the Philippines. His father was the country’s first Muslim senator and he himself is past president of Mindanao State University. In our afternoon together he shared some great stories, including one about demonstrating against Marcos, and his subsequent year spent as a political prisoner.
Some of the indigenous tribes were also represented. The six people in the center below are Higaonon.
On the far left above is a Mormon professor at Xavier University (a Jesuit school). On the far right is a Muslim woman associated with Risale-I Nur. She is from Zamboanga, where people speak Chavacano, a Spanish creole. Lots of the organizing for the symposium was done by Pentecostal missionaries. It was the most culturally-diverse event I ever attended.
The government was represented by one of the five presidential advisors on the peace process, who updated us on the latest developments since talks resumed a few weeks ago. An Armed Forces of the Philippines General in charge of a Mindanao division discussed how the army has been working toward peace by promoting community development. By and large the talks were serious and informative. The assigned title of mine was “Inter-religious Cooperation”, but it really focused on how prejudice can get in the way of such good stuff, since prejudice and bad behavior are what I understand best. The audience was generally receptive, especially the Muslims.
For me, Mindanao is as interesting and exhausting as a high-stakes poker game. After two weeks I was elated to be home. Already I’m thinking of going back.