How I became a social activist

“I believe in peace processes and that we must work for a peaceful settlement of all conflicts in this country”

In this and in the next two columns, I will share excerpts of my commencement speech to the graduates of the Ateneo School of Government last December 18, 2022.

The speech is titled “Imperatives of a happy life: stories, virtues, and gestures” where I share stories from a life of six decades of engagement with many big causes and issues of the world.

From these stories, starting when I was 15 years old to just a few months ago when I nearly died in the hospital from blood loss due to an operation that was supposed to be minor and not life-threatening, I will extract virtues and gestures that I consider imperatives of a happy and meaningful life.

In 1974, I was a high school student in Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan. I was an OK student, not particularly outstanding, certainly not an honors student, not even a leader.

But then something happened that year – the great war between the central government in Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front.

My home city of Cagayan de Oro became a critical area for both our military and for the rebels and for people directly affected by the war, not a battleground but a place for rest and recreation and a place where evacuees congregated to escape conflict.

I noticed that many of our graduates are from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police. You would know the dynamics when war happens and people are uprooted from their homes. Many lose everything. Life becomes uncertain. Many questions are asked.

In 1975, as I entered senior year of high school, I immersed myself in activities to help refugees – feeding and providing relief goods, helping young children with their disrupted education, and sadly helping bury those who died in the refugee camps.

War made me a leader, gave me a calling and mission.

I began asking serious questions about our island, Mindanao, and our country and world. Why was this war happening at all? Why could people be so violent? Who was at fault? What can we do to stop this?

I asked hard questions about the Marcos regime, about martial law.

I read pre-martial law magazines Iike the Free Press and Graphic. I got access to underground publications exposing the truth about the dictatorship that had taken over the country.

At 15 years old, I became a social activist and said yes to a mission to build another world, a better world.

48 years later, I have kept that activist perspective and have tried to be faithful to that mission.

I protest the poverty of our people, the inequality and social injustice in our society, and the corruption that continues to the core of government and the private sector.

I am a human rights lawyer, an indigenous peoples’ and especially a Lumad advocate, and a climate and environmental justice champion.

It does not matter that I am red-tagged for this.

A former undersecretary and spokesperson of the NTF-ELCAC has even accused me of being a member of the central committee of the CPP-NPA.

Having worked for almost all our post-EDSA presidents, a consultant of several senators and government agencies, and a professor of dozens of military and police officials here in ASOG (Ateneo School of Government) and in many law schools as well as many government officials of all levels, that would be an absurd accusation.

Co-founding the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, the leading environmental justice organization of the country, and the Samdhana Institute, that gathers activists and scholars in Southeast Asia for the social and environmental renewal of our region, are two accomplishments I would always be proud of.

As a teacher, I challenge my students, and that include many of you, to see our society, government, and politics for what it is, with all its structural defects and failures.

But protest is not enough.

The war in Mindanao and the martial law experience opened my eyes yes, but it also encouraged me to understand the roots of our dysfunctional society and to find solutions to overcome them.

Years later I would be appointed by several presidents in the government peace panels that negotiated with the MNLF as well as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Through the years, I also assisted in our negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, for example, in drafting the government version of the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms or CASER in the latest round of peace talks which President Duterte eventually abandoned.

I believe in peace processes and that we must work for a peaceful settlement of all conflicts in this country.

That was my takeaway in working for our only president with a military background, Fidel V. Ramos.


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