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Janel, helping community voices echo even louder in Mindanao

The story of human rights defender, Janel Pesons [Mindanao, Philippines]

 Written by: Patrick van Wersch
Edited by: Olivia Ayes 

Janel Ello Pesons is only thirty-five years old, but she could already easily write an autobiography or two. A human rights defender and peace advocate from Mindanao in southern Philippines, she has dedicated her life to empowering local communities. Because change is at the local level, she believes sustainable peace can be achieved that will reform the conflict-ridden island. That’s not an easy approach, but Janel has no doubt it’s the only one that has a chance of succeeding.

Now in her third term as Secretary General for the Mindanao Peoples’ Peace Movement (MPPM), Janel oversees the organisation’s day-to-day management and operations. Founded in 2000 in the aftermath of the government’s declaration of “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MPPM has grown into an alliance and coalition of over a hundred grassroots organisations advancing the participation and engagement of the tri-people in building peace in Mindanao.

Map of the Philippines, including Mindanao region. Photo by OntheWorldMap.com.

“Muslims are trouble”

It’s a tough job, and Janel juggles it with raising her two martial arts-loving boys, ages eight and ten, together with her husband, and volunteering for the Lanao Alliance of Human Rights Advocates. The fire burning within keeps propelling her forward. A fire sparked almost two decades ago when she left her native Iligan to study in Marawi, right in the heart of “Muslim Mindanao.”

“Muslims are trouble,’ my parents insisted when I announced I was going to study mathematics at a Muslim-majority university. I went anyway and never felt more at home. My roommates weren’t bad people. I felt safe. I could finally be myself.”

Studying at Mindanao State University in Marawi City, Janel felt accepted. “In my hometown of Iligan, young people were preoccupied with their looks and their clothing. That wasn’t me. I wanted for those things not to matter. I found that with the Moro in Marawi.”

Eyes opened

Although she liked the school and her fellow students, Janel wasn’t too thrilled about her mathematics courses and the academic environment. So when an opportunity presented itself to get a taste of the “real” world, she took it, even though it meant terminating her studies prematurely.

Her aunt, who works for a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) in Cotabato, invited Janel to stay with her for two months. She visited several NGOs and then volunteered with Tripod Cotabato. It was an experience that opened Janel’s eyes to the ethnic and cultural diversity of Mindanao but also to those suffering in silence.

“Tripod works in disaster-stricken communities with the tri-people of Mindanao—the Lumad, or Indigenous Peoples (IPs), Bangsamoro, and Migrant Settlers. During my time at Tripod I visited several evacuation camps. All evacuees were Muslims from the Maguindanao province who had fled to escape the fighting between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Contrary to what I was told for years by my family, these were not bad people. They were just like my roommates back at university. I felt empathy for their harsh situation. I wanted to do something.”

Human rights in the barangay

After a six-month hiatus to deal with some personal issues, Janel returned to Iligan eager to help. She joined the Ranaw Disaster Response and Rehabilitation Assistance Center (RDRRAC), an organisation that supports Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). “They hired me do to finances and push papers, but I wanted to go into the communities. And that’s what I managed to do, especially to work with youth groups. Looking back, my experiences then working with IDPs and young people inspired some of the projects we now do at MPPM.”

Two years later she joined the Lanao Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (LAHRA) to do human rights work at the community level. She recently re-joined the NGO as a volunteer.   “At LAHRA we tried to activate local government units (LGUs), or “barangays,” to monitor and report to us any human rights violations in their areas and set up action centres to promote human rights. The results so far are mixed and some barangays simply lack the budget to make the necessary changes.”

Something that struck Janel when she was pushing barangay leaders to take action was that local governments generally do not understand the context of human rights. “The sad thing is that they get the concept of it, but being tied to local and regional political interest, they often fail to see how violations of human rights affect the daily lives of the people in their barangays. Through our interventions I think we showed some municipalities the gravity of the situation, but more work certainly needs to be done.”

Most Affected Area

In 2010, Janel, then twenty-eight, was elected to the MPPM council, and just a year later she was chosen to be the new Secretary General. The family moved to Cotabato, where MPPM’s head office is located, and she found herself in a key position in a broad movement with more than a hundred member organisations.

Due to security considerations and simply because of homesickness, the move to Cotabato turned out to be a one-year stint only. Performing her duties mostly from Iligan, Janel recently got more hands-on in a pilot project in her hometown.

“The pilot is basically an intervention in the Marawi crisis that rocked Mindanao for the better part of 2017 and induced the declaration of martial law on the island, still in effect to this day. The project revolves around a group of IDPs, 103 families to be precise, most of them Maranao people who fled from Marawi to Iligan and are now living in privately owned residential buildings. The evacuation centres that were there have been closed by the government because they were no longer deemed necessary. The families, however, are not allowed to return to Marawi because most of them lived in the “Most Affected Area” which is still under military control.”

“We try to connect the IDPs from Marawi to the mostly Christian migrant communities in Iligan. It’s challenging because there’s still a lot of bias and blatant discrimination. Even months after the Marawi siege, we’ve seen IDPs in Iligan unable to rent houses. There have been cases of Maranao kids who transferred to local schools and end up being severely bullied. In our latest profiling of about seventy Maranao students, we found that almost half of them stopped going to school altogether.”

“We try to connect the IDPs from Marawi to the mostly Christian migrant communities in Iligan. It’s challenging because there’s still a lot of bias and blatant discrimination.”

“These families from Marawi rely on the support of other families. They don’t have any alternative livelihoods. We can’t give them that kind of support, but we’ve been successful in linking international NGOs to agencies that do provide livelihood support on the ground. Three of these agencies are already coordinating with us, especially on education projects. The second phase of the pilot is really about introducing a culture of peace and conflict transformation. Our member organisations in Iligan have already started giving trainings to members of the communities as well as the IDPs from Marawi on these and related topics. As it remains unclear when, or if at all, the families can return to Marawi, the best thing to do is try and create harmony so that everyone in Iligan can coexist peacefully.”

Peace spoilers

A different hot button issue that is keeping Janel very busy is the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that was adopted by Congress in July. The law replaces the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with the new Bangsamoro region with greater fiscal and political autonomy. MPPM was very vocal in pushing for the right to self-determination for the Lumad—one of the tri-people—to be included in the law. Provisions underscoring this right were indeed included in the final version of the BOL.

“Obviously we’re glad our hard work and the work of many other organisations paid off, but as always the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There’s a plebiscite planned for January 2019 in which the peoples of the Bangsamoro can vote on the law, and then the implementation will really begin. Our member organisations organise information sessions and hand out brochures to explain to the people affected by the BOL what it is about so they can cast an informed vote.”

As the new law was being put together there were many who branded MPPM and others as “peace spoilers” because of their advocacy concerning the rights of Indigenous Peoples (IPs). Janel says that hasn’t deterred them from supporting IPs to assert their rights and demand representation in the Bangsamoro region.

“It’s not just the BOL and how that affects IPs. It’s also about charter change and federalism, issues that are now part of the national political debate and that will have a profound effect on the peoples of Mindanao. That’s why we provide spaces where communities can learn about the different government proposals. So far we’ve done this in ten provinces across the island where MPPM is active with network organisations. Often these people tend to believe those who are better educated, but sometimes those people have hidden agendas. We try to provide honest and impartial information to communities so that their leaders can stand up to movements that are trying to sway them to their side of the debate.”

Greatest strength

As said, in addition to IPs, MPPM’s work focuses on the Bangsamoro peoples and Migrant Settlers. This tri-people approach is reflected in its organisational set-up as well. Besides the general secretariat headed by Janel, there are three separate secretariats. Also, in the sixty-member strong council, MPPM’s main decision-making body, all three groups are equally represented. Janel admits this makes it tricky sometimes to reach consensus, but she lauds the system’s democratic, inclusive and dialogue-focused nature.

She recalls an example of when the government declared martial law in Mindanao in May of last year. “The council used its June meeting to discuss its position. Emotions ran high for some of the members, especially those who had lived through martial law during the president Marcos years. Although views varied we did arrive at a conclusion. We decided to oppose martial law but agreed to constantly monitor the effects on the ground.”

“More recently we discussed our position on mining. Short of condemning mining practices in Mindanao, the council does oppose any human rights violations that occur in relation to mining. There’s no majority to outright call for a ban on mining simply because some of the members’ communities are directly involved in this industry. Despite how frustrating it may be sometimes, I think this is MPPM’s greatest strength. With different viewpoints at the table we take positions and support actions that all contribute to finding sustainable peace in Mindanao. A peace that’s owned and advocated by the tri-people. It’s the only way.”

Achmad’s story

For a human rights defender and peace advocate, Janel is surprisingly modest and subdued. She describes herself as a simple person and prefers the peace and quiet of Iligan to the big city vibes of places like Cotabato and Davao, Mindanao’s political and economic centre. “My husband’s family is from Davao, and every time we are there I’m counting the days until we can leave again. I don’t like the crowds and the big malls. My mother-in-law has repeatedly asked us to move out there, but I just can’t picture us living there.”

“Achmad’s story inspires me because of how he took it upon himself to help his community. It’s nice to know that in a small way I was able to contribute to his transformation.”

Also characteristic of Janel is that, rather than seeking the spotlight, she tries to shine it on others who are making a positive change in their communities. One such person whose story made an impact on Janel is Achmad Musa from Iligan who in the aftermath of the 2011 typhoon Sendong developed into a community leader demanding support from the government towards rebuilding people’s homes.

“I heard about Achmad in early 2012 through his involvement with the Ranaw Disaster Response and Rehabilitation Assistance Center, one of the first organisations I’d worked for. We invited him and other community leaders to participate in a lobby training to equip them with strategies and techniques on how to effectively engage the government in rights-claiming. He’s been very successful in his efforts and now even sits on the Iligan City Housing Board. Achmad’s story inspires me because of how he took it upon himself to help his community. It’s nice to know that in a small way I was able to contribute to his transformation.”

Real challenges

Seeing change on a local level, empowering others to help themselves and their communities—it’s what Janel enjoys most about her work. “The big picture, for instance when it comes to the human rights situation in the Philippines, can be discouraging. It’s the changes you see in people, in villages, and during rallies that really constitute the bricks and mortar of the peace movement in Mindanao.”

The challenges are real, though, and they might get tougher. In recent years the human rights situation in the Philippines has deteriorated and attacks against human rights defenders have increased. A few years ago Janel received death threats through text messages, and her office received prank calls and death threats. More recently, MPPM’s advocacy regarding indigenous people’s rights and the Bangsamoro has likely raised the level of scrutiny being applied to them and similar organisations.

“The first time I faced these kinds of personal threats I was afraid to do my work. I was afraid for my family. What helped me deal with all of this was actually how close knit MPPM is. When we experience threats we make adjustments in how we work. We have a lot of eyes and ears on the ground that monitor the local situation. That helps to keep us safe.”

Beyond the strife and struggle

Given the worsening human rights situation in the country Janel feels that MPPM should think carefully about positioning itself. “We should continue to express our opposition but without antagonising too much. We’re not ready to face big threats, and with all the projects we’re involved in we don’t have the time and energy to deal with that kind of stuff. So let us do our job and at the same time find strategies to voice our criticism in a subtle way. That’s a key challenge for us going forward.”

Notwithstanding the difficulties and daunting circumstances, Janel is hopeful about the future. She wishes, though, that the rest of the world starts taking note of the good as much as the bad in Mindanao. “With the eyes of the world at least temporarily fixed on Mindanao at the time of the Marawi siege, I now would like for people to look beyond the strife and struggle. Mindanao is not just about conflict. The problem is that you can’t sensationalise the good. Community stories of peace don’t usually make the headlines. But those stories, like Achmad’s and many like him, are exactly what has proven to be successful in achieving real conflict transformation. Let us all spread them loud and clear.”