In the early 70’s there were two main armed groups in the Philippines. The Communist movement sought to overthrow the existing government and setup a communist government. And this situation of the Cold War ear, still persists in the Philippines today. Secondly, there is the Bangsamoro struggle for separatism in the Philippines that started around the same time. The Islamized indigenous people known as Moros, in their struggle for independence, took it upon themselves to liberate Mindanao (the Southernmost island region in the Philippines) from the rest of the country. Until now, both groups persist albeit in different forms: the islamic separatist sentiment is now more moderate and the Moro call for ‘enhanced autonomy’ under the republic. For the communists, the original call for communism remains, but now they also engage in the parliament, although as a secondary tool to the armed struggle.
Before Ramadan of the following year, the secretariat of that fateful conference, the Gaston Z. Ortigas Peace Institute, had already brought together – through a series of of peace and human rights workshops – a ragtag group of young leaders from different political colors, persuasions and fields of expertise. At the outset, the Peace Institutions Development Office of the government’s peace agency, as well as the UNDP, supported the initiative. The group was what we jokingly called a “loose network, with loose morals”. This core group agreed to work on three main things right away; 1) to organise activities and not be bogged down by organizational form and function constrictions; 2) to support the peace talks and non-violent ways of transforming conflict; and 3) to occasionally meet and discuss the issue of the communist movement as well as the Bangsamoro right to self determination. This is how the Generation Peace Youth Network, or GenPeace, was conformed. And I was a part of it.
Birthing the youth peace network was difficult. At first, no one had set ideas of what we wanted to do, or how we wanted to do things. We just embarked on different activities as young idealist organizations tend to do. The youth peace network took advantage of the use of technology in creating dialogue, which later became an organization of its own called PeaceTech. We experimented with peace concerts, and were succesful in making loud events that young people banged their heads along to. We tried different things — street protests against the President, meetings with that same government’s peace agency, workshops, educational discussions, different types of contests, and street art, among many others. It was only later on that we realized we were confused with what we wanted to do or how we wanted to do things.
But, appart from the disorientation, we had stayed committed because we knew why we wanted to act. As the core group came from different political persuasions of the Philippine Left, many of the discussions revolved around rules of engagement, purpose, strategies, and the like. In a way, the youth network itself was mirroring what a noisy, vibrant, dynamic, confused and willful society looks like. With constant debates, the organizational paper of the youth network – the basis of unity for the organization – took 4 years to finish!
Peacebuilding is an enormous project involving not just the formal peace negotiations, but also a host of other processes that are important to creating the proper climate that generates collective solutions to war. If people do not imbibe a culture that respects the rights of all, including those of women and children, during peace time, a society in crisis will also fail to recognize humanitarian law and human rights. If young people are not heard in a democracy, how much more will their exclusion exarcerbate in a war zone? According to some experts, peacework is largely a problem-solving exercise. But as young people, we disagree. It should be a solutions-focused exercise, a collective dream and building project of jobs, justice, food and freedom.
From a small group of 20 leaders mainly based in Quezon City, Cotabato and Davao (the Philippines), the youth network evolved to take on a national character. Workshops here and there brought together various organizations to discuss the national character of the Bangsamoro and Communist struggles. But more importantly, the opportunity provided means of dialogue related to local peace situations – with discussions ranging from gang wars, fraternity violence, development agression, land grabbing, mining, logging, to LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex) hate speech. Now, there are 14 clusters of organizations, scattered throughout the Philippines, partnering with Generation Peace.
For readers wanting to venture into volunteer work for peace and human rights, here are some of the insights and leasons learned from our failures and successes:
Peace should be defined by all stakeholders. One of the main advocated of peacework in the Philippines, Prof. Ed Garcia, would always admonish the young generation with this important idea: “We must put people at the heart of the peace process . If the people trust the process, the people will trust the outcome.” Arriving at a politically-negotiated settlement requires re-shaping and re-imagining the policy framework, the principles and the practices within the country. Consultations regarding this momentous task are few and limited in most cases. Remember the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain of the Phillipines in 2008 which was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional on the basis of consultation? Inclusivity, among other things, could have prevented the escalation of conflict and 600,000 persons being internally-displaced.
If the negotiations, agreement and policies cannot be linked to the idea of building roads and bridges, then ownership of the stakeholders is being limited. The Bangsamoro Basic Law should be a matter of livelihood. Peace with the communists should mean better health care, education and employment. Having an Autonomous region of Bangsamoro should mean dignity for indigenous peoples in the Bangsamoro and beyond. Technocratic legalese should connect to the heart and soul of the peace, the people.
The youth have crucial roles to play. One of the Generation Peace projects in 2008 when violence escalated in North Cotabato and Lanao provinces was a peace summit of Mindanao youth leaders. Initially, it was designed as a simple peace and human rights workshop with indigenous, Muslim and Christian youth. But because of the great impact of the war on civilians, we decided to re-create the summit. We had a two day workshop and interfaith dialogue, but we also created a media campaign around our site visits. The site visits themselves became a youth peace mission. GenPeace leaders appeared on local radio stations calling for humanitarian gateways, ceasefire and reestablishment of the mechanisms for negotiations. Participants far from the war zone had their baptism of fire at the evacuation centers and blue tent cities sprawling across fields in the humid summer. Suddenly the 40-year, low-intensity war became a reality for those that never experienced it. Through solidarity and lived experiences, participants became ardent advocates.
Allow non-partisan, partisan and multi-partisan youth work. One of the young leaders in the peace movement can actually disassemble, clean and reassemble an M-16 rifle with grenade launcher faster than a military cadet. When I asked how he could do this he quietly replied that all his siblings were rebel leaders and his community lived the conflict on a daily basis.
One of the greatest realizations of working for peace is in the inherent perception of neutrality of peace advocates. The basis for this is that neutral groups can build trust on opposing sides, these personas or groups can provide informal architectures for peace through back –channels, mediation, and even lobbying and campaign work. However, ground reality and knowing how negotiations are built from the relationships mean that the work can also mean partisanship for human rights, dignity and humanitarian principles. Must we prevent the participation of youth from the rebel camp in peace advocacy? Should we dismiss the military doves and instead go for hawkish offensives? Peace advocates can come from anywhere, this includes former combatants, military leaders, and even agressors.
Youth work in peacebuilding remains a grey area. The perception is that peacework is activism and is therefore dangerous during conflict because of drawing enemy lines. The youth network matured in such a way that it has connections in all directions—military, governmental peace panel, Moro Islamic Liberation Front Central Committee members, students, out-of-school youth, indigenous youth in conflict zones, young women, etc.—and it is this web of relationships that help co-create shared meanings across political, ethnic and religious lines.
The dreaming and the creating are integrated approaches to one peace process. Usually, it is the young, the marginalized, the idealist and the conflict-weary, that must have the strongest voice in saying, “Enough of war.”
Collective dreaming is important because it does not limit the peace agreement, and the processes involved in supporting it with protocols, rules of engagements, normative instruments and policies. It involves everyone in the communities affected by conflict, as well as the larger society that is indirectly affected by it. It creates solidarity to the marginalized and puts self-determination, dignity, affirmations and assertions at the heart of this very political and technocratic exercise.
What can a small youth peace network do? We built peace in our communities and spheres of influence. We built quietly in urban academic centers as well as indigenous communities pressured from all sides. We built anyway—during times where the legitimacy of the government is compromised, during times where moral leaders are wanted, during times of funding drought because of shifting trends, during times when we are branded as pro-government hogwashers or times when we are labeled as propagandists of the rebel movements. We built and build on the youth’s hope. We build quietly, build small but build peace anyway.
Story: Nikki Delfin (30, Philippines) is the coordinator of the Generation Peace Youth Network or GenPeace, a network of organizations and individuals committed to youth-led advocacy for a just and sustainable peace in the Philippines. It is currently composed of more than 40 different youth organisations that focus on different fields, such as peace education, culture and arts, human rights and community development.
Artist: Celia Africa Keller