August 24, 2011

Waging Peace

by Michael L. Tan

The word “rebelde” has become generic in the Philippines and can refer to the members of any of several groups that have taken up arms to fight the government.

While armed encounters between the rebels and government have dropped in recent months, perhaps because of ongoing peace talks, the situation is still one of simmering tensions, ready to erupt into a conflagration involving an entire town, or even several towns. Civilians flee, if they can, sometimes never to return to their homes. Where there are rebelde, there will be bakwet, the latter term derived from “evacuees,” which is mild term because what we really have are refugees.

What’s so unacceptable about all this is that we have had these cycles of simmering and boiling for decades. Among Asian countries, we have the longest-running communist insurgency. The New People’s Army (NPA) dates back to 1969, but represents a breakaway from the Huks, who go back to World War II.

The other major rebellion we have is that of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), founded in 1977, again a breakway group from an older rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) also founded around 1969.

Living on the edge

Imagine living in a place engulfed by these rebellions for more than 30 years. We know the armed conflict leads to many deaths and injuries. But we forget the toll these conflicts take in terms of day-to-day life.

Last Saturday I had a graduate class in medical anthropology where we talked about how parents use supernatural spirits to make their children behave. One of the students, Noemi Bayoneta-Leis, interjected and talked about growing up in Basilan, where several rebel groups have been operating. Now, she said, she could understand why their parents and elders were constantly scaring the children with stories about assorted night creatures. It was to keep the children inside the homes.

Later, driving home, I remembered an incident from the early 1980s, when I was in a Kalinga village that was in an area of conflict. Night had fallen and a Kalinga mother was trying to calm down a crying child. She would knock on their walls while calling out, “Solchacho, solchacho.” It took me some time to realize it was the Kalinga way of saying, “Soldado, soldado.” She was using “soldier,” rather than aswang, to tell the child to stop crying, the knocking on the walls mimicking soldiers demanding to get into the house. I learned later that there had been many encounters in the area, during which mothers would frantically try to get their children to keep quiet, fearful that any kind of noise would draw gunfire to their homes.

There are many more places like Basilan and Kalinga, where people live on the edge. But because the conflicts today seem largely to be on low-intensity mode, continue reading

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