Last month, VSO Bahaginan hosted a retired Irish Police Chief as part of its peace advocacy program for Mindanao. Peter SHERIDAN OBE arrived in Manila inconspicuously last November 13. OBE is a title that stands for Order of the British Empire. The only higher honor to this would be Knighthood. Peter came in as an Eminent Volunteer following the success of a similar placement last year of an Irish lawmaker, Dominic Hannigan. For this placement, VSO provided a fresh approach to the peace initiatives by enlisting the help of an ex-police officer who brought with him a vast up-close-and-personal experiential knowledge of Northern Ireland’s violent conflict between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority in the 70s to the 90s.
Peter had a riveting story to tell, having been wounded in a car-bombing incident that killed 2 of his colleagues, and having been targeted for assassination by the secessionist Irish Republican Army (IRA) numerous times – once with a bomb which was to be hidden underneath his car, but which was prevented by good intelligence. He was also a part of the Catholic minority in a 95% Protestant-dominated Police Force. Finally, he played a significant role in transforming the Police Force from one with a militarist viewpoint to one that was focused on community policing, attuned with the protection of individual rights of the citizens, and reflective of the society it served.
Upon his arrival, Peter was briefed by the VSO staff led by Ms Malou JUANITO and Ms Maloy TIONGSON. To assist him in his dialogues and meetings were VSO Program Director Judah ALIPOSO and myself, as his local counterpart. Initially, Peter had a courtesy call on OPAPP Sec Ging DELES in order to get information and directions in the ongoing peace process. He also took time to visit some of the AFP and PNP top leadership. He spoke before the police graduating cadets at the PNP Academy in Silang, and a group of PNP student-officers and staff at the PNP Training Service. His dialogues and talks in Cotabato, Lanao, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro included staff of the ARMM Office of the Regional Government (ORG), members of the Junior Congress in ARMM, sons and daughters of MILF warriors, member of the Mindanao Peace Partners, the Moslem-Christian Alliance in Baloi, plus AFP and PNP officers in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.
Peter said that everyone has a role to play, if we are to make the peace process successful. He confessed that peace cannot be had magically, with a wave of a wand. It has to be nurtured, and allowed to develop slowly. Among others, he talked about the need for reforms in the police service, the give-and-take between former adversaries in order to develop trust and goodwill, the challenges in decommissioning the firearms, and the setting up of a new government in a power-sharing arrangement. Finally, he also discussed the issue of dealing with the past, and trying to leave behind the hurts and tears in order to usher in a better future for everyone.
Peter stressed that the road to peace will not be easy. He cited their own experience in Northern Ireland, where there still remain isolated cases of violence, even after a decade had passed since the signing of the peace agreement. Still, these isolated cases are infinitely far better than those dark days when violence was the rule, and not the exception. There will be difficulties no doubt, more particularly because of the many complications that go with our customs, culture and mindsets. But we cannot allow ourselves to be cynical about it. We need to keep focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, for the dividends of peace will be priceless. Peter noted: “The best way for us to honor those who died in the conflict is to ensure that there will be no more incidence of violence for the next generations in the years and decades ahead.”
Peter’s grassroots approach to promoting the peace process has been found to be very significant. It is imperative that a massive information drive be implemented as soon as possible. In far-away Baloi, for instance, the apprehension and agitation stems from the lack of sufficient information provided. As a result, it is more often than not the gossip that spreads out so easily. And these innuendos and misleading statements can only lead to harder times ahead. The government and other local agencies can learn from VSO’s initiative to make the people more aware of and committed to the peace process. Not only does their program surface the difficulties, it prepares us, and forces us to plan ahead so that we can make the peace process succeed.
I learned a lot from teaming up with Peter, Judah, Ajeet PANEMANGLOR, Jay ANCHETA and Ato PONCE. Our discussions brought out candid thoughts, poignant lessons and creative ideas which have made me analyze the issue from a different lens. Different perspectives, different mindsets, different attitudes, yet one common aspiration: to achieve peace in our land. In the end, we became more patient and understanding, we strove to work together, and we learned to respect each other’s views. I felt humbled by the experience, and honored for the opportunity to be of noble service once again, for our brothers in Mindanao.
To Peter and VSO Bahaginan, may your tribe increase.