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June 12, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — NIU this past spring completed a three-year program aimed at planting seeds of peace among youth activists in a conflict-torn region of the southern Philippines. Now the university is cultivating established leaders there as well.
A dozen high profile Filipino leaders who are committed to peace in their homeland arrived on campus early this month for a three-week training institute and study tour.
The institute participants, all from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, include a priest, lawyers, a university chancellor, a Muslim religious scholar, nongovernmental organization leaders, government representatives and former combatants in the region's civil unrest.
The U.S. Department of State provided a grant of $167,500 to NIU to partner with Filipino groups and offer the training institute, run by NIU's Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the International Training Office. Similar institutes have been offered on campus to youth activists from the same region of the Philippines.
“A great university does this kind of work,” said Susan Russell, a cultural anthropologist specializing in the Philippines. She also is co-director of the Mindanao project and former director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, a national resource center.
“The fact that NIU is doing this project is ample testimony that we've arrived on the global stage,” she said. “It's what national resource centers should be doing.”
The largest and least-developed island in the southern Philippines, Mindanao has been a frequent site of civil unrest. Enmity between Christians and the Bangsamoro, a linguistically and culturally diverse group of native Muslim minorities, has simmered over the course of centuries.
The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was created in 1990 to help solve the conflict and promote economic development, and later a peace treaty was reached between the government and rebels. A separate rebel group is currently maintaining a cease-fire while participating in peace negotiations with the Philippine government. Sporadic episodes of violence continue, however, and the autonomous region remains among the most impoverished in the country.
“Peace is elusive in this part of the Philippines,” said Lina Ong, director of the NIU International Training Office and co-director with Russell of the Mindanao project. “They come here to acquire core skills for strengthening the foundation of peace and development in Mindanao and for forging partnerships among local government units, peace and development organizations and national government agencies.”
The adult activists want to turn away from the violence of the past.
“We would like to explore legal and peaceful avenues of promoting and enhancing our relationship with the central government and the majority Filipinos,” said Suharto Ambolodto, chair of the Caucus on Muslim Mindanao Affairs.
Most of the participants in the NIU program are minority Muslims. They want to observe and learn from American cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. At the end of the program, they will develop action plans to implement upon their return to Mindanao.
“We want them to develop a series of action plans that they can bring back to their own constituents and the national legislature,” Russell said. “We want them to be empowered with their new ideas.”
“People from all over the world want a functioning government, social justice and access to a better life,” Ambolodto added. “The only problem is: Do our societies have the material capacity to do it, the technical capacity to create a society as good as yours? Basically, we don't have a functioning economy. We rely on the central government.”
The Mindanao activists are learning about models and paradigms of majority-minority relations in the United States. They are attending presentations by NIU experts in race, religion, politics, action planning, public administration and strategic management of local government and nongovernmental organizations. Outside experts, including well-known peace activist Kathy Kelly of Chicago, have been brought in to address the visitors as well.
Additionally, the activists met last week with State Rep. Bob Pritchard and attended Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's reception for Philippine Independence Day. They have toured Chicago and St. Louis and visited Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Ill. Today they are visiting Springfield, with a stop in the Amish community of Arcola, and later this week they will depart for Salt Lake City, where they will meet with Mormons, Muslims and Native Americans.
The wide variety of experiences will give the Filipino guests a firsthand glimpse of how ethnic and religious minorities interact in the United States. While those interactions aren't always perfect, Ambolodto feels there is still much to learn.
“It's a process—you learn and then you try to apply,” Ambolodto said. “Not only do we get to take advantage of observing your majority-minority relations, but we get to benefit from NIU scholars, who also have international experience.
“This treasury of knowledge should provide us with a very adequate background in further understanding our situation and the options available to us,” he added.
NIU's work in Mindanao might continue beyond this project. Ong and Russell have submitted another grant proposal to work with the region's young people.