The Southern Philippines has seen protracted conflict stemming from religious and ethnic tension for over five decades. As a young person living in Mindanao, Primitivo III Cabanes Ragandang reflects on the challenges of joining the peacebuilding process.
From a family of seven, I have lived in Mindanao my whole life.
My father is a factory truck driver while my mother is a housekeeper. In order to be closer to school, I left home at the young age of seven to live with my aunt. With no running water, no permanent electricity, muddy roads, and scarcity of food on the table, life in Mindanao always seemed normal to me. After all, I didn’t have any point of comparison. My childhood in Mindanao was filled with laughter and joy shared with my classmates and neighbours.
When my aunt bought a new TV, I started to see news about the conflict in our neighbouring areas. I had no idea what the cause of the conflicts was then. All my mother told us was, “do not go to the river alone; because Muslims will kidnap you and make your body into corned beef.”
Growing up, I learned that the conflict in Mindanao is not simply black and white. It has century-old roots. Roots which are not always linear.
I learned that the complexity of the Mindanao problem has resulted in the loss of lives, damaged schools, and has translated into scarce opportunities for youth. Being a young person from a conflict area is a hard thing. You have no choice but to accept it and continue on with life.
When I went to university, I made Muslim friends. Sharing with them my story on “corned beef,” I was surprised to learn that their mums would also warn them not to wander anywhere, otherwise Christians would kidnap them.
Cultural biases and prejudices have aggravated this century-old conflict. Even now, you can still hear these stories of bias and prejudice.
In the midst of conflict, young Mindanaoans, both Muslims and Christians, have been proactive in contributing to peacebuilding efforts in the region. In the growing number of youth-led organizations in Mindanao, you can see an emerging pattern of young people who are willing to contribute to peacebuilding in the best way they can.
The mushrooming presence of youth-led peacebuilding organisations ranges from peace education initiatives, humanitarian responses, to arts-based approaches of increasing empathetic behavior to address violence. In the past ten years of peacebuilding work across Mindanao regions, I have experienced how vibrant the energy of young Mindanaoans is to go the extra mile if only to contribute to community peacebuilding.
Unfortunately, this strong and vibrant desire is blocked by at least three serious obstacles.
First, young people’s desire to be peacebuilders is not accompanied by the necessary skills to sustain their efforts. Stories of youth-led organisations reveal how, like mushrooms, they appear and later disappear. Such disappearance, I would strongly argue, is not caused by the loss of the desire and burning passion of young Mindanaoans. It is the lack of skills in sustaining such initiatives that lead to their discontinuation.
Second, we are not taken seriously by our adult counterparts.
While we are inspired by the presence of many predecessors in the peacebuilding arena, in most cases young peacebuilders are treated as immature. I can remember while visiting schools in Mindanao for my arts-based peacebuilding initiatives, one school official laughed at me when I presented to them the arts-based curriculum we had developed for students pre-K-12. It was disheartening.
As a young peacebuilder, I actually stopped and asked myself, “am I doing the right thing or heading in the wrong direction?”
At the time of writing this piece, at least 40 youth-led organizations are now working across Mindanao. Some of them on humanitarian relief assistance, some are conceptualizing their online platform for positive messaging, while there are some holding mini-seminars on interreligious dialogue.
While doing my PhD here in Australia, enjoying the comfortable perks of being a scholar of the Australian government, my heart goes out to my fellow peacebuilders in Mindanao, and to all young peacebuilders in conflict and post-conflict areas. I share with them all their struggles, heartaches, and disappointments. It is a difficult process of growing up when your desire to help the community is blocked by your personal need to survive.
The Filipino government needs to support young people’s burning passion for community engagement and to reposition, if not develop, platforms that can sustainably support youth initiatives. Only by bridging the gap between the youths who desire to help and these platforms, can we remove the obstacles that Mindanao faces.