Entries in Peacemaking (6)

Sunday
Nov102013

Pork Barrels and Poverty, Election-day Violence and a Typhoon on the Way

The three boys are all wearing the t-shirts of their barangay’s Brigades and they have volunteered, been trained as, ‘watchers’.  Elections of neighbourhood councillors and captains are taking place across the country today and the atmosphere, aided by a national holiday, is festive.  Schools are given over to polling stations and teachers to the tasks of poll captains and the Philippine version of returning officers.  People don’t just vote and go home:  they hang out.  Vendors of street sweets keep the fed while children run and jump and play in and amongst the clutches of adults discussing potential results.

The polls will close at 3:00, the counting done by 6:00 p.m. with winning candidates’ celebrations following.  Voters are provided in classrooms with the list of two or three dozen names of those contesting seven council seats and the position of barangay captain.  On a separate piece of paper, they write their choices, copying from the list provided.  The left thumb is inked and pressed onto the ballot to validate the voter’s identity.  The ballot is then torn in two, with the names and the thumbprints going into separate slots in a large box.  The last stop in the process is more ink, this time purple, into which the right index finger is dipped.  It will be two weeks, I am told by women not necessarily happy to have their manicures marred for so long, before it finally disappears.

I am also watching, trailing around behind one of the candidates as he chats with his neighbours, shakes hands with the squatter-entrepreneurs that energise Veteran’s Village.  We are invited to taste Bing Bing Alavanzas’ simmering pork and green banana estafado, today’s feature item on the menu.  Two wooden tables and a few plastic chairs are seated with a few early customers.  Lines of laundry hang across the street above large blue and red and orange buckets of wash- and rinse-water that has been drawn from open wells.  Edwin, the cobbler, also fixes umbrellas.  Edrie himself runs a little store out of the front room of their house. 

Prayers were offered in church yesterday – ‘that there be no killings’.  These elections are taking place in a context of failed peace talks – sparking bombings and renewed clashes between the Philippine army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, rising violence and protest in the face of environmental destruction by foreign and domestic dam-builders and resource extractors and daily revelations of multi-billion-peso pork barrelling in a country of dynastic and movie-star politics, all of it swelling the ranks of both NGOs and the New People’s Army.  Earthquakes, mudslides and typhoons add to the death toll and a growing sense of either national calamity or hope for change.

I ask the three young men just what they’re watching for.  ‘We help people find their names on the lists’ – a worthy project I am thinking as I note people wandering from one list of names to the next to find their own and mark down their voter number to take into the classroom-polling stations.  ‘Also vote-buying,’ says another.  ‘What would that look like?’ I ask.  One of them is the son of a former barangay councillor who was supplementing his meagre income with drug sales and distribution, now in prison.  ‘We watch how people approach one another, their faces, their posture. We watch to see if they try to sneak something to someone, hand them something.  It might be money; it might be a two-kilo bag of rice.  Doesn’t matter; it’s vote-buying.’  

Forty percent of the voters have already been approached and are in no need of further incentive, their votes already bought and paid-for.  The candidates’ volunteers work for election-day food.  The ubiquitous street signs urging people to be honest, not lie, to set aside the temptation to corruption rust and fall over in the first strong wind of yet one more multi-billion-peso report of breath-taking national, regional and local thievery of the commons.   Corruption at the top fuelled by grasping greed is echoed at this level in ways that are both mimetic and desperate.  

Bing Bing Alavanzas, an unlikely, I am thinking, conscript to corruption, lives in squatter housing and runs a squatter restaurant; she is also a candidate for kagawad or Council.  She invites me to the celebration that she is certain is going to happen this evening. 

I awaken to newspaper headlines of election-day massacres and fraud and the latest chapter in the money laundering scandal that threatens to reach into the office of the president. 

At lunch my attention is drawn to the restaurant flat-screen television and its flashing images of young people, dancing, singing (or lip-synching, not sure which), competing for baubles.  This country’s making-up-for-lost-time dash towards ‘modernisation’ is marked by vacuous entertainment that numbs the mind and corporate rapaciousness that is filling these poured-cement cities with vehicles making them every day less breathable, vacuuming up every last drop of clean water for re-selling back to its original owners for a profit, turning the waters that flow from these mountains to the sea into cesspools of agricultural, household and human waste, extracting minerals, building dams, stripping the land of trees, exhausting it and scorching it, sending its ‘export quality’ products – including its women – to countries like mine for our entitled usage.   Ostentatious dynastic wealth exists cheek by jowl with the most precarious of lives and housing, perhaps most obvious in the bamboo squatter housing precariously constructed out from the banks of the Jaro River a stone’s throw from SM City, one of the jewels in the Sy family holdings.  

And a typhoon is on its way… 

Monday
Oct212013

Conflict as Communal Violence; Conflict as Gift

In this, my first time in India since I spent part of a term here during post-graduate coursework 26 years ago, I am working in Assam with five tribal groups in conflict, part of a persistent pattern of apparently intractable violence.  In 2004, as then-staff of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, I attempted to join other colleagues who had been working with members of Naga insurgency movements in their struggle for intra-Naga reconciliation - but visas for that part of the country were hard to come by then.  What follows is the first of several reflections on our work together.

The photographs are graphic.  Four young men are stretched out on cots, the hair of each matted in blood, their heads resting in blackening pools against white sheets. They are Bodo youths, brutally ‘hacked to death’, says Upendra Narjinary (a pseudonym), by Bengali-speaking Muslim ‘miscreants’.  Their July 2012 killings sparked multiple clashes in Kokrajhar District of Assam, escalating from village to village and resulting in almost one hundred people killed, 400,000 displaced, entire villages razed to the ground, with echoes as far away as Mumbai, with violent protests against what was seen as anti-Muslim hatred.  Tens of thousands remain in 238 squalid camps, despite high-profile visits a year ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, high level government ministers, Bharatiya Janata and Congress party leaders, L.K. Advani and Sonia Gandhi, respectively.

While the Bodos feel the threat of the loss of their land to what they see as illegal migration across porous borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh, the Bengali-speaking Muslims are claiming their heritage as pre-partition citizens and refuting accusations of lynching, arson and forced displacement - pointing to a 'third party force', the shadowy RSS and its various agents and lackeys, as instigators and beneficiaries of ongoing inter-tribal violence.  But they're not here to speak their piece.
***
While one Muslim had signalled his intention to come to this training in ‘Conflict Transformation and Peace-building in North East India’, he does not show.  Perhaps just as well. His voice would have been lost in these presentations qualified late in the training by one of the seminary prof participants as 'one-sided'. This is now an all-Christian group and an all-tribal group.  Not only that, it is an all-male group. 

The group divides into pairs, each with someone they do not know or know well.  Over the next several minutes, they listen to one another talking about themselves, where they’re from, their tribe – and something they enjoy doing that isn’t work - in preparation to introduce the other.  To much hilarity, they then take up paper and magic marker to draw a picture of the other – with their non-dominant hand.  Introductions take awhile as the men wade into these waters of experiential learning, laughing, suffering the correction of their indignant partner, adding details, adding credentials, that seem important in this room of belligerent parties. 

‘So why did we do it this way?’ asks the trainer.  ‘Wouldn’t it be easier just to introduce ourselves? ‘

‘We had to sit with a stranger.  Maybe even our enemy,’ ventures one brave soul.

‘We had to listen. And sometimes we didn’t get it right!’  More laughter. 

And what about the laughter?  What does it do to us, to our bodies; did you notice? 
***
Another resource person come to offer his views, speaks of the ‘non-existent’ conflict between the Rengma Nagas of Karabi Anglong and what he calls the ‘down-trodden, poverty-stricken, confused’ Karbis.  Though the Rengmas have been agitating for their own district in Nagaland and the Karbis have received a fraction of the funds from Delhi needed to provide the most basic of infrastructure, health care and education and both have formed insurgency movements to protect their land ‘from time immemorial’, our speaker focusses more on the impact of ‘mind control’ and manipulation on the part of poorly-paid journalists subject to persuasion from - a ‘third party’ force. 

In June the press reported that the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers had issued an ultimatum to the Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force, demanding that they surrender, handing over all arms and ammunition by 6 July and agreeing to support the former’s demands for statehood.  The result was fear-filled flight into relief camps.  In the meantime, the federal government has begun to convert a 1600-kilometre strip of Karbi Anglong land into tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and elephant corridors.  Delhi has not sought free, prior and informed consent and thousands of villages are watching initial waves of relocation from traditional territory. 
***
Emzara was carved in the Philippines, but I have given her a North African name, meaning Mother of Life.   She is kneeling, weeping, praying – and she is expecting.  I introduce her to this group of 35 men:  she is you; you are Emzara.  You are pregnant.  With my hands I describe a round, protruding belly and affect a late-term waddle around the circle, making eye contact as I go.  Looks are exchanged across the circle; some nervous giggles.  You are pregnant; I am just your midwife.  What issues from this belongs to you; the DNA is yours, not mine.  Yes, I have an important role to play in helping us to create the space to do risky things, space in which labour can happen. But the child is yours because the labour has been yours, the wisdom gestating for a very long time.

Though I think I have done my homework for this, my second trip to India after 26 years (the first time during my MDiv coursework), I am struggling to keep up with the acronyms, the political and legal structures that were meant to be a boon to this excluded, ignored-by-the-Raj part of India, the overlapping narratives of ethnic-based struggles for rights, for services, for land, for representation, for a voice, for power. 

Phengpiga is particularly intrigued by Emzara, placing her on the floor in order to get a good photo of her.  He is Rengma. Brilliantly articulate, he is willing to take risks, to volunteer, to role-play way outside his comfort zone, to volunteer - in a culture where to do so is regarded as self-promotion and arrogance. 
***
The Garos and the Rhabas occupy both sides of the Assam-Megalaya border. The Rabhas of Assam are politically organised under the 1952 Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – which accords limited autonomy to the hill tribes of the North East.  Each scheduled tribe is then granted political power through the creation of Autonomous District Councils.  The Rabhas of Megalaya, however, do not have such status and have been agitating for change, frequently calling for bandh – a much-feared form of political protest, the greatest brunt of which is borne by transit workers, small business owners and shopkeepers who are expected, like everyone else, to withdraw their services in response to the call, to stay at home.  Recent bandhs have often turned violent as organisers set opposing tribes’ businesses on fire, stoned non-compliant workers or faced phalanxes of police.  The Garos have opposed the Rhabas’ demands at least partly because of their methods, with blockades cutting off Garos from Garos.
***
What is conflict?  What words come to mind when you think of the word, ‘conflict’?  The words fly across the circle:  Hatred.  Anger.  Misunderstanding.  Fighting.  Damage.  Isolated.  Mistrust.  War.  Violence. Enemies. What do these words all have in common?  The answer comes quickly:   They are all negative.  But isn’t conflict more than that?  An indicator of something that needs addressing, a wrong in need of righting, an opportunity, a gift.  It invites us into curiosity – to wonder why; compassion – to ask the question; courage to hear the answer.  It invites us into self- and other-awareness, into the possibility for transformative relationships.  It invites us onto Holy Ground. 

There is a dialectic going on in here, a flow, an ebb and flow - at one moment, the room seems stricken with griefs and grievances; faces manifest the impact of the charge or insult, no matter how gently lobbed; at the next, the seating arrangements to which they keep returning for safety and the distance they represent dissolve into the single Mongolian village they also understand themselves to be. 

Later, out on the basketball court, they line up along one edge, 18 on each team, strategising for the 'ankle walk':  all eighteen will move across the court to the other side, their ankles touching that of their neighbours at all times! The mid-morning sun is blocked by the boys' hostel, leaving the court in merciful shade. Their plans in place, a few practice runs attempted, they return to their line.  One, two, three:  Go!  Eighteen men each, their arms linked over the shoulders of the one next to them, concentrating, laughing - and team one gets sent back to the starting line:  some ankles became disconnected!  Team two is making steady progress across the court - and using a novel method:  with Panger calling out one, two, three, four, five... at even intervals, all 18 men are jumping in tandem, somehow keeping ankles together across divergent heights, weights and ages!  A shout goes up!  They have won. More dissolving happening, fluid, yielding to their common humanity.

Monday
Sep302013

II. The Other Congo

I walk across the dry-season ‘green’ far from the teeming, choking, rambunctious chaos of million-strong Pointe Noire, my attention drawn to the towering flames of gas flares that are turning large sections of the skies into pulsating, bleeding wounds and the air, closer to the site, a thick soup of chemical détritus. Not the gas flare I describe in the text...

The price of jobs
Curiosity drove me earlier this week to get a closer look – and feel and touch.  Even from a distance of many metres, its infernality stuns:  a loud, roiling torch of searing heat that bends the air and scorches greens into anaemic yellows and burnt browns, corroding the metal of the sign warning locals away.  The fruit of nearby trees, pushed out hopefully in a brief season of respite from flaring, are now bloated and grey, hanging like the breasts of an old woman, or fallen to the ground. 

Supporting rows of inward-inclined concertina wire, the frame of the fence that surrounds the fireball is incongruously and amusingly empty of chain link. Their eyes shaded by bent-over versions of their usual colourful headgear, women hang laundry and lay out racks of manioc root to dry – under the occasionally watchful eye of a pair of young security guards bent over a game of dominoes. 

I cannot help but think of Wiebo Ludwig, leader of the Christian Community known as Trickle Creek, not far from Hythe, Alberta.  Trickle Creek is located in an area of heavy sour gas extraction - natural gas, whether sweet or sour, being the by-product of the release of crude oil and bitumen.  It is disposed of when regarded as uneconomic to capture, ship and sell. That 'disposal' is known as flaring.

Wiebo fought Alberta's big oil and gas companies, earning both kudos and curses, claiming what has always been known to be true:  the results of flaring are toxic, poisonous to ground water, air and soil.  Around the world, recovery or capture for shipping is declining, from Alberta - where capture now stands at 94.5% to other, developing parts of the world where it's never or rarely done.  

Here, for many, it is seen as the norm, the price of jobs. Approximately one-fourth of all natural glass is flared off; the remainder is increasingly being 'reinjected', producing steam for tar sands extraction. Sounding just like home!  Flares from the recently-developed Moho-Bilondo ultra-deepwater oil fields - situated 70 km out from Pointe Noire in depths of 600-900 metres - can be easily seen from the unswimmable, dead fish-littered beaches.    

The Other Congo
This is the other Congo, the little one, tucked between Gabon, Cameroun, the Central African Republic and the much larger DRC – the latter provocatively adding the d-word to the name of a country that is anything but, better known as the land of Mobutu and Kabila, of the aborted dream of Lumumba, Kurtz’ heart of darkness, and the private corporation of a brutal Belgian king named Leopold. Though at a kind of peace for 15 years, this little Congo, French Congo, plays out, if at a lower intensity, many of the same themes as its neighbour.

À la fois seductive and foul, hope- and despair-inducing, relentlessly brown and brilliantly polychromatic, this country dodges its own narrative.  Here in this out-of-the-way place, the young people tell a sanitised history of their nation, wanting to impress, wanting to forget, taught well by their revisionist teachers.  

Still, the stories surface, told by the older adults with us who are determined not to forget: the stories of colonial brutality followed by an independence soon marked by a series of violent coups, assassinations and tribal struggles for power; stories of a flawed socialism replaced by an even more flawed darwinian capitalism; the impoverished class stories of child barter trumped by the upper class stories of fathers trafficking in the concubinage of their daughters – the one explained by indigence-driven desperation, the other by norms that render women objects; stories of Congolese co-operation in their own rape and pillage.

Local and national collaboration with foreign transnationals in the plundering of this nation struggling to make its way leaves the countryside and the Congolese majority devastated, scorched.  The pipeline that goes by our door originates in Bongi, perhaps a thousand kilometres from here to the north-east. Once an agricultural community, the people who live there can no longer farm because the ground, air and water are now contaminated:  as one told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if the company be domestic and foreign; they keep the profits, leave the people impoverished and without clean air, water and land.  We are destroyed.’  

Part III:  A Global Theme
Part IV:  Signs of Wonder

 

Thursday
Oct112012

Ankle Walks and Village Games: Postcard #3 from the Philippines

1 October, Part II The site of the training is a short tuk-tuk ride from the pension house. It becomes clear as we begin that there is a diversity of languages in the room. We spend some time trying to figure out which – Tagalog, Ilonggo, Cebuano or Subanon – is common to all. Even the young Subanon women can get by with Cebuano, so that’s what we go with. Faustino, a veteran of our 2009 training and a Subanon pastor, is pressed into translating. Entire days are spent in economic literacy training, interrogating all of the proffered justifications for violence or conflict – tribe, religion, history, culture, politics; though all are factors and drive violence, it is economics we discover at the root of all the stories.

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Tuesday
Oct092012

Return to Mindanao: Postcard #2

The rain is pouring down, obscuring the passing landscape. Our minibus roars its way first along the coastal road, where sunshine earlier displayed the waters of the Sulu Sea and the modest Nipa leaf-thatch-and-bamboo-slat huts of fisher families. I think of their Sri Lankan neighbours whose homes, of undoubtedly similar construction, and livelihoods and, for tens of thousands, their lives, were washed away with the tsunami of Christmas 2004. Now we are climbing, wending our way through a wet green landscape of palms, bamboo forests and rice paddies in various stages on the way to harvest, punctuated occasionally by the large brown-black hulk of a carabao, the bovine workhorse of this part of the world. The driver reduces speed but ramps up the horn-honking as we pass through village after village of colourful houses, shops, tuk-tuks, flapping clotheslines and uniformed school-children caught in the downpour.

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