Understanding conflict: education for peace in Mindanao

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

In late January of this year, sixty-seven Filipinos died in Mamasapano, Mindanao—following a botched operation dubbed: Exodus. The public outcry was raw and visceral, awakening both a renewed sense of pride for our police force,on the one hand, and exposing the weaknesses in our understanding of peace in Mindanao, on the other.

Facebook and Twitter became the site of heated, middle-class opinions. Bigotry’s ugly head began to rear, demonstrating that--whatever tolerance reasonable Filipinos had for their Muslim brethren--it was little match for vocal online ignorance. Mindanao was, once again, misunderstood.

The confusion came in part from the long-ignored history of injustice that Filipinos in Mindanao have had to endure—almost in silence. Years of neglect and the lack of effective reconciliatory processes have allowed histories of massacre and broken promises to fester into growing suspicion—among the Mindanao tri-peoples (Christians, Muslims and lumad), and between rebel groups and the state. Indeed, recent events have underlined the need for greater inclusivity among agents of peace in a process that has been ongoing for years.

Previously, there has been a heavy reliance on representation by influential figureheads to move these processes forward. But current events have demonstrated the urgent need for a multiplicity of voices. Today, civil society and non-government organizations (NGOs) based in Mindanao continue to highlight the polyphony of tri-peoples in the region.

With the formulation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law—considered a legislative landmark by this administration—public debate was inevitable. Suddenly, legislators were forced to brush up on their history—and those who proved less astute were tried harshly under the glare of public media. More importantly, new light was cast upon Mindanao, and the challenge—more than ever before—was to develop greater understanding of the region.

The conflict in Mindanao is complex indeed. A common error has been to attribute problems to religious differences. The tendency for one to blame the “Other” on the basis of their faith obscures the historical injustices and great disparities in material living conditions between Christian and Muslim populations. Religion often becomes the lens--or in some cases, the excuse--for these problems. Post-9/11, seeing Islam in terms of fundamentalism and jihad—holy war—has been the global trend. Muslim groups have had to continually explain that the practice of Islam does not necessarily propagate terror. The activities of groups like Abu Sayyaf have led to a sharp bias against Muslims in general, with stereotypes about their being terrorists, kidnappers and thieves. The wearing of the hijab—deemed oppressive towards women—and the growing of beards among Muslim males has further deepened these stereotypes.

Post-Mamasapano, cyberspace has been abuzz with confusion. For a brief moment, it seemed as if there was little hope of convincing people that religion was not the root of all conflict in Mindanao.

But it also became apparent that technology gave seldom-heard voices from the South a powerful forum. Suddenly, following a solon’s ill-informed remarks, young Muslims posted long editorials on Facebook that were shared across the Internet and responded to by others.

Indeed, communications technology takes center stage in the work of one of the more proactive and creative NGOs advocating peace education in the country. “PeaceTech”—targeting schools in regions that experience conflict—uses video conferencing and social media to bridge groups across large distances. To date, they have partnered with corporations like PLDT, TELUS, and development agencies such as Hope International, Australian AID, and the US Embassy. 

PeaceTech founder, Robyn Pettyfer with students from Cotabato City National High School. PeaceTech File Photo

Trusting the classroom as a safe space in which to let ideas, questions, and knowledge flourish, the group sets up virtual interaction sessions between classes in Manila and select areas in Mindanao, like Cotabato and Zamboanga. The idea is simple: use a relatively inexpensive tool like Skype (provided there is internet access) to bridge students who are unlikely to be able to speak with one another, were it not for this technology.

For around an hour—roughly the time it takes to cover a subject in school—students are allowed to interact with their peers through the facilitation of trained teachers. PeaceTech aims to foster greater understanding among students, especially those who practice different religions.

It banks on the dynamism and curiosity of young people to bridge generations. “Aha!” classroom moments, for instance,may send some students home to their parents with a message expressing hope that perhaps these people who practice other religions—normally seen as “Other”—are actually no different from the rest of us. 

Global Classroom Program in Ramon Magsaysay National High School connected via Skype to North Cotabato National High School. HDPRC File Photo

The NGO has been in the country since 2006. It has two flagship programs:the first, the “Global Classroom Program,”is aimed at high school students spread across Metro Manila, Visayas, and Mindanao.It integrates videoconferencing into the Social Studies and Values Education curriculum of the Department of Education (DepEd) to improve learning and build tolerance between different religious and ethnic communities. 

The second program, dubbed: “Reducing Conflict,” is for young adults from regions divided by conflict. Using Information Communication Technology and social media, the program aims to foster improved relationships between communities presently characterized by mutual distrust. Conflict-management and peace-building training is also conducted through these video conferences.

But PeaceTech’s program also raises some fundamental questions about how we teach peace in the Philippine context. Recalling the days of Mamasapano, technology did make public opinion—no matter how well- or ill-informed—ultimately shareable. The end result was a society awash with emotion.

Current events in the legislature do show a growing lassitude surrounding the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. This seems to suggest that, while technology has enabled us to express ourselves better, it’s unclear if it has achieved much in terms of actually reducing conflict. Do we fight less online and build more bridges? Or do we merely “yell” at each other from hi-tech pulpits, enabled by “likes” and peer-encouragement?

In PeaceTech’s case, similar questions surface: can we properly define complex conflict if it is only seen through the narrow lens of religion?  How can we counter religious prejudices if we do not also account for the history of conflict, and work towards providing the material and political basis for alleviating chronic poverty? Building tolerance through values formation is a laudable goal, but what of the question of historical justice, which is often all-too-fraught?

One thing we learn online is that no one generally disagrees with motherhood statements. Sane Filipinos seldom disagree with the need for lasting and sustainable peace in Mindanao, in the same way that values like kindness, tolerance, and peace itself, are generally “liked.” But these are abstract terms. How does one teach these values without a context? Should we not instead be teaching a more inclusive history that reflects a multiplicity of cultural voices? This is where the limitation of peace education programs like PeaceTech’s come in: for as long as the curriculum is tied to that of DepEd’s—one that has a predominantly Catholic and Manila perspective—discussion of historical events and contexts will retain that bias. Peace education cannot be done sans historical context,precisely because values are a reflection of our lived experiences and the lessons we choose to learn from them.

Other questions remain: is spending on videoconferencing materials and technology (P200,000 a year per school) the best way to educate students about our shared history? In noted hotspots around ARMM where the main face of government is the military and where basic services have yet to arrive, how does one teach peace, let alone get a computer to work without electricity? Should the basic conditions that allow human security to flourish not first be met?

But the fact of the matter is that PeaceTech has now successfully reached almost 40,000 young Filipinos—no small achievement, by any standard—fostering deeper understanding by highlighting shared interests and commonalities among students from different cultures. In the coming years—following deals between the government and other stakeholders—PeaceTech is set to receive funding from DepEd. This is a welcome step forward because more young people are sure to find the use of technology liberating.

There is no doubt that using communications technology in schools can be a critical tool in undoing deeply-rooted prejudices and misunderstandings between the Muslim minority and the Christian majority, not to mention those pertaining to the lumad. It remains to be seen, however, how the content of such communications will encourage not just tolerance, but a real understanding of the roots of such conflicts and the search for actual justice. To this end, PeaceTech’s pioneering efforts seem to be a valuable and necessary first step. 

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