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Observers hope talks impasse is temporary

NOORDWIJK AAN ZEE, The Netherlands—A nun and a priest who arrived in this city to observe the scheduled fifth round of formal peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) expressed disappointment at the cancellation of the talks.

Invited as observers to the formal negotiations between the GRP and the NDFP, Sr. Ma. Luz Mallo, MA, and Fr. Manuel Vicente Catral however said they are hopeful the stalemate is just temporary.

Sr. Luz, executive secretary of the Sisters Association of Mindanao and convenor of Sowing the Seeds of Peace in Mindanao, was on was on her way to this city from an international religious gathering in Weimar, Germany when she heard of the GRP’s announcement of its non-participation in the round.

“I still came over because I was hopeful there is a remedy to the impasse. I was praying socio-economic reforms would still be discussed,” Sr. Luz said.

“It does not benefit the Lumad, the Bangsamoro and the poor that finding solutions to the maldistribution of land, destruction of natural resources and other social ills in our country is postponed, even if temporarily,” she added.

Fr. Catral for his part questioned the sincerity of those who cancelled the round.

“How serious are we?  Shouldn’t it be that any attempt for peace be undertaken with utmost sincerity?” the Social Action Commission chairperson of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao said.

Fr. Catral concelebrated a Holy Mass with Tuguegarao Archbishop Sergio Utleg last May 28 attended by both GRP and NDFP negotiators as well as Royal Norwegian Government officials who are facilitating the talks in this city.

“Be not afraid”

In place of a homily, Archbishop Utleg read the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) statement on the scheduled formal round encouraging the parties to “take bold steps that alone can bring peace.”

“We trust that our negotiators—on both sides—will be anointed by God’s Spirit so that His sons and daughters in this land that has already been drenched by so much blood may at last walk the ways of peace,” the CBCP said.

The CBCP also said both the GRP and the NDFP should “steadfastly stand for social justice and for the renewal of an order that has left too many to wither away in the peripheries.”

It was the first time a Holy Mass was celebrated as part of a formal round of GRP-NDFP talks.

The celebration lightened an obviously tensed atmosphere as the negotiators struggled to find a way around the impasse.

The GRP however eventually said there is no enabling and conducive environment for the fifth round to proceed with the formal round, scuttling the talks a few hours after the Mass.

Reforms over war

“I am personally disappointed that, in an instant, the apparent high hopes displayed by the negotiators after the Mass changed in an instant,” Fr. Catral for his part said.

The priest said he is saddened he failed to observe how the parties would have negotiated for free land distribution, delivery of basic social services and environment protection.

“All the efforts exerted to prepare for this round are wasted,” he added.

Sr. Luz for her part disagreed with the GRP decision, saying those most affected by social inequalities should have the strongest voice in the negotiations.

“The context of the reason given by the GRP Panel is wrong,” the nun said, adding support for the continuation of the formal negotiations is strong among the marginalized sectors.

“I saw how the MARBAI (Madaum Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association, Inc.) fought for their land and President Duterte himself supported their struggle.  Why can’t landlessness among the farmers be discussed in the peace negotiations?” she asked.

Both however expressed hope the impasse is temporary.

“I observed that both parties are ready to discuss socio-economic reforms.  Even when the round was officially cancelled, there were still holding meetings to prepare for the resumption of negotiations,” Sr. Luz said.

“I hope the Filipino people show the GRP and the NDFP the depth of their desire for the talks to proceed.  That is the only way the negotiators can take the peace talks more seriously,” Fr. Catral said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

 

 

 

PHOTO ESSAY: Mindanao nuns shed tears for massacre victims

Nighttime at Surigao del Sur’s Sports Center, site of yet another mass evacuation of thousands of Manobos driven from their homes by brutal anti-insurgency campaigns of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.  The province’s Social Hall may be seen in the background (3rd building from the left).

Nighttime at Surigao del Sur’s Sports Center, site of yet another mass evacuation of thousands of Manobos driven from their homes by brutal anti-insurgency campaigns of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The province’s Social Hall may be seen in the background (3rd building from the left).

TANDAG, SURIGAO DEL SUR—For a week, this province’s Social Hall had been a funeral parlor for the victims of the massacre in Sitio Han-Ayan, Barangay Diatogon, Lianga town. Beneath its chandeliers—witnesses to many festive events in the past—laid the three mutilated bodies of Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development (Alcadev) executive director Emerito Samarca, Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang Sa Sumusunod (Mapasu) chairperson Dionel Campos and Datu (Chieftain) Juvello Sinzo. Their joint wake was held here for six days and nights after their brazen murder by paramilitary forces last September 1, incidentally the Global Day of Prayer for All Creation as declared by Pope Francis.

Unusual, yet regular, are the banners over coffins of extra-judicial killing victims in Mindanao, mostly lumads who defend their land from mining plunder, demanding justice.

Unusual, yet regular, are the banners over coffins of extra-judicial killing victims in Mindanao, mostly lumads who defend their land from mining plunder, demanding justice.

Their embalmers obviously tried to conceal the paramilitary Magahat-Bagani Forces’ brutal handiwork to accord the victims a dignified appearance. Samarca’s barong collar was pulled up to his chin to hide his slit throat. Campos’ bullet wound on his forehead was skillfully concealed by cosmetics but his grimace remained. All three had absorbent material bulging from under their shirts to hold what bodily fluids may still seep from their wounds.

Usually a venue for festive events, the province’s Social Hall kept the remains of three massacre victims for almost a week.  It would later also host a four-year-old evacuee who would die mere hours after this tribute concluded.

Usually a venue for festive events, the province’s Social Hall kept the remains of three massacre victims for almost a week. It would later also host a four-year-old evacuee who would die mere hours after this tribute concluded.

The night of September 7 was the last time that Samarca was to stay at his beloved Surigao del Sur, as his remains was to be brought back to his home province of Agusan del Norte the next day. As the city around them prepared for its annual fiesta, hundreds gave the three victims a funeral tribute. As it drizzled outside the hall tears were being shed inside it.

An Alcadev student portrays how they found their school director Samarca in one of the institution’s rooms after he had been taken by the paramilitary.

An Alcadev student portrays how they found their school director Samarca in one of the institution’s rooms after he had been taken by the paramilitary.

Church people led the tribute that started with an ecumenical prayer. Tandag’s Roman Catholic choir sang beautifully, immediately misting the eyes of many in the crowd. Bishops, priests and pastors were seated nearer the white coffins and participated in the program as speakers. Roman Catholic priest and Alcadev board member Fortunato Estillore talked about how the tribal schools must continue. Iglesia Filipina Independiente Bishop Mervin Elimanco passionately condemned the massacre. United Church of Christ in the Philippines Bishop Modesto Villasanta talked about how the elementary Trifps (Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur) and the secondary Alcadev schools upheld the Manobo’s dignity through literacy and defense of their ancestral domain.

The children Mapasu chairperson Dionel Campos orphaned.

The children Mapasu chairperson Dionel Campos orphaned.

The nuns, on the other hand, seated themselves behind the grieving families and with the crowd. They wore different-colored and styled wimples, as they belong to different congregations. In Mindanao they also firmly belong to the people, especially the poor. They were either members of the Sisters’ Association of Mindanao (Samin), the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, or both.

The nuns from different congregations expressing their solidarity to the Lumad.

The nuns from different congregations expressing their solidarity to the Lumad.

They approached grieving families and softly consoled them, even as they themselves were crying. They close their eyes in horror as they listen to witnesses of how Campos, brave lumad organization leader, was shot on his forehead, his brain splattered on land he fiercely defended. They bow their heads in prayer as they listen to Sinzo’s daughter narrate how his chieftain-father had been steadfast against corporate mining despite repeated harassments from both military and paramilitary forces.

A nun comforts the family of one of the victims.

A nun comforts the family of one of the victims.

An elderly nun wipes away her tears as she watches a dramatisation of Samarca's brutal killing.

An elderly nun wipes away her tears as she watches a dramatiZation of Samarca’s brutal killing.

Among the nuns Sr Stella Matutina, OSB appeared to have felt the pain the most. Barely two months before the massacre she attended the International Peoples’ Conference on Mining held in Metro Manila as secretary general of Panalipdan-Mindanao, an island-wide environment group, with Samarca. As Karlgen Samarca narrated how tender and loving his father was to his family and the indigenous peoples and how dedicated he was as Alcadev director she peeled herself away from their group and tried to hide behind a concrete column to weep. Samarca must have been very happy for her when it was announced she would be the recipient of the Wiemar Human Rights Award of Germany in December. He must have offered her support when the Philippine Police harassed her with false serious illegal detention charges earlier this year. They had been close friends and comrades for the environment and indigenous peoples’ rights for decades. “A very good man, very kind and soft-spoken,” Sr. Stella said of her friend.

Sr Estella Matutina, OSB, comrade and friend of the victims.

Sr Stella Matutina, OSB, comrade and friend of the victims.

Sr Stella related how the Manobos of Surigao del Sur were harassed last August 9, International Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She also narrated that the three victims were killed by the Magahat-Bagani Forces and how the thousands were forcibly evacuated on the day that Pope Francis called for a day for prayer for planet Earth. “It was a very nice celebration when the whole world prays. But in the Philippines, we are killing an educator for lumads (indigenous peoples of Mindanao), a lumad leader and a datu (chieftain). What are we telling the world when we are killing educators and defenders of creation?” she asked.

As Karlgen Samarca describes his father’s life and work, Sr Estella weeps for her martyred colleague.

As Karlgen Samarca describes his father’s life and work, Sr Stella weeps for her martyred colleague.

The activist nun called on the faithful to study deeper the root causes of poverty in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. “In the (Church-declared) Year of the Poor this is what happening. We believe in a God of equality and justice. We will not have peace if things like this (the massacre) keep on happening. We must respect indigenous peoples’ rights. We have to be Christians,” Sr Stella said.

Sr Estella being consoled by a Protestant Bishop.

Sr Stella being consoled by a Protestant Bishop.

The tribute ended at half past midnight. As the evacuees stood up to go back to their tents at the nearby evacuation center an elderly nun approached the coffins. She lingered on each, clutching a prayer book. When she turned to leave with the others, her eyes were as wet as the grass blades outside, then already being caressed by the night mist that rolled from the nearby forests. #

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(Text and photos by Raymund B. Villanueva)