Having lived my whole life in Metro Manila, I am filled with excitement when I learn that I will be sent to Mindanao for coverage. I am to join a visit to a government program intended to improve the lives of those living in the far-flung areas of the country. In this case, the beneficiaries are indigenous peoples, the lumad.
The visiting group includes government officials led by Education Secretary Armin Luistro. There are ranking military officials, employees of various government agencies, and selected members of the media. After a two-hour ride in a C-130 from Manila, we land at an airport in Caraga (Region XIII). Then we hop onto another aerial experience aboard a Huey, a military chopper with machine guns fitted on both sides. It is the fastest means to get to our target destination in Barangay Kalipay in Gingoog, Misamis Oriental.
Mindanao is a sight to behold. It is hard for me to believe that it is the same place in which bombings and killings are often reported. The noise of the chopper’s rotor blades fails to spoil the scenery down below—deep green forested mountains in stark contrast with a dark blue sea.
Arriving at Gingoog gives me a glimpse of how remoteness can be assuring and disheartening at the same time. While its residents are away from the pollution and the stress brought about by industrialization, they are also away from any signs of development. I cannot help but feel sorry for the families who lost the geographical lottery: Here they are, situated far away from the country’s capital, where the level of modernization has driven some residents to scoff at the sight of yet again another road construction, or another demolition of a building to give way to a new one. Yet here in Barangay Kalipay—roughly meaning Village of Happiness, I am told—a small school stands by its lonesome.
Despite the circumstances, despite the vivid images of penury in the mud-caked shoes of a visitor like me, despite every visit to a lavatory that must be conducted with great caution, my cynicism, my shallow judgment of the people surrounding me—all the negativity—wane after listening to some lumad tell their stories. I am convinced that I may not be able to believe it if I did not see it for myself: that Mindanao is not all shrapnel and rat-infested farms. Mindanao, in its old traditions and glory, is beautiful. Its people can look at life in brighter hues, and can lift themselves from the downtrodden path we have unconsciously set for them after years of neglect.
Take the story of David Sin-ingan Jr., for example. David’s father, who was a datu in their community, was killed by communist rebels for helping his fellow Higaonon learn how to think for themselves. David’s father was a teacher. It was in 2006—in Santiago, Surigao del Norte, David says in Filipino. He recalls every detail as though it did not happen 10 years ago. His father was left hanging from a tree—binitay sa kahoy—the body marked by deep torture. It was the neighbors who first found his father, out there just by the side of their town. They illustrate the distance by pointing at where we are sitting. It is just like this place; it’s not really very far from our home: That is David’s last remark about the subject.
Now 29, David is not a mere member of the military; he is a corporal belonging to the elite force. He admits that he initially sought help from the government to exact retribution for his father’s death, but that he learned that peace and service to others is the best revenge. He says he has so many dreams for lumad like himself, especially for his daughter, Kesha Queen, who turns 3 this year.
Gone are the days when even basic needs like clothing, security and education are difficult to come by, David says. Despite the muddy ground on which we stand, the dingy communal lavatory that they share, he sees hope and opportunities, and is optimistic that the presence of the government represented by its officials, as well as people like me, is already a start.
In this day and age where taking responsibility for other people and for our own country is a rare gem to find, even when this moral duty must already be ingrained in our DNA, it is refreshing to meet people like David. Maybe the problem lies not only in the presence of greedy politicians but also in the way we snub developments because of our thinking that these are always never enough. We have yet to realize that it is the little steps that bring us to big developments.
I cannot help but think of Conrado de Quiros’ words in a column he wrote in Inquirer Opinion two years ago, which ring of truth until today: “The taste of freedom is the most powerful enticement to not want to be a slave again. The taste of peace is the most powerful enticement not to want to go to war again.”
From the looks of it, our brothers and sisters in Mindanao still have a long way to go toward receiving the same amount of attention that city slickers like us get from the government. It will take a deft steering of priorities for the government to improve the plight of the Filipino minorities; it will also take a deeper sense of empathy in the rest of us, so that stories of injustice and inequality will not continue to fall on deaf ears.
Like you, I hate what the Philippines has become, but like you, too, I passionately believe that it is meant for greater things.
This article is originally published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer on February 25,2016, Opinion section.