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Fighting Hunger, a Priest in the Philippines Finds a Military Foe

March 22, 1987|Niall O'Brien | Father Niall O'Brien is the author of "Revolution From the Heart: A Story From the Struggle for Justice in the Sugar Lands of the Philippines," to be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

BACOLOD CITY, PHILIPPINES — A year after the fall of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, the first thing that struck my eye after landing in Bacolod City on the island of Negros were garish streamers across the streets. In crude red letters they proclaimed: "Do Not Support Priests and Nuns Who Are Communists."

Two-and-a-half years ago, Father Brian Gore, a fellow Columban Fathers priest, and I were expelled from the Philippines. We were among clergy who had taken a strong stand on human rights and nonviolence; to us, both seemed necessary ingredients for the Christian communities we were attempting to foster in the heart of the sugar lands of the Philippines.

The problem was that these communities became too effective. People actually began to ask for their rights in a way they never had before. It wasn't long until Father Gore and myself, along with Father Vincent Dangan, a Filipino priest, and six of our lay leaders were accused of a plethora of crimes, including the cold-blooded killing of the mayor of our own town, Kabankalan. Hence our expulsion.

I spent the next two years in Rome and New York studying formally what I had been attempting to implement on Negros over the previous 20 years--active nonviolence. Among other things, I was able to look at the heritage left by people like Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, and to listen to such well-known practitioners of nonviolence as Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan and Hildegard Goss-Mayr. When I came back to the Philippines, I was inclined to bring up the topic spontaneously--the Filipinos, after all, had written a new chapter in the history of nonviolence last year when they knelt in the streets and brought the tanks to a halt.

But I found that nonviolence is now almost a dirty word in the island of Negros and many parts of the Philippines. The generals, I was told--the same ones who were in command during so many of the massacres and so much of the torture during the Marcos years--have now borrowed the vocabulary of nonviolence and peacemaking and reconciliation as part of their anti-insurgency campaign. People feel betrayed because those massacres, including several in Negros, have ended in cover-ups; no one has been brought to justice, as was hoped when the new regime took over.

And massacres continue; witness the Mendiola Bridge slaughter in January when 19 farmers demonstrating for land reform were gunned down as they marched toward Malacanang Palace. One angry woman wanted to know how I planned to talk nonviolence to the victims of Mendiola.

The reason for the general disenchantment with the word nonviolence is patent. Many people talk of nonviolence, but what they really mean is passivity, or silence, or neutrality--which in fact is a vote for the status quo: 7,000 richly endowed islands filled with hunger and pain and grief and grinding poverty--and an endless stream of children's coffins placed outside our churches.

Others see nonviolence as a magic wand, a romantic deus ex machina that will intervene and melt away the guns on both sides without addressing the huge social divide that ultimately gives rise to the battle between the haves and the have-nots--what the current Philippine insurgency is all about.

And yet another group, which has done the most harm, means by nonviolence simply that the rebels should lay down their arms. Such people do not see that the rebels are engaged in counterviolence--counter, that is, to the violence inherent in the social situation. No wonder nonviolence has become a dirty word. In this climate, to mention nonviolence is to be immediately misunderstood and even callously used by one side or dismissed with a bitter laugh by the other. Nevertheless, we must ask: What sort of shape would nonviolent action take for those who would seriously apply it to the Philippine scene?

Ultimately, nonviolence means focusing on causes, rather than symptoms, and the causes of violence in the Philippines are basic social injustices. Gen. Douglas MacArthur forced land reform on Japan but for various reasons--his own closeness to the ruling elite being one--not on the Philippines. To this day, land distribution and relationships in the Philippines remain feudal. In Negros, for example, the 1980-81 survey showed a quarter of a million hectares (one hectare is about 2 1/2 acres) owned by 10,000 planters--and worked by almost half a million landless peasants. About 10% of the planters own 50% of the land.

Clearly land reform is a top priority. Any serious attempt at nonviolent action will address itself to this problem. Money is needed, substantial money for compensation; that money is not available. The Aquino government has inherited a $25-billion debt; money coming from the United States is more likely to be for arms than for land reform.

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