DAVAO CITY, Philippines—Adversity is said to beget adversity.
But in conflict-torn Sulu province, hope beckons from a youth-led, peace-building initiative that has transformed an almost deserted village of Parang town into a vibrant community of some 300 families where people regard social harmony as equally important to their need for daily subsistence.
And with the Bangsamoro transition on the horizon, the experience of building and sustaining a so-called “peace-centered community” in Parang’s Barangay (village) Silangkan provides vital lessons on how to organize and maintain law and order in the future autonomous region’s culturally diverse communities.
“The Silangkan experience is a story of community folk taking care of and nurturing the peace,” said Rosemain Abduraji of the nongovernment organization Tumikang Sama-Sama (TSS), or Together We Move Forward.
“While we practically need the police for law enforcement, there is no pillar stronger than the people taking responsibility for keeping the peace in their community,” she said in an interview with the Inquirer during a recent peace seminar in Davao City.
The strong desire of Silangkan folk to keep the peace is borne out of a recent episode.
In 2001, government forces bombed the coastal village while pursuing Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari who had gone on a rampage after falling out of the political graces of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The assault on Silangkan left a deep sense of insecurity among the villagers. After the manhunt for Misuari had long ceased, many villagers chose not to return except to tend to their farms during the day.
Soon, the village became a halfway route for Abu Sayyaf bandits, whether for escaping toward island hideaways or getting into the Sulu mainland.
In 2012, the Jolo-based TSS staff went on a 45-minute drive to Silangkan to enjoy its pristine white-sand beach. There, they had a chance encounter with Abdtazir Tingkasan, a former MNLF commander and among the few residents who remained in the village.
What was supposed to be a weekend getaway turned out to be a deep and engaging conversation about an aging man’s dream for his family.
“The commander told us how much he wanted his children and grandchildren to acquire an education so that they would have a bright future,” TSS staff member Khamar Alama said. “We didn’t expect to have a very emotionally touching exchange with him.”
Alama and TSS colleagues, who are trained in conflict mediation, began planning how they could help fulfill Tingkasan’s dream.
“We started with a community dialogue. We had people express what they wanted to see happen in their community and how they could help achieve these goals,” Abduraji said.
“Mainly, the Silangkan villagers don’t want a repeat of the 2001 experience when they were bombed by the military. They also resolved to address a host of family feuds which had resulted in the displacement of involved parties, hence lessen their opportunities for earning income, thereby perpetuating poverty,” Abduraji recalled.
The Silangkan villagers agreed on a set of seemingly simple rules to keep the peace:
— Monitor people entering their community to guard against the intrusion of bandits.
— No public display of firearms to prevent unintended provocation.
— Organize households into clusters of 10 led by an elder to whom problems were first referred, and if unresolved, were elevated to the higher leadership layers—barangay officials or local police.
“These three basic rules are contained in a community covenant that the households signed,” Alama said.
With peace taking root, the displaced families returned. Soon government service came, like medical and dental missions. The village’s elementary and high schools were repaired.
The community’s peace infrastructure has been maintained. After every congregational prayer, people hold a community dialogue presided by the elders whereby issues and problems are openly discussed and resolved, said Alama.
“This makes the bond among villagers stronger,” he added.
Three years on, with peace in their midst, Silangkan folk are able to look forward to a more hopeful and promising future like developing the village’s ecotourism potentials.
Silangkan also hosts schoolchildren from at least three neighboring villages that have no schools.
“For its role in maintaining access to education, Silangkan is becoming a lighthouse for other areas,” Alama said.
Experiences like that of Silangkan are rich models for lessons on community policing “that hopefully can be mainstreamed and become the norm,” according to Kathline Tolosa of the Security Reform Initiative.
Pieter Cronje, consultant to the Bangsamoro Community Policing Project of the British Council, said that such an approach was fitting for postconflict situations.
“In the 21st century, you cannot conduct policing in a military manner,” Cronje emphasized.
The concept of community policing was developed more fully by the United Kingdom after riots rocked south London in 1981. It sought to address racial discrimination in the conduct of law-enforcement work.
Tolosa said that her group was hopeful the emerging approach to community policing in the future Bangsamoro would be a mix of international and local experiences.
To ensure a high degree of success, the policing approach that must be developed for the Bangsamoro should be “along the grain of local practices and culture,” said Nicholas Thomas, British Council country director for the Philippines.
Alama and Abduraji, who are in their early 30s, hope law and order issues in the province would be resolved by Sulu folk who know more about its solutions than anyone else.
For the long-standing and seemingly intractable problem of community conflicts in Sulu, it bodes well for the entire Bangsamoro that the innocence and fresh perspective of youth, if harnessed, can make a difference.
Read more: Rosauro, Ryan, “Nurturing a ‘peace-centered’ village in Sulu”, 16 June 2015, newsinfo.inquirer.net, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/698710/nurturing-a-peace-centered-village-in-sulu