Public service is not typically how staff members of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice describe the work of the participants in the Women PeaceMakers Program. But peacemaking is undoubtedly public service by a different name, as was demonstrated when Mary Ann Arnado recently was awarded the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Fellowship for Professional Development in Public Service from the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
â€œPublic service in the context of armed conflict is being on the side of truth, justice and compassion,â€ said Arnado, a Woman PeaceMaker from the Philippines in 2005 at the IPJ. â€œIt is about making young people believe that it is better to carry ball(point) pens and notebooks instead of guns.â€
Given to Filipinos who exemplify the leadership of Aquino, an opposition senator during President Ferdinand Marcosâ€™ reign in the Philippines who was assassinated in 1983, the award recognized Arnado for her work as a peace advocate in Mindanao, the southern islands of the Philippines and the site of a decades-long civil war between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The award was presented to Arnado on Feb. 5 by the widow of Aquino, former Philippine President Corazon Aquino, and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney.
Arnadoâ€™s work as a peace advocate also led to her initial selection for the Women PeaceMakers Program in 2004.
â€œMary Ann was successful in organizing civil society demonstrations and outreach to government, military and the MILF that then helped bring about a ceasefire,â€ recalled the IPJâ€™s interim executive director, Dee Aker.
A serious threat to that ceasefire forced Arnado to defer her participation in the IPJ program, and the violence subsided enough in 2005 that she was able to leave the community-based, ceasefire-monitoring group she established with colleagues, known as Bantay Ceasefire (or Ceasefire Watch), and join the IPJ for the two-month residency of the program. Arnado was then paired with a â€œpeace writerâ€ to record her story of peacemaking.
Maia Woodward, a journalist from Cyprus and Arnadoâ€™s peace writer, remarked that Arnadoâ€™s experiences at the institute â€œgave her time to reflect on what she had done thus far in her life, and how she wanted to continue. I think mainly though, she also felt it was an important opportunity to give a voice to the thousands of ordinary people in Mindanao who have â€¦ suffered beyond imagination.â€
In the past few years, despite outbreaks of pronounced fighting, the parties to the conflict had come to near agreement on a sensitive issue that would clear the way to a more comprehensive settlement. However, in August of last year the armed conflict resumed and the peace process is at a virtual standstill. At least 328,000 people are still displaced and living in miserable conditions in evacuation centers because of the latest round of fighting between the AFP and MILF, according to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre.
â€œThe past few months have been very, very emotional for me,â€ Arnado recently wrote from her home in Davao. â€œWhen â€¦ people started evacuating again â€” I could just not bear the sight of the evacuation centers. People felt betrayed, and I feel like I have also betrayed them. How can you explain to people what had happened after giving them so much hope in the peace process?â€
But Arnado is looking to the Aquino Fellowship as an opportunity to be refreshed. The fellowship includes a three-week exchange visit to the United States in June, through the U.S. State Departmentâ€™s International Visitor Leadership Program.
â€œI would like to use that time to compose myself, reflect, recharge and â€¦ pick up some inspiring stories to bring back to Mindanao. One of those of course is the incredible story of President Obama,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™d like to talk to people and find out how America has opened itself to embrace change. That seems to be the sticking point in the Mindanao peace process. The status quo is just so entrenched, people can hardly think out of the box.â€
On the prospect of the exchange visit, she added, â€œI am eager to meet old friends and, of course, visit my home at the IPJ.â€
â€” Emiko Noma