Believing in the basic goodness of people

Interview with Roberto Layson, OMI 
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” When you meet Father Roberto Layson, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate from the Philippines, it is the blessedness that you remember. Small of stature, smiling, he always seems absorbed in his thoughts – of peace naturally. Today he is 44 years old and the parish priest in Pikit, a remote city with a Muslim majority on Mindanao, in the south of the archipelago. In 2002 he was awarded the prestigious Pax Christi International Prize for Peace. Roberto, born into a poor family that worked on a sugar cane plantation, became an Oblate because since childhood he had wanted to serve the poor and in the Oblates, with whom he had worked as a “Convento-Boy”, he saw a true example of this service.

The first nine years of his priestly ministry he lived in predominantly Muslim surroundings. That was until February 4, 1997, the day on which Bishop Benjamin de Jesus, was killed in Jolo.

  • It must have been a terrible experience?

Yes, the murder of the bishop was one of the reasons why I left Jolo. I took his death very personally and I developed a very strong hatred for Muslims in general. I felt that I was not myself anymore; I had to save my vocation as an Oblate missionary. So I went to Pikit, one of the oldest parishes in the Archdiocese of Cotabato. This is where the first waves of Christians arrived in 1913 and where there are today many communities. It was not long before I became aware that there were many Muslims in the community to which I had been assigned. I also discovered that along the marsh the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had their headquarters. In the six years that I have been in this city I have witnessed four major armed confrontations between the government troops and the rebel forces, bloody battles that have caused the death of 30,000 civilians. That was the beginning of my close relationship with Muslims, this time Muslims who were suffering. It has not been easy, however, to transcend my previous feelings: during the day I was with these people in the evacuation centers and in the evening, upon returning to my house, I would remember Bishop Ben. I was fighting with myself at the time. My hatred and the anger against the Muslims would surface, but I understood at the same time the suffering of these people and I remembered how much Bishop Ben wanted Christians and Muslims to be able to live in harmony. That was the beginning of my relationship with Muslims and my commitment to peace building ministry.

  • How is the situation now?

The Marines have occupied a large part of the area that used to be the MILF camp. There is a ceasefire between the MILF and the Government; both the Government and the NGOs are doing a lot of rehabilitation work. Both parties should be going back to the negotiation table for formal peace talks with the help of Malaysia and also with the technical advice of the Government of the United States, especially of the Institute for Peace (USIP). Members of the USIP staff have contacted me because they want my opinion on how to proceed in order to end the conflict.

  • Are there not two groups? Which is the other?

The other is the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). It sealed a parallel agreement with the government in 1996. This group is fighting for autonomy, while the MILF fights for secession, for independence. My contacts with the MILF go back to the war of 1997. After that war, I think that the Government understood that it has an ally in the Church: the parish, in fact, had mobilized some volunteers to come to the rescue of the evacuees who were Muslims. After the end the war in July of 1997, the local government also asked me to help the group that was monitoring the government projects in the Liguasan Marsh. Before accepting I consulted the heads of both sides. That began my relationship with the MILF. I could get their point of view, and also speak to the military.

  • This is what has allowed you to create neutral territories?

Yes, we call them “spaces for peace communities”. This began in the aftermath of the all out war that the Government declared against the MILF in the summer of 2000. During that war the Government assaulted 46 MILF camps; at least a million persons were displaced, Christians and Muslims, as well as indigenous people. The parish was very involved in helping the evacuees. The former ambassador to the Holy See, Mr. Howard Dee, a very good Christian of Chinese origin, asked me if it were not time to launch some rehabilitation programs. My experience told me that it was not possible to do so during the war. You had to wait until it was over. However, I became aware that we had to try to give the people hope again, to show them that life goes on even in the midst of war. Therefore, I accepted the ambassador’s proposal, but it was very clear to me that we could not start without the consent of the MILF. So, I went to them and negotiated for one village inhabited by Muslims, Christians and indigenous people – 250 families in all – who had been severely affected by the armed conflict. We did not want to call this village a “peace zone” because in the Philippines this is a very idealistic concept meaning a place into which you cannot bring guns, and there are too many rules. We asked simply that they not use it as a battleground: people needed to return to their homes. There was no hope in the evacuee centres and people were dying.

After a while they consented and I could begin. In the beginning it was difficult to convince the people, but after the agreement of both parties the people began to move back. We started to implement several social projects. Even the NGOs started to believe. It was something unique: rehabilitation with a war going on! This contradicted many theories on peace building. Then we expanded it to what we call other “sitios” – subdivisions of a barangay (a village): 9 so far and we hope to add 34 this year.

Father General with Roberto Layson, OMI

  • Do you think that a solution is possible in the near future?

We have high hopes for the process of peace in Mindanao, especially now with the help of Malaysia and the presence of the International Monitoring Team. The technical assistance of the USIP is also helping. I do not see an immediate agreement, inasmuch as there are elections in the summer of 2004. But the important factors are all there: a growing number of people from both sides are engaged in the process. One example is the peace group of my parish that has proposed peace education seminars for members of the paramilitary.

  • Dou also have good relations with the military. Has this been to your advantage?

During martial law our approach was confrontational. We denounced the human rights violations of the Government, especially of the soldiers, via radio, to shame them. But I realized that there is a better approach, and that is dialogue. It is really the spirit of inter-religious dialogue: continue to respect and believe in the basic goodness of people whether they be rebels or soldiers, to harness the good in their hearts so that they will pursue something noble like our space for peace communities. If we limit ourselves to confrontation, I believe it will be difficult to reach an agreement. Naturally both sides know that I do not compromise in the field of human rights. I threaten to denounce via radio any violations by the Government as well as by the MILF. I think that is why they perceive me as someone who is neutral, who respects them, but who will not back down on human rights.

[Shortly after this interview, on December 11, 2003, Fr. Layson received the Ninoy Aquino Fellowship Award for 2004 from the hands of the slain senator’s wife, former president Corazon Aquino.]