Hearing each other’s stories
“An enemy is one whose story we have not heard,” Atty. Marlon Manuel quotes peace activist Gene Knudsen-Hoffman in introducing the principles of the dialogue framework that the project adopts.
“Because what we have is a venue to exchange stories—not just to talk and talk—but to hear and understand each other,” he says.
In crafting the mechanics of their activities, representatives of the partner-organizations and institutions recognized the risk in fault-finding among participants from traditionally adversarial sectors. For them, it was important to underscore the goal as seeking solutions beyond identifying issues.
“We meant the tone as non-confrontational,” recalls Manuel. “Instead, the dialogues should be action-oriented.”
One key strategy proved to have tangible as well as symbolic value. Members of the Armed Forces and Philippine National Police were asked not to wear their uniforms when they attended the first set of the dialogue sessions.
According to Manuel, they were ‘civilians’ for the two-day activity. The rationale behind it was to remove the perceived barrier, as represented by their uniform. “We wanted to emphasize commonalities, that we are all citizens, rather than highlight the differences.”
During the Palawan session, the Hanns Seidel Foundation’s Paul Schӓfer remarked that officers in their home country of Germany, they referred to police officers as “citizens in uniform.”
“The phrase captures the intent of the dialogue session design—no uniform—the AFP and PNP officers are citizens in uniform,” explains Manuel.
Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation’s Joey Mendoza adds that the dynamic of the dialogue as two-way was always encouraged. It did not pit one party against the other—not the civilians versus the military or police nor the accuser in the face of the accused.
The questions that were often raised resonated in each participant. “We aimed for a genuine dialogue,” he says. “The military and police are usually asked about the human rights issues prevalent in their area and surprisingly, in many instances, there are common issues identified.”
Another practical yet meaningful strategy situated the first face-to-face “encounter” of the civilians and the AFP and PNP officers at the socials, over dinner and a videoke machine.
“It was a light get-together, an ice breaker,” observes Mary Ann Co of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
Later on, they would be called for separate caucuses for civil society and security sector participants in order to prepare them for the dialogue proper. Divided into groups based on their provincial location, the discussion yielded insights that were “closer to the ground,” according to Manuel.
“Local stakeholders can discuss issues that they are familiar with,” he says.
As a result, at the end of what appeared as contentious debates, the participants would plan for community-based cooperative efforts towards human rights promotion and protection in the local areas in due course. Instead of a one-size-fits-all template, each region or group would often set their own targets and conceptualize future initiatives unique to their socio-political context.
What the planning sessions universally demanded were details—the groups must chart their next steps together. “It was evident from the many follow-through activities that were conceived,” says Co.
True enough, the participants demonstrated how deeply they were invested in the process. An army officer from Palawan suggested a tweak to the design—that in the last phase of the activity, they can wear their uniforms again.
“So we can end the dialogue session with a symbolic acceptance of the AFP and PNP officers as citizens in uniform,” he had reasoned. They adopted his inspired idea.
From here on, they have more stories—from setbacks to successes—to tell.