Young Advocates Use Art to Promote Peace in Southern Philippines
February 17, 2016
Late last month, a group of young peace advocates sponsored “Piece of Peace,” or POP, an art contest at a public elementary school in the town of Patikul in Sulu, Southern Philippines.
The event attracted young artists from the area who showcased their talents in mural, soil, and tire painting, poster design, and photography to promote messages of peace and unity.
For Sulu residents – who have endured violent, bloody conflict and poverty for decades – the mood was exciting, but tense. The morning of the contest, just 300 meters from Mudjunon Elementary, two soldiers from the Philippine Army were shot at close range by suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). One soldier survived, while the other was killed on the spot. The perpetrator got away.
The incident is symptomatic of the security risks that envelope the whole town on a regular basis. Recent sources of conflict are directly attached to the fateful days of Feb. 7-8, 1974, when the nearby capital town of Jolo was razed by fire due to the continuous land, air, and sea bombardments by the Armed Forces of the Philippines who were fighting off the forces from the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, which the ASG broke away from in the 1990s). This incident resulted in the displacement and death of thousands of Muslims and Christians, thereby altering the socio-political fabric of Sulu. Since then, the discontent of the MNLF has continued and violent episodes between the military and the MNLF still remain.
On Oct. 10, 1977, a high-ranking official of the Philippine Army, BGen Teodulfo Bautista, four Army colonels, and 29 other soldiers, were killed in Patikul’s public market. Now known as the “Patikul massacre,” it is reported that an MNLF commander, Usman Sali, lured Bautista into a “peace dialogue” in the town’s public market. The soldiers, who came unarmed, were greeted by about 150 MNLF troops who opened fire. More than three decades after this incident, the slain general’s son, LtGen Emmanuel Bautista, became the chief of staff of the Armed Forces in 2013. Driven by the tragic death of his father, he became an active peace advocate, supported the implementation of the Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) known as the Oplan Bayanihan, which is led by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and focuses on peacebuilding through multi-stakeholder engagement and promotion of human rights.
In 1991, Sulu saw a different facet of conflict and violence as the ASG broke away from the MNLF. While it initially fought for an independent Islamic nation, it is now branded as a terrorist group with members resorting to banditry and criminality, especially kidnap-for-ransom. Today ASG members, especially the younger ones, have become bolder, planting IED bombs and targeting the military and police in Sulu. Their strongholds are reported to be located in Indanan and Patikul, whose open seas and mountainous terrain provide a safe haven. Although its armed strength fell after the capture of ASG members by the government in 2006, ASG has professed ties with other regional terror organizations such as Jemaah Islamiya and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL). Military forces, through the Joint Task Group Sulu, have continued to increase their presence in the area and conduct focused military operations.
This insecurity is what the people, including the youth, have grown accustomed to in Patikul. The deafening sounds of helicopters and flaring mortar shells have become normal. While an event like POP Art, now in its fourth year, may seem like a soft approach to a hard issue that confronts Patikul, it is in fact a valuable, and until now missing, way for young artists to promote moderation and peace, show their dissent from injustices and violence, both physical and structural, and claim their quest for a just socio-political order. The transformative capacity of their arts may be difficult to gauge at this time, but what is important is that this new generation has set it in motion. The quest continues.
Nadine S. Ragonjan is a senior program coordinator for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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