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2012-05-07 issue:

Peace after a decade of fighting

Filipino Mennonites join indigenous tribes to reaffirm kinship

by Angela J. Lederach

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The sound of the tambol drums greeted participants as they entered the Talaandig Ancestral Site in Sungku, Mindanao, Philippines, on March 8. The long dirt road was lined with flags, each representing a different tribe of Mindanao in honor of the guests who had come for the historic Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony between the Bangsamoro (Muslim nation) and Lumad (indigenous) tribes of Mindanao.  

Datu (Chief) Victorino Saway of the Talaandig Tribe embraces professor Abud Sayed Lingga, a senior member of the MILF peace panel, after they have exchanged precious tokens of kinship. Photo by Byron Pantoja.

For the first time in 492 years, 13 Bangsamoro tribes came together with 18 non-Islamized indigenous tribes to reaffirm their shared ancestry and commit to the five pillars of kinship established in the traditional peace pact of their ancestors: cooperation, mutual sharing of information, mutual protection of life, recognition and respect, and mutual obligation to help the needy. These tribes, many who have spent the last decade fighting one another, chose to come together to not only acknowledge their shared ancestry but commit themselves to respect and protect one another. 

The Kinship Pact comes at a critical time for the Philippines. The Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) find themselves on the cusp of a signed peace agreement that recognizes a Bangsamoro sub-state and autonomy within the region. Similar negotiations have failed in the past, due in part to the animosity between the indigenous and the Bangsamoro tribes. As the tribes join together to uphold their historic peace pact, they are preparing the way not only for a signed agreement between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the MILF but also for sustainable peace in  Mindanao.

“It is very important to reaffirm our kinship, which has not been nurtured in the past. We have seen the cracks in the past between our tribes,” said Attorney Raissa Jajurie, the first woman consultant to the MILF peace panel. “Today, we want to see equality and mutual respect. It is time to heal the wounds of our past.” 

A young Talaandig woman joins the Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony. Photo by Byron Pantoja.

The Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony is a culmination of several years of work, relationship-building and visioning among Lumad, Bangsamoro and civil society leaders. Since the failure of the MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) in 2008, due in part to conflicting views between the indigenous and Bangsamoro communities and lack of direct indigenous participation in the formal peace talks between the MILF and GPH in Kuala Lumpur, key organizers have worked to heal the wounds of the past and lay a solid foundation for peace.

Peacebuilders Community, Inc., a Filipino Mennonite organization based in Davao City, has played an important role in making the Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony possible through their longstanding partnership with Mindanao People’s Caucus, the key coordinating organization of the event. Peacebuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI), is a fellowship of conflict transformation specialists who are dreaming and working for a just, radical and active nonviolent transformation of the Philippines. Started by Canadian-Filipino missionaries Dann and Joji Pantoja, with the support of Mennonite Church Canada, PBCI has spent the last decade building relationships with key community leaders and stakeholders, training community leaders in peacebuilding and reconciliation and engaging the Christian community throughout the Philippines in building peace in Mindanao.

Though the Ceremony of Kinship brought together Lumad and Bangsamoro tribes, the presence of the Christian community also played  an important role in upholding the renewed relationship between the “first nations” of Mindanao and acknowledging the voice of the first nations. Sister Arnold Maria Noel, a Catholic nun who has played a prominent role in building peace in Mindanao for the last decades, emphasized the importance of the Christian community to support the work of the first-nation tribes to rebuild their relationships and establish a unified and powerful voice in Mindanao.

“We have the responsibility to tell this story, to spread this story to the international community,” she said. “As Christians, we must allow space for the truth to come forward.”

As the introductions began, the tribal leaders gave impassioned speeches about why they had traveled to take part in this historic ceremony.

“We must set aside our interests and re-emphasize our kinship. We must walk together toward peace in Mindanao. We are answerable to Allah, to one another, to our future generations,” said Salic Ibrahim, a Maranao leader, and called those present to live out the kinship pact—to pave the way toward peace.

“This event confirms the support of the individual tribes for the peace process and is a key factor in stabilizing the region. Without stability, peace cannot move forward,” said Walee Roslie, a member of the International Monitoring Team from Brunei.

One by one, the leaders of each tribe went forward to retell their history. The descendants of the original peace pact holders call us the tribes to once again unite as kin, they said, to protect one another and to help build a new Mindanao based on the ancient practices of their ancestors. “I normally see myself as an educator,” LTC Ronald Alcudia from the government’s Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said, “but today I am a student. I am learning of the history of Mindanao from the true tribal elders—a history I did not know until today.”

Datu (Chief) Victorino Migketay Saway, the host and visionary of the reaffirmation of kinship, called forward the religious leaders and elders to begin prayers. Indigenous and Bangsamoro together joined in prayer for their people, calling on Allah, the ancestors and Magbabaya to be present in the ceremony.

As the prayers came to an end, the tribal elders moved forward and prepared to sacrifice a Carabao in honor of the ancestors. The blood of the Carabao is used to cleanse the land of the ancestors—to heal the wounds of the past so that all the tribes, together with their ancestors and their God—may move together toward a future of peace in Mindanao.

Datu Saway called the descendants of the peace pact forward to sign their names, committing to the five pillars of kinship. PBCI, along with other key civil society organizations were also called forward as witnesses. The tribes, adorned in their traditional regalia, gathered together as the Talaandig monument memorializing the kinship pact was revealed: an intricately carved jar, the vessel that will hold the sacred oil and covenant of kinship.

Though the ceremony marks a historic step toward peace, the road to peace is long and relationships are still fragile. This new union, between the historically marginalized tribes of the Bangsamoro and the Lumad (indigenous) requires support and recognition, not only from the people of the Philippines but also from the wider international community. As witnesses, PBCI, representing the larger Mennonite church, helped create a space for truth, for the history of the first nations to come forward, giving rise to a new, unified voice in Mindanao.

That day, PBCI, along with 1,000 other key stakeholders, witnessed the beginning of a new chapter in Mindanao’s history, as the Moro and the IP’s came together to uphold the ancient kinship of their ancestors and acknowledge the traditional peace pacts made long before the colonial era. The ceremony marked a new way forward for peace in Mindanao—a peace built on a 400-year-old relationship—a relationship that the first nations of Mindanao have embraced once more.

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