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PEACETALK: We cannot leave peace work only to those in the negotiating tables, the peace panels or the legislators

(Keynote Speech delievered at the 47th Membership Meeting of the Philippine Business for Social Progress on January 23, 2018 in Makati City)

I always find it difficult, whenever I am asked to speak of Mindanao, particularly Muslim Mindanao. Eloquence and articulation are not enough to describe the place, the people, the situation. One needs to set foot and feel the reverence in its soil, dive into the stubbornness of its seas, hear the voices of her people, feel their warmth, smell their ambivalence, touch their resilience, taste their hope. Whenever I am asked how it is there, the response I honestly want to give is, please come with me and stay long enough to know. Thus, I shall spend the next 20 minutes given to me, to try to convince you to do just that.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned not to assume people know much about the beginning of our story. May I hence begin with a quick look at our history, with apologies to those who are already familiar or may even know more. For thousands of years we were all just like every Austronesian-speaking people, in villages or out in the sea, until 1380 when a group of people in what is now Sulu accepted Islam and became the first from these islands to assume the identity of a world religion. It was in 1450 when the Sulu Sultanate was established, primarily to exercise a central authority in the practice of Islam. Islam found its way to the rest of the country now known the Philippines, but established a stronghold and remained the faith for the last 637 years among the 13 ethnolinguistic groups who later identified themselves as Bangsamoro.

What we know now as the Bangsamoro struggle is a struggle for Right to Self-Determination. For decades, the RSD aspiration took on different meanings – independence, autonomy, federalism. Our revolutionary fronts, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have given up the quest for independence, the MNLF settling for the Final Peace Agreement with the ARMM as the political gain, while the MILF signing the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the BBL still awaiting fulfillment.

But while we are known mostly for conflict, there is much to us than this. As a child growing up in Basilan, yes I have stories of classes disrupted because of gunfights, of families and friends lost in the conflict, of kin knocking at our doors with barely anything and staying with us for weeks as their communities and homes become war zones. But they make up just a fraction of my memory. When I think of life in my island, what I remember are my elders and their never-ending stories, the colors and patterns that insist on being beautiful while defying rules, the call to prayer from our mosques, the pangalay, a dance they say, but for us, is meditation in movement. It has no choreography or structure, one moves from a rhythm within, a continuing flow of harmony between the heart, mind and body. One must be at peace to create this flow. A sense of peace that can only come from knowing you are safe, you are home. I guess that is why whenever I perform it, wherever I am, I am transported back to my people, safely back home.

You see, this is the irony. Yes our homeland seems to be eternally in conflict. But we feel most secured there. I was once asked, when can I say peace is finally achieved. And the most honest answer that came out was, when we can finally go home. When we can go back, without fear or apprehension for ourselves and our children, knowing that we and most especially our children will be ok. And by ok we mean not just safe from violence, but getting competitive education, being assured of opportunities equal to the children here and anywhere else, having access to the best health care, to live just as secured and as comfortable as everyone, right in our own little corner, in this beautiful country.

Realizing this as my own definition of peace, led me to another realization, or at least a guess – that perhaps what we really longed for is to live like the rest, despite our peculiarities. I remember during one BBL committee deliberation last Congress when a fellow legislator asked, why do you insist on being Moros? Why can’t you just be Filipinos? It was a very valid question. Yes indeed, why not? But is it just about the Moro people refusing to be Filipinos? Or is it also about the Filipino people accepting us as Filipinos too? And perhaps the more elaborate question will be, must we give up who we are to be accepted as one of you?

This question became even more obvious when just last year, while I was at the Hongkong airport, I caught a woman looking at me, half-smiling with a friendly curiosity. I sensed she wanted to open a conversation so I smiled and said, “hello po..” and she brightened up, “sabi ko na nga, Filipina ka! Kaya lang hindi ako sigurado kasi nakabalot ka.”

Perhaps it is not about becoming Filipino, we were all not Filipinos until the late 1800s. But perhaps it is about imposing a single identity for the Filipino. Whenever we create an image of a Filipino, will a veiled woman come to mind? Creating a more inclusive image of the Filipino, with the Moro and the Indigenous people in the picture, can be a beginning to peace, as it will lead to the recognition of our identities; to equality instead of discrimination; to respect of rights – particularly the right to freely determine our own political status, and pursue our own cultural and socio-economic development; to the appreciation of our contribution to this nation; to finding that common ground of unity, against all that threatens our shared values and our core aspirations.

And yes that common ground for peace exists. And we all need to find it and call everyone to stand by it. If there is one thing I learned in my 25 years of working for peace in different capacities – as a student leader, community organizer, to human rights advocacy, women’s work, being appointed to government office, and being elected to Congress, then stepping down to be jobless – it is that Peace is everybody’s business.

We cannot leave peace work only to those in the negotiating tables, the peace panels or the legislators, theirs is only the form, but the essence is within all of us. Peace must be in the fishing boats, in farms, in public markets, in classrooms, in cinemas and theatres and museum, in TV ads, in corporate boardrooms, in banks, in the streets. Peace processes may break down, it is the peace in each of us that will matter.

Sometimes I wish people don’t speak of Peace like a concept, or a paradigm, or a project, or a bill that needs to become a law. Because it is not. The BBL issue last Congress, was the heaviest toll for me. I was literally sick the whole time, I had a nervous breakdown that required a six-month treatment, I felt like there was a lump right in my gut that refused to leave. People advised me to take things easy, to not take them personally. How could I? For me, it was not just another bill, not just another piece of paper that needs to be discussed, or just an opportunity to publicly show my brilliance. It was about lives, my own, the lives of my people, my children. When we went around for consultations, I dreaded the look of hope from the eyes of old men and women. I looked away from the questioning eyes of our youth, asking for assurance. How do you give just enough hope to delay despair? How do you give assurance when you have your own doubts?

If you ask, is this why I resigned? Yes, among others.

Many found it hard to believe, thinking there were other reasons beyond the explanation I gave. That perhaps I was sick, or it was a political move, or I just wanted to be a full-time housewife and mother. My children are most important to me but we managed well even when I was working, before and after becoming AMIN’s representative.

From day one I was the reluctant Congresswoman. I have always been a community worker. I can spend hours in conversation with women under a tree, and just listen to how they are, their concerns, how they think they can be addressed. From 1997 when I started as community organizer then human rights worker in Basilan, to 2006 when we founded Pinay Kilos, a women’s movement that worked in the areas of Zamboanga City and Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, I was always with the people in the communities. I had my first-hand experience of government bureaucracy when I was appointed Executive Director of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos in 2010. When Anak Mindanao asked me to be their first nominee, my first question was, are you asking me because I am Mujiv Hataman’s wife? But even when they said no, I was still inclined to refuse. Although I am a founding member of AMIN, politics was a field I knew I did not belong to.

But I said yes because I feared when I turn my back from this responsibility offered to me, I will lose my right to complain. And despite the continuing resistance within, I thrived. I found most fulfillment in putting forward the stories I collected in all my community work, which sometimes bridge high-level discourses with realities on the ground, especially on the issues of women and cultural communities.

Much of our legislative agenda were taken from our own experiences, the Bill Against Discrimination on Account of Ethnicity and Religious Belief; the Bill for the Mandatory Establishment of Women and Child Safe Spaces in Evacuation Centers, which came out from an actual scene we witnessed in an evacuation center after the Zamboanga siege; the Bill Strengthening Islamic Banking in the Philippines, an advocacy I started when I was still in the NCMF, realizing that the ARMM is the most unbanked region and therefore the Muslim Filipinos the most unbanked population. Our call for this Bill and advocacy is financial inclusion, access to an alternative banking system that is responsive to a marginalized, but highly-potential economic drivers.

We did not content ourselves with legislative work. Our call for peace found a new expression, in the form of a documentary, The Crescent Rising. It captured what conflict and peace meant for the ordinary people. Most of the time, peace is heard through the voices of the leaders, the revolutionaries, the government. But through this documentary, we see it through the real lives of ordinary people – an MILF combatant, a widow, and a mother and daughter displaced by the Zamboanga siege. The Crescent Rising has so far won the 2015 QC International Film Festival; Netpac Awards Best Documentary; 2016 Gawad Urian Best Documentary; 2016 Inquirer Guyito Award Best Documentary and the 2016 Busan International Film Festival Best Documentary Award. We have so far at least 50 screenings all over the country and we hope to be able to do more.

May I also share my new-found passion in the rediscovery of our traditional arts, inspiring us to file a Bill for the establishment of the Institute of Mindanao and Sulu Traditional Arts, and embark on a very ambitious project, a travelling exhibition Muslims of the Philippines: History and Culture. This is in partnership with the ARMM, and TAO, Inc. of renowned curator Ms. Marian Pastor Roces. This was launched last April 2017 at SM North Edsa, and has so far been to SM Aura, House of Representatives, DLSU – College of St. Benilde, DLSU – Santiago Zobel, the BIMP-EAGA Budayaw Festival at SM General Santos City and the ARMM Regional Complex. After a Mindanao tour, we hope to bring it back here by middle of this year.

The exhibitions themselves proved the openness of people from all walks of life to know more. Guests came up to us, asking questions from terrorism to how to wear the hijab, from affirmations of indeed Sabah belonged to the Sulu Sultanate to heart-warming hugs of realizations that we are just one people. But another beautiful story that unexpectedly came out of this are the partnerships that resulted to more – forums, exposures, the development of a curriculum, scholarship opportunities, outreach, friendships.

As expected, I found meaning in working outside, than inside the House. As we remain hopeful for the Anti-Discrimination Bill, we embarked on a Focus:Bajau project aimed at breaking the derogative image society has of the Bajau. As we pushed for the Islamic Banking bill, we became more engaged in developing a Sharia-Compliant microfinance and building a constituency for Islamic finance. As we await the fate of the Bill for Women and Child Safe Spaces, we worked with a group of Muslim psychologists in the development of a Module on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support to Muslim Filipinos. But I remained in Congress.

Until Marawi happened. It was not just a wake up call, it was a deafening alarm. I am not from Marawi, but I know its implication to the rest of us. The questions Marawi brought out were scary, the answers even scarier. How did it happen right under our nose? Or were we looking the other way, distracted by so many diversions? What happened to the community worker I took so much pride in, why were the people silent, or were they silently warning us? Or have we lost their trust? Could we have done something to prevent it?

What we saw in Marawi is not us. We have been Muslims here for the last 637 years, yes we know war, but we have not seen anything like this. Our own kind, defying their own elders, their own gurus, destroying their own homes. Listening to foreign ideologies and denying the very people and institutions that made them Muslims and preserved Islam for centuries, since the first day it arrived. When I learned of children among them, aged as my own, I knew there was no other way.

More than being physically with the people, it was about being one of them, in the truest sense of the word. Not an agent of an institution they lost faith in, not one claiming to represent them but is disconnected from their everyday lives. There is so much confusion, unrealistic and therefore unmet expectations, resulting to so much frustrations, frustrations that these elements build on to win our people to their side. And it is incumbent upon us to win them back. And the best way I know how, under the circumstances, is to divest myself of any identity or affiliation that will cast even the slightest doubt on my intentions.

We all are called to different, equally important roles. Some are meant to look at and take care of the bigger picture. I feel at this particular time, mine is to be back home, if only to convince my own people, one person at a time, one child at a time, that the path of peace will always be possible.

And I know I am not going back alone. The years I spent here are not totally lost. I met kindred spirits who convinced me that all we have to do is tell our story, and they willingly share the burden of our pains. All we have to do is share our dreams, and there will be people who will journey with us to realize their fulfillment. And one of life’s mysteries that I learned to stop questioning is, I always find myself being led to them.

Thank you. Wassalam. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews.  Sitti Djalia Turabin represented Anak Mindanao party-list group in Congress from June 30, 2013 until she resigned in early October 2017 to focus on community work, especially among the youth in conflict areas in Mindanao. This piece first appeared on her FB page on January 25. MindaNews was granted permission to publish).




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