Last October 15, feast day of Teresa of Avila, mystic and Doctor of the Church, the Ateneo de Davao held a multi-sectoral dialogue on the “Normalization of the Lumads in their Ancestral Homes”. In actuality, according to an observation of an Ateneo graduate who had attended that dialogue, it turned out to be a monologue since the “different” sectors that had turned up that day were really just representatives of one side: the State – the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police, Alamara paramilitary leaders disguised as tribal chieftains, and various government agencies such as the DSWD, NCIP, and others.
No one from the bakwit side had attended, and I asked one of the full-time volunteer support staff why this was so. In all fairness, he said, the Ateneo had given the bakwit leaders the dialogue program in advance, which was why they knew beforehand that the AFP was going to be there, hence their decision not to attend. The lumad leaders have all attended “dialogues” with the AFP and government representatives before to disappointing results, and besides (he added on a personal note), why would you call it “normalization”? They were already “normal” before the soldiers came and disrupted their lives. Then he went off to busy himself with preparations for the Manilakbayan; the clear message (from him at least) was that there were more urgent and productive tasks to be done.
I had initially hesitated from writing about the “dialogue” since I wasn’t able to attend myself (I had only heard about it after the fact). But then I realized that there were broader issues at hand beyond, but still linked to, dialogic processes, the role of an academic institution as venue, and the imperative to begin veering away from compromising engagements.
The lumad situation is certainly a current hot-button issue. The ferocity of attacks against their communities in the past few months have catapulted it to the national level, and it is positive that so many people wish to know more about their plight and what they can do about it. It is not unexpected that this drive can easily translate into a search for “truth”, which in turn is often interpreted as an “objective” search, one which hears “all sides”, preferably at a common time and on common ground, premised upon sincerity and equality. And it is here that “neutral” institutions such as universities step in, to present themselves as sacred ground for the free exchange of ideas, parliamentary rules applying, of course.
I have no doubt that individuals within these institutions can, and do, have good intentions, but having good intentions do not, and should not, immediately bind one to rigid notions of objectivity that effectively erases disparate power relations and structural inequalities.
This is the first major limitation of dialogue that purports to be neutral within a situation that obviously isn’t. Those in power are simply afforded another venue in which to present their case, never mind that they already have all the resources to do so at their disposal even without the offered academic space. This was the critique behind the protest that met Budget Secretary Butch Abad during the height of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) scandal, as well as the egg-throwing incident directed at former AFP head Hermogenes Esperon, who had been linked to the disappearance of UP students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan, both of which took place in UP Diliman.
Even the Church recognizes that claims of neutrality must bend before the giving of preferential option for the poor, and that such a “partisan” stance is indeed the duty of Christians, as they have repeatedly been enjoined by Pope Francis himself.
But, some may protest, we need to gather facts in order to discern. This is why activities like this are needed, and that the bakwit side had missed this opportunity to represent themselves.
But who says that the bakwit lumads are naive about their enemies (are not ‘gathering facts’) or that they are not maximizing varied avenues for engagement? What if the proper question to ask is whether or not all calls for engagements are really to be responded to.
Those with genuine thirst for understanding the lumads will also immediately see that they can always take up the challenge of seeking out the lumads themselves and dialogue with them. These lumad have been tireless in inviting visits in order to drum up support for their cause, and under what better conditions can one hear their stories than in the place they call ilihan or sanctuary, without the atmospheric threat of uniformed men in their midst?
And besides, the endless calls for information gathering have begun to be less a basis for principled action than to be an end by itself, neatly fitting into an academistic framework bent on trying to simply ‘fill-in the gaps in knowledge’. As Matigsalug leader Bai Bibiaon Bigkay had advised before (and of which I had written of elsewhere [Bai Part II]): Never mind if you do not have full knowledge of things, as long as you make a firm stand. Because most of the time, this impossible desire to ‘complete our database’ has simply become an excuse—the academe’s indicative bad faith—for not making a stand of authentic courage.
At the end of the day, it seems that it is the bakwit lumads themselves that have taken the most politically astute position in their non-participation in that particular dialogue. As the two militant philosophers Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou say, there are situations wherein the right option is: “Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly… It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.”
If the bakwit leaders had come to that dialogue, then they would have been a party to the making of that ‘list of recommendations’ resulting from it that include, one, “popularizing” the IPRA Law and, two, “strengthening” the NCIP – both institutions that they have been actively critiquing and even calling for their abolition and replacement with more pro-people versions. Moreover, they would have been party to the ominous-sounding “strengthen the tribal defense system”, a word grouping that hearkens to the AFP-backed paramilitary groups that have been accused themselves to be responsible for killings, school closure, and other acts of violence in lumad communities. (Other resolutions include affirming the defense of ancestral domain and resuming the peace talks, calls which the besieged lumads have, from beginning, consistently made.)
As doors are held open for agents of the State, as (only) genial exchanges are made safe, inarguable resolutions codified, days that the lumad evacuees spend away from their true homes continue to pass.
Knowledge and dialogue are not bad things, but they must be fueled with the love that makes one unafraid to stand for our collective selves, which include standing for others. As Teresa of Avila said: The important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so do that which best stirs you to love.