Mindanao: Healing Which Past? Building The Future For Whom?

mindanao healing the past
Nolasco, B. (1999). Screenshot taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NV3col0hMtI/.

This is an expanded version of an article of the same title that I wrote last March 2014 and which I rewrote Discussion Lab.

Watching the documentary “Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future” reminded me of folk group Asin’s song “Ang Bayan Kong Sinilangan.” Like the song, the documentary deals with the armed conflict in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao as if it was made with Asin’s well-known lines in mind: “Ako ay isinilang sa isang bayan ng Cotabato / kasinggulo ng tao, kasinggulo ng mundo.”

It entered my mind that the song’s message of the war simply as a product of ages-old prejudice summed-up the general idea expressed in the documentary: “Dahil walang respeto sa prinsipyo ng kapwa-tao / Kapwa-Pilipino ay pinapahirapan mo, ang gulo.” And the solution it proposes — more tolerance — seems ripped off from Asin:

Kung kalaba’y walang puso
Puso na rin ang gamitin mo
Ituring mong isang kaibigan
Isipin mong s’ya ay may puso rin, katulad mo.

How can we end the decades-long war in Mindanao between Christians and Muslims? How can we move on amidst ruined lives and communities? How can we cope with the death of family members, friends, and community members? How can we overcome the atrocities and destruction inflicted by one people against another people?

The 1999 video documentary directed by Butch Nolasco advocates tolerance for the culture and beliefs of others as the basis for attaining a lasting peace — a peace that can be achieved primarily through education campaigns designed and implemented by Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).

Failed initiatives

The documentary’s pushing of a “cultural solution” is premised on the observation that all previous peace initiatives made by the Philippine Government (GPH) has not succeeded in ending the armed conflict in Mindanao, be it in the military, the political, or the socio-economic front.

“Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future” shows that a political solution through peace talks is not enough. The signing of the peace agreement between the GPH and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) did not prevent the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) from taking up arms.

Efforts to secure peace through socio-economic programs such as infrastructure construction and private sector investments, the documentary said, have also failed to bring about peace. This is in spite of Mindanao receiving huge sums for irrigation, telecommunications, and other projects.

It would indeed seem that “Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future” is correct in proving all these efforts on the political, socio-economic, and military fields as ineffective given the recurring breakout of armed conflict in Mindanao more than a decade after the documentary was screened.

Even the recent signing of a peace agreement between the GPH and the MILF has proven insufficient to end the hostilities with the eruption of heavy fighting between the MNLF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Zamboanga September of last year as well as the emergence of other armed Moro factions that splintered from the MILF.

A culture of peace

Why is it that despite all the efforts undertaken war in Mindanao remains? The documentary argues that the ongoing armed conflict in Mindanao is a product of more than four centuries of ceaseless hostilities that has already become part of the culture of the people. This is what the documentary called a “culture of violence” that has reigned for so long in the island of Mindanao.

“It really didn’t matter who began first,” said Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardenal Quevedo in an interview featured in the documentary to reinforce its argument. Also highlighted is Prof. Jamail Kamlian who talks about how distrust between the Muslims and Christians grew not only into physical conflict but also psychological animosities.

The film thus advances the idea of promoting a “culture of peace” as an effective mechanism to end the war in Mindanao. The peace education initiated by various NGOs and the so-called civil society groups is an effort to reverse the psychology of hatred and replacing it with a culture of peace.

The media is also perceived as a special arena for promoting harmony of the people despite its present role in spreading misconceptions about Mindanao as an “Island of War.”

According to the United Nations, the culture of peace is “a set of values, attitudes, traditions and modes of behavior and ways of life based on respect for life, ending of violence and promotion and practice of non-violence through education, dialogue and cooperation,” among others.

Underlying this framework for achieving peace is the liberal view that dichotomizes the “culture of violence” with the “culture of peace.” The former is characterized by the use of force and creation of enemies while the latter is characterized by education, dialogue and pluralism or tolerance to others.

More than a solution to the still unresolved war in Mindanao, the promotion of a new culture of peace is presented by the documentary as radical. One that diverges from the bloody armed struggle employed before by groups like the MNLF and MILF.

It is also presented as a genuinely democratic effort given the participation of multiple agencies and grassroots communities and the victims themselves.

A simplistic idea

This approach may sound promising at the surface. Accordingly, the documentary presents various success stories emanating from peace this project, one of which is the Bual Island which was granted the title of “zone of peace” in 1998.

Individual testimonies were also presented like Anita Biadnes of Barongis, Maguindanao who is now married to a soldier for 20 years. “Noon kalaban namin ang sundalo pero ngayon magkaasawa na kami ng sundalo,” said Biadnes for the documentary.

We are all enjoined to be agents of peace. “It starts with the personal, the person as peacemaker,” the documentary says. Even with small gains, the initiators of this campaign hopes for a ripple effect so that the whole island of Mindanao will become a peaceful place peopled with a peace-loving populace.

Looking beyond the surface, however, would show that this whole idea of a “culture of peace” is based on simplistic liberal idea of peace that assumes society as a natural whole where all men and women share universal human beliefs and values of love, compassion, charity, and tolerance.

It is also faithful to the government and other institutions that hold power in society as instruments for achieving the objectives set for the campaign. It does not matter if such institution like the government is itself the perpetrator of injustices that pushed the people to armed resistance in the first place.

Correspondingly, “Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future” accordingly pushes for the idea that “Mindanao is a shared territory” where inhabitants “need to accept one another” and “should not impose to other what they should be.”

Genuine grievances

At its core, what the simplistic idea of peace offered by the documentary fails to consider are the contradictory interests of various social forces and classes present in Mindanao and the rest of Philippine society. This only hides the fact that the Moro’s taking up arms is in response to real grievances that must be addressed to solve the roots of the armed conflict.

Yes, war is very traumatic especially for children. Armed conflict destroys what little property that ordinary people have. War places entire communities on the verge of extinction, especially because of cases of indiscriminate firing and indiscriminate bombing, especially by government forces.

But this is just one side of the story. What is often not told is perseverance of the people to survive and resist the injustice done to them. Sometimes people are left with no choice but to take up arms to defend themselves against the onslaught perpetuated by an oppressive and exploitative ruling order.

I was impressed by the statement of Amin, a child soldier of the MILF quoted in the 2007 book Uncounted Lives: Women and Children in Armed Conflict. Amin was 16 years during the time of the interview. He joined the MILF when he was 13:

The main reason why I am here is because of what happened to my family. It is my right to defend myself. We are bombed in Liguasan without any defenses. It means that if I do not defend myself, I would face the same fate as my father and siblings. That is what happened to me. This is what I will say to anyone who asks me why I am here. However, the longer I stay with the group the more I realize that revenge will not be enough. I also need to continue with the struggle to defend my religion and fight for the Bangsamoro homeland.

What this underscores is the fact that the armed conflict in Mindanao is rooted in socio-economic conditions, specifically the struggle by warring forces for the control of the very rich land and resources of Mindanao.

And yet the documentary simply fails to mention this common knowledge that Mindanao has rich deposits of gold, nickel, zinc and manganese and is the country’s leading producer of banana, pineapple, corn, coffee and coconut for export.

Why were the colonizers, for example, really determined to put Mindanao under its control? It is not that they just want to “civilize” the barbaric Moros in the south but because of the very rich resources that the island. Today, government forces are assigned in Mindanao to protect the interests of multinational corporations, logging concessions, and large-scale mining operations.

The documentary also fails to mention that the Moro lands in Mindanao are some of the poorest both in Mindanao and in the whole country. Incidence of poverty in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is almost twice that of the country as a whole. It is also the poorest in terms of income, health and education — a sure recipe for sustained social unrest.

Yes, we could always promote about the culture of peace. But peace based on what? No matter how we propagandize, if the social conditions of the people remain wretched, war will simply emerge sooner or later. This is inevitable under a society that oppresses and exploits its people.

No answer

But then, as I have repeatedly pointed out, this is all in line with the documentary’s reduction of the war as a mere attitude problem by the Muslims and Christians in Mindanao. The solution offered by the documentary is more tolerance: bridging cultural differences and healing their bitter memories.

However, for all its talk of peace, what the documentary espouses is really no different from the idea of winning “hearts and minds” of suspected “rebel-infested” communities propagated by the government. In fact, the documentary was even shown by the AFP in Civil Military Operations in Mindanao.

After showing the documentary to Claret High School students in Maluso, Basilan in 2009 Lt. Col. Jones Agustin explained that was part of educating the youth on how to eradicate prejudices and mistrust.

It therefore came as no surprise to me then when the documentary treated the contending forces of the Moro secessionists and the Philippine government’s armed forces as equally responsible for the deaths and destruction during the war.

But even as it blurs the real accountability for the damage and destruction caused by the warring forces in the course of the armed conflict, it pays more attention to the narrative of government and army spokesmen. No Moro rebel group was interviewed for the documentary.

If government and NGOs are really serious about building genuine and lasting peace, then they should push for the redistribution of land to the landless peasants, stop the wanton plunder of Mindanao’s bounty by large-scale mining and logging, protect the Moro’s ancestral lands.

Housing, health, education, and other basic services must be made accessible without discrimination while a program of national industrialization provides sufficient jobs and develop the Philippine economy on the basis of self-reliance. This is the only genuine road for peace in Mindanao.

Understanding the roots of the conflict means crafting ways that would help solve the root causes of the conflict. Yet the documentary’s opting to simply changing people’s attitudes leaves the social injustices and economic inequality that breeds armed conflict unbroken.

Which past are we trying to heal? For whom are we building the future? I think these are some of the crucial questions that “Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future” neither asks nor answers.


Tuazon, B. (Ed). (2008). The Moro Reader: History and Contemporary Struggles of the Bangsamoro People. Quezon City: Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance.

Uncounted Lives: Children, Women, & Conflict in the Philippines. (2007). Manila: UNICEF and IBON Foundation.



  1. perhaps it would help to change mentalities also if Mindanao were to be represented in the media as the richest cultural region of the Philippines, where Philippine pre-colonial (pre-Magellanic) culture and traditions are to a greater extent preserved than elsewhere in the archipelago? Mindanao would seem to be the last remaining cultural link of the country to the region in which it is located. It is where the Philippines is more truly Asian, where it has its own identity. In the 1980’s, I once listened to a lecture by a Mindanao historian whose name I unfortunately cannot recall, and he regretted the fact that Filipinos are more likely to be better educated on the mythology of areas on the other side of the globe (and that have absolutely nothing to do with its history) than with their own mythologies. The fault lies not with the students themselves but with the content of Philippine history books, of which probably 99% would be devoted to the post-Magellanic period and where the pre-magellanic, of which the thalassocracy of the Sri Vijaya empire, the early arrival of the Chinese and the Arabs are surely elements with written records as well, are only glossed over probably in only one chapter, from what I recall of the most important history book studied at the university. Perhaps promoting historical studies in Mindanao would create a bridge between the communities. Promoting the recognition that the minority community’s culture and history is just as important (and in this case, probably more weighty) than one’s own may go a long way towards achieving peace.

  2. your quote:
    Why were the colonizers, for example, really determined to put Mindanao under its control? It is not that they just want to “civilize” the barbaric Moros in the south but because of the very rich resources that the island;

    one funny quote attributed to Jomo Kenyatta, first president of the Republic of Kenya, reinforces your assertion about the motives of the Christianizing colonizers:
    “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

  3. grammatical mistakes in the comment above:
    and that have absolutely nothing to do with ‘its’ history -> ‘their’ history
    just as important as, and in this case, probably more weighty than, (instead of the original).
    sorry ’bout that. can’t be too careful with up bloggers:).

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