Central Mindanao, Philippines: “Mamasapano: Who do we condemn? Whose lives matter?”
Rosa Cordillera Castillo on the latest clashes in the Philippines
On January 23, 2015, I presented a paper at the Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia conference in Berlin that discussed, among other things, the imagined future of the Bangsamoro. I talked about the prevailing sense of euphoria, hope, happiness, and optimism of my interlocutors, residents of a village who support or are members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Central Mindanao, Philippines. These were their prevailing sentiments, notwithstanding the undercurrent of anxiety that people would also express regarding the progress of the peace talks, as they looked towards an almost utopian future of peace and prosperity, a future oppositional to their current situation of poverty and uncertainty.
Ironically and tragically, two days after my presentation of people's optimism, government police forces (who were after a Malaysian bomb-maker wanted by the US government) and armed men from various groups including some from the MILF and their breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) clashed in the town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao, Central Philippines. It left 67 people dead, among them 44 policemen, 18 MILF fighters, and at least six Muslim civilians including an 8-year old girl. The clash has put the peace talks in danger, led to calls for all-out war by people outside Mindanao, and brought to the fore deep-seated biases against Muslims in the country. The polarizing and hate-filled discourse was aided in no small part by politicians and journalists.
I wrote a Facebook post on January 30 in response to inflammatory remarks of a journalist. It has been shared over a thousand times. On February 14, I published a revised version of this post as an opinion editorial in Rappler, a leading online newspaper in the country. Further, I, together with a group of Mindanao and Sulu scholars, crafted a statement calling for peace through justice that was sent to the Philippine Senate and Congress, and uploaded online as a petition. To date, more and more counter-narratives are being offered by mainstream and alternative media, activists, and scholars, as well as more voices calling for peace and not war. But government offensives in the area, this time in pursuit of the BIFF, has led to the displacement of over 120,000 people. And so the cycle of war, as it were, continues.