The Respect Principle -Fertile or Corrosive- Key to Peace in Mindanao

This article explores the idea of the respect principle which if understood -in policy and development practice- would have major impact for peace in Mindanao.  Short-term justice must look towards long-term flourishing. Nine months ago, I did research titled “Flourishing Amid Conflict” in Mindanao. Within this research, I worked with Yakan (residents of Basilan Island with a majority of Yakans identifying as Muslim by birth and choice). They defined what they viewed as the good life.

The participants explained how respect guided their lives. The respect principle emerged from this research. Issues of respect highlighted in stories reflect larger issues within Mindanao. Respect is both fertile and corrosive. Respect is fertile, and if accessed, it has a strong ability increases other parts of people’s lives. Disrespect is corrosive. If accessed, it has a strong ability to decrease other parts of people’s lives. Institutions –and people that run them- need to protect and strengthen people’s ability to respect.

One man (30-49 years old) simply stated,

“Respect your leader. At the same time, the leader must also respect you.”

Participants often applied the respect principle with the Government (military) and the Yakan. One farmer (30-49 years old) stated, “There are a lot of people who are disobedient [who do not obey the law] because the leader is not managing his constituents very well.” The cycles below show how respect is reciprocal.

Yakans Perceive Low Levels of Respect from the Government

Alarmingly participants felt the government did not respect them as other Filipino citizens. Using the respect principle we can see how vital it is to receive respect. If people are disrespected, it is likely that some within the group will disrespect in return.

When asked:

How much do most people in the national government respect people who are Yakan? (High respect being they see them as any other Filipino citizen; no respect as they do not consider them citizens at all.)

A low percentage of respondents (11%) surveyed reported feeling the government has a high-level of respect for people who are Yakan (high respect being the same as any other Filipino). Of the respondents, 42%, reported medium respect; 40%, a low-level of respect; and 7%, no respect.

The following narratives show how respect has been realized or denied from participants’ perspectives. The micro reflects the macro. People run institutions. Justice is not strengthened primarily through strengthening institutions, rather institutions serve the purpose of strengthening people.

Narrative 1: Corrosive Cycle: Lack of Respect During Conflict (figure 3)

Because of Mistaken Identity Yakan participants felt they were disrespected by the military. This research overlapped with the September 2013, Zamboanga City conflict.

A critical need, reported the study participants, is for military to respect show respect to the Yakan people. Many Yakan struggle with military personnel because they are not from the Yakan tribe. “One factor for that is the war,” says a male participant in the 30–49 age group. “Even not in war, because, now, most of the military do not belong to Yakan tribe. Most of them were from Luzon and Visayas, and what the people are referring there by government is the military, because military during the war burn the houses and they even hurt the people.”This same participant explains:

“Military was not able to recognize who the civilians are and who are not, because people dressed the same way. That is the negative impact of the military. People thought that they [the military] just kill anyone, regardless of all.”

The military’s indiscriminate actions have historically been an issue, one that continues. “This still happens,” reports the participant. “Even the war here in Zamboanga—the one who caused mostly the damages here were the military.” The man went onto points out “That is why they [Yakan] don’t want to become soldiers, because they might just fight with their own tribe.”

Narrative 2: Fertile Cycle: Respect Local, Traditional and Religious Leadership (figure 4)

Respecting the local leadership structure is essential. Using an example about asking permission from key leaders, a male respondent (in the 30–49 age group) explained that respect builds on respect.

“One of the ways to show respect is by identifying the leader or the key person…. If I will go to a place and if I will not talk to the barangay chairman, then it seems like I intruded. But if you will talk to a leader, nobody will harm you. Even when I went to Landugan, it’s a Christian area, but I was not harmed by anyone, even if I am a Muslim.”

Key to the first step toward showing respect for others is to show respect for the local leaders. It is critical, though, to identify the leaders to avoid harm and build respect.

The respondent offered another example about respect among people engaged in military maneuvers. “Just like the military, if they will just ask to the rebels and to the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front], they will be having no problem; they can just enter safely…. Even if they are foreigners, they are still welcome. Like in the case of Cotabato, anyone can enter in their camp, as long as there is a coordination.” This example suggests that, if one party shows respect to another by working through the proper channels, no problems will result. If a person respects the local leadership, the leadership will offer protection from harm.

Narrative 3: Fertile Cycle: Respect Through Education and Governance (figure 5)

After 1984, the MNLF surrender in Basilan, Gerry Salapuddin became the governor, and eventually congressman. Stories about his leadership reflect how respect leads to respect. A Yakan had not held Government leadership in Basilan before Gerry. One participant stated, “When Gerry surrendered, he became the governor—the congressman until now. Yakans are still the ones ruling the province.”

Another man said, “I found contentment when Gerry surrendered.” His statement connects the MNLF movement in Basilan to Salapuddin, and, thus, he credits the privileges resulting from the surrender to Salapuddin. He added,

“Basilan became peaceful, because there were a lot of people who became professionals. Some became teachers, doctors. Then all Yakan people united.”

Another college student stated, “In Gerry’s time, people visit his office almost every day. People ask help from him, ask for the things they need. He helped the people in other way—that, instead of giving money, he gives education. That is his agreement with the people.”— “Education starts only in the time of Gerry.”

The unbroken comb and flourishing

More than 120,000 people have been killed during the forty years that conflict has been happening in Mindanao. Eye-for-an-eye justice will not lead to flourishing. Rather, it will lead to a continued cycle. As the peace process continues, as the case of the Mamasapano clash is brought to justice, the ultimate goal must be leading to people flourishing. Respect –placed in the center of policy and practice- is vital. As one Yakan woman told me while we were discussing human rights,

“it is like what the Prophet Muhammad said, people are like the teeth of a comb, society does not function –fully- unless all teeth are equally unbroken.”

Note: Dr. Matthew S. Will has over a decade of experience living and working in South East Asia and the Pacific. Other articles about Peace and Development in Mindanao include Mistaken Identity and the Discourse of Terror, “If Peace is missing we can’t do anything but hide”: Peace a Priority in Mindanao and A Tipping Point in Terror: “Those who Tell the Stories Rule Society”. These articles reflect the use of The Model Flourishing.

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