L-R: Undersecretary Nabil Tan of Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP); Hannah RS Straver and Sitti Hataman of Anak Mindanao; British Council Philippines Country Director Nick Thomas; Hashim Manticayan, President League of Bangsamoro Organisations. ©

British Council

by Sitti Djalia Hataman

The conference

Recently I had the honour of joining a Philippine delegation invited by the British Council to the Peace and Beyond conference held at Belfast City, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. The conference marked the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, an Agreement that marked the end of a 30-year conflict between Unionists (mostly Protestant) who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the minority Nationalists/Republicans (mostly Catholic) who were seeking for the establishment of a Republic and the reunification of Ireland. The latter was popularly known through their main paramilitary organization, the Irish Republican Army or IRA. Referred to as ‘The Troubles’, these three decades of violent conflict involved territories, not religion, and two different aspirations of national identity and belonging. 

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, the Peace and Beyond Conference became a platform of sharing this peace agreement with the rest of the nations, how it was achieved and what it has achieved so far. It was also about, to quote the organisers themselves, 'creating an open, inclusive and safe space for international dialogue to reflect upon the experience of peace processes across the globe... bringing together political leaders, academics and community activists from around the world, to engage a global audience in this vital dialogue, inspire innovative thinking and practice, and activate a new generation of peacebuilders globally'.

Coming from a people with our own peace process too, I was eager to learn from the Northern Ireland experience, and the first lesson I learned was actually an affirmation of what we have been saying all along – that the peace agreement is not the end to the problems but is the beginning to the solutions we seek. And that really, the devil is in the details, when the implementation begins, even long after the provisions of the agreement have been put in place. Twenty years after, the people of Northern Ireland still ask questions like, 'Were the promises made by the Good Friday Agreement delivered?' 'Is it worth celebrating?' 'Are we where we are supposed to be and where are we heading?'

There is no perfect peace process, thus there can’t be a perfect peace agreement. But William Crawley, journalist and BBC broadcaster who chaired the opening plenary of the conference very simply elucidated, 'we don’t have war today, we don’t have conflict... we may be in a diplomatic crisis, but we don’t have violence in our streets.'

These words reflected our own sentiment back home, amidst the continuing challenge and delay to our own peace process by sectors and individuals who question its imperfection, who weigh more on the risks than the opportunities it bring, who build on fear instead of hope. Yes there are realities we need to address, but the urgent reality that needs to be defeated is the conflict that chains us from moving on, the violence that continues to claim lives. 

Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland continues to assess the negotiated document that brought them peace, negative peace to the critical ones, but still peace, in the absence of conflict. And this openness is what inspired them to host the Peace and Beyond Conference, to both share what they have learned so far and learn too from the experiences of finding peace from nations and communities across the globe. There were more than 200 delegates from more than 20 countries, each contributing both familiar and unique stories of building and keeping peace.

The peace within

Perhaps it is understandable that one is more inclined to hear what one is more connected to. And in this conference, the loudest message I heard was on the importance of starting the work of peace within communities and within one’s self, the journey that I have personally embarked on, and led me to where I am right now.

The story of Candice Mama was a powerful message of forgiveness. Her father was tortured and burnt to death under the apartheid government by a former South African Police colonel Eugene de Kock nicknamed 'Prime Evil'. The trauma of losing her father gave her, in her own words, 'sixteen years of anger, anguish, sleepless nights and bouts of severe depression'. Eugene de Kock was eventually sentenced to 212 years in prison under 89 charges. In 2014, Candice’s family was invited by the National Prosecuting Authority to meet him.

At the Peace and Beyond Conference, I was honoured to hear her story from her very self. Sharing the part of her message that spoke of what a great soul she is, and what we can all reflect on. Perhaps hard to emulate, hard to even imagine, but a reminder that the human soul is capable of such greatness.

'I looked at him and I said you know Eugene I want to say I forgive you but before I do I want to ask you one question. He looked at me and he said ‘anything’. And I said, do you forgive yourself? He looked at me… and then he looked away.. and I looked at him and said, "Oh you didn’t answer my question" and he looked away, and there was a tear on the side of his eye which he just dabbed and he said, ‘you know every time a family comes to see me, that is the one thing I hope they never ask...’ and he was quiet... he looked away... then he looked back at me and he said, ‘when you have done the things I’ve done, how do you forgive yourself?’ And in that moment I broke down, I started sobbing, because for the first time throughout our interaction I saw another human being sitting in front of me, I saw his humanity staring back at me. And for the first time I realised, that not only was I a victim, that he too was a victim, he just happens to be the perpetrator of my pain.'

Before the session was off, she stood up and asked Eugene, 'Would you mind if I give you a hug?' As they hugged, Eugene told her, 'Your father would have been so proud of the woman you have become.'

Candice went on to advocate for the release of her father’s killer believing in his capacity to reform, and help other families of victims find their closure. 'Until we allow ourselves to free ourselves from our own hate, and then extend a branch of forgiveness to others, then only can we fit to move forward, into a more peaceful world and more peaceful society.'

Candice’s story was reinforced by the statements of Lord Alderdice, leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland in October 1987 and who played a significant role in all the talks between the political parties and the British and Irish governments during the resolution of the historic conflict in Ireland through the negotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He became the First Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly before his 2004 appointment to the Independent Monitoring Commission, tasked by the British and Irish governments with closing down terrorist operations and overseeing normalization of security activity in Northern Ireland. He also established the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building in Belfast. He is now the Director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict based at Manchester College, University of Oxford.

I shared his credentials, taken from the conference programme, to emphasise his background and unquestionable authority and competence on the matter at hand. His talk at the opening plenary was replete with the political, legal and technical aspects of the peace process and yet, he always went back to the ‘self’, an emphasis that we can have all the agreements we want and need, but unless there is a change in the attitude of each of us, peace will remain elusive.

'Rational argument will never address how people feel', Lord Alderdice said, and really, it is about recognising the pain and humiliation experienced and felt by individuals, communities or groups of people. He said it is not really about what people believe, but about what people feel. Again, this brought me back to our own peace process, my own experience. During the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) deliberations in the 16th Congress when I was still a legislator, it was easier to discuss the legalities of the Bill, their implications to existing local and national laws, etc. Questions centered on the legitimacy of our struggle, the recognition of our identity, the doubts on our capacity to lead and govern and even be good citizens were the hardest and most painful to answer. They did not only bring back old pains, but inflicted new ones. I needed to constantly remind myself that the path I have chosen is peace, and nothing shall distract me. 

The struggle in choosing this path is indeed real, as what the experts in the Northern Ireland peace process imparted. Again, Lord Alderdice hit home when he spoke of the compromises needed to reach an agreement – the  'moral and political calculus involved in peace and reconciliation', as how he described it. 

He said, 'If we do not reach an agreement, we are betraying our children and our grandchildren. If we do reach an agreement, we are betraying those from the past who have suffered and died. So the moral question is not ‘is it good or is it bad?', but who are you going to betray? And that was a shared problem for all of us around the table. So this ethical question I think is a very important one but it’s a lot more problematic than people often make of it. There was nothing simple right and wrong, there was a balance of ethical dilemmas that you have to work with. And for me, whatever about the past, ultimately if I can contribute to making a better future for children and grandchildren, that had to take precedence. Because you cannot change the past, but you can change your attitude to it. You can’t change what has happened, but you can change what will happen.'

For conflicts rooted on historical injustice, the past plays a central role in the quest for peace. It will always be the foundation upon which we stake our claim for justice. Thus, in a negotiation where you open up to the other party’s version of history, from their own truths and perspective, compromise is inevitable. That is why it is called a negotiation. One cannot stand unmoved and still, the moment you sit on the negotiation table, you know there will always be things to let go, and it is not always between the good and the bad, but a matter of priorities, and that which will be of benefit to those you seek peace for. 

Throughout the BBL deliberations, and I’d say even in all other issues we tackled, one of the realisations that struck me most was the gap between the realities, particularly the limitations we were confronting, and the expectations of the public. It was thus assuring to hear from the conference the importance of managing people’s expectations. I have always believed and said much of the problems we encounter now arise from people’s frustration, out of unmet expectations, expectations which were not realistic in the first place. This concern becomes more urgent in our current situation where there are forces who build on and capitalise on these frustrations to invite people to their ideologies, including violent ones. 

There is so much disconnect, and honestly, this was one of the reasons I decided to resign, having realised the need to bridge that disconnect from a more neutral ground. work I felt I cannot do within the realm of politics, And I think my decision found resonance in what Lord Alderdice said, 'That is absolutely an important thing, the management of people’s expectations… over a period of time, it is one of the responsibilities of politicians, to manage the expectations of their own people, and not be continuingly promising things they know perfectly well they can’t deliver. And here’s a problem, the problem for liberal democracy is politicians have discovered that you can’t tell the truth and get elected. People are far happier to vote for somebody that peddles illusions than they are for somebody that tells them the truth.'

I rest my case.
L-R: Reconciliation Ambassador Candice Mama; Sitti Hataman and Hannah RS Straver of Anak Mindanao.

Culture as a way to Peace

And then of course I was drawn to the session 'Arts in the aftermath of conflict'.

The programme’s abstract on this session read, “There is growing recognition of the contributions of arts and culture to peacebuilding. The arts compel, rather than coerce, people to think differently, to connect and engage in new ways, and to recognise shared pasts and imagine new futures. Cynthia Cohen (2005) notes: “The arts and cultural work can be crafted to contribute to coexistence and reconciliation – both by facilitating the necessary learning about self and other, and by nourishing and restoring the capacities required for perception, expression, receptivity and imagination… all of these forms can help former enemies come to appreciate each other’s humanity, mourn losses, and empathize with each other’s suffering, and navigate the complexities of remorse and repentance, letting go of bitterness and forgiveness.” Arts and conflict is often painted into a corner of storytelling – presenting new narratives or challenging old ones. But if culture is a central facet of our humanity, then arts and culture is needed in the times when we address what it is to be human and to live peacefully side by side with others. 

In our own endless search to bring the message of peace, we stumbled upon an innocent remark from a then 10-year-old boy, incidentally my own son. “I think it is not that the Filipino people do not like us... I think it is just that they do not know us,” was what he said. I have shared this countless times, but more than the sharing of these words, this message found itself in a project we embarked on, a travelling exhibition “Muslims of the Philippines: History and Culture”. I do not in any way think legislation or policymaking is in any way less important, but in this cultural work, I realised people were more receptive and open to tackle our differences and, more importantly, recognise our common ground. 

Unlike in the highly charged political and legal debates, there was no need to be defensive of our cause, who we are and why we deserve the peace process. The exhibition, which included a 1000-year timeline of our history, was a plain 'take it or leave it' narration of what we are asserting. And in all the seven venues we’ve travelled in less than a year, from shopping malls to schools and government institutions, it was nothing but a celebration of taking in, of dialogues and the willingness from the general public to learn more. It was more than appreciation: there was a recognition of our identity and even an eagerness from the majority non-Muslim Filipinos to identify with this identity. 

Indeed, arts and culture facilitate the coming out of the human in all of us. And in the work for peace, nothing can be achieved until we are able to tap this human-ness within. As one speaker in the conference said, “Culture can get to places that words don’t.” And my good guess is, it reaches the human soul. 

And finally... compassion

Something I never imagined will find me in the conference. 

During the opening plenary, I raised a question on a statement about the importance of creating more shared cultural spaces. And as I introduced myself, I mentioned that I am currently in a journey of redefining myself from being a peacebuilder to being a student of compassion. This actually began about three years ago when I heard a peace mentor, Ma'am Angelina Herrera of BINHI say she wants to do compassion work. My statement was tweeted by British Council CEO Sir Ciarán Devane. I was pleasantly surprised that of all the things I said, that was what he picked up. 

I did not have any clue that I started the conference with compassion, and end it with compassion too.

On our last day, sessions were held in different venues across Belfast and mine was at the Innovation Factory. I approached the Secretariat asking to be transferred to another venue but was told all the others were already full. I know I could have insisted, but did not and told myself, well, who knows, I may actually be called to this session for a reason.

And indeed I was. 

The talks were not only affirmations of what I have been dreaming to do, but more importantly showed how it can be and is actually being done. 

Dr Caroline Murphy of Children in Crossfire shared how their organisation shifted its focus from early childhood education centred solely on critical thinking and active citizenship to a program on educating the heart. In one visit of the Dalai Lama to Belfast, he spoke so much about educating the heart, about compassion, such that they began to ask, “are we missing something on the way we are engaging young people? Is there something more we should be doing? Is critical thinking enough?” They realised that their approach was very much about engaging the children on issues. “Everything starts with the issues, let’s look at the issues, how can we solve the issues? What skills do we need to tackle the issues? But we never really turned the lens in, and started asking, What skills of self do we have? Do we know what self-compassion is? Do we know how to relate to each other?” 

These questions were turned into realisations, turned into action. They worked with researchers on social and emotional learning, because, as Dr Murphy said, it was their weakness. They were very much into critical thinking and knowledge-based skills, but they needed to build on their skills on social and emotional learning to be able to include these aspects into their program. They went on a learning journey with various partners, including the Dalai Lama Center for Compassion in Oxford, and even went through compassion-based trainings. They consulted curriculum advisers, teachers and principals, and re-tweaked their model to a model they called educating the heart, nurturing compassionate global citizens. They have developed a compassion framework and have introduced these to schools through teachers’ trainings and pupils’ programs. 

Another presentation was from a community-based restorative justice organisation, the Northern Ireland Alternatives. Ms. Debbie Watts of NI Alternatives spoke of working with the most vulnerable members of society – those who are engaged in anti-social activities, the offenders. ‘They are the people that most people don’t want to touch, the dirty people, young people who offend and many in our society think they deserve everything they get.’ She asks, ‘How do we embrace them? How does embracing them look and feel like?’ Working with them entails ‘seeing them through a whole different lens, a lens of hope, a lens of change and a lens of justice that values who they are just because they are, and not because of anything they say or do’.

I wanted to bring all of them back home. Because here, when I speak of compassion work, people might think I’m crazy. Dr Murphy said they went through the same stage, people laughed at them and questioned them, how can compassion solve problems? 

I do not in any way suggest intelligence, skills and competence are not necessary. But I think we have centred too much on these such that we have lost the balance. The heart has to take a lead too, especially in our quest for peace. It cannot come from the mind alone, it cannot come from anywhere else but the heart. One of the saddest compliments I’ve heard is when people tell me, 'You speak from the heart...' I wonder, how can one not? And why are we surprised? Have we accepted anything less from the heart? 

When I resigned from Congress, I knew I was doing what I was meant to do, though there were no words to exactly articulate them. Each time I am asked, I grope to find the words and they tend to come out in varied statements. The one consistent answer, however, was I felt I needed to deliver a message and I cannot do so in the divisive and highly cerebral world of politics. What that message was, I was not sure.

Until that moment in the conference. What if, maybe, just maybe, that message is the message of compassion? And that yes, it can be done. It is already being done. 

And though I cannot claim to be a good Muslim, I strive to find alignment between my faith and what I do, which leads me to find more meaning in compassion work. In everything we do, we are encouraged to begin with Bismillah hir Rahman nir Raheem, which is translated to, in the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful or Compassionate. We are actually called to do everything and anything with compassion. What can be clearer than that?