Sharing nonviolence: an interview with Ed Garcia

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1996-03-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: Tell me about armed struggle in the Philippines.

ED GARCIA: Over half our people live under the poverty threshold and, although we have formal democratic structures, they are essentially flawed. For nearly two decades we had a dictatorial rule, and even now, some people still remain marginalized, both economically and politically. Initially, the main source of tension was the lack of land for peasants, who then formed the New People's Army. That issue of land has been carried over in other areas of the country, especially in the shanty towns--the urban-poor settlements.

The other source of conflict is over resources. In the forest areas, the ancestral domains of indigenous people, there is what is known as developmental aggression. Big companies use security forces to dispossess the people from the areas and resources that were traditionally theirs. They have been pushed back to the last inhabitable regions. And finally, in the south we have a minority; eight to 10 percent of the population practice the Muslim faith and they have not been the recipients of the development in Mindanao, so a national liberation front has been formed. However, in the last few months, that problem is being resolved by negotiated agreements.

SPENCER: So the Muslims' struggle is not tied to the New People's Army. I remember hearing references to communist insurgents. Was that the New People's Army?

GARCIA: Yes. The party is called the Communist Party of the Philippines. The New People's Army is their military force.

SPENCER: This conflict has not been resolved?

GARCIA: Well, although there has been no formal settlement, the people have participated in efforts to bring about a response to their demands. The urban poor and the farmers, among others, have formed a coalition that is known as the National Peace Conference, and other citizens' formations have become a peace constituency. So, even while there is an armed struggle in the country, nevertheless, citizens are trying to bring about a just peace. It's an interesting phenomenon. In other countries the way it's normally resolved is through formal negotiations, but here, prior to that, the ground is being prepared by citizens in different sectors of society and in different regions. The churches, for example, play an important role.

SPENCER: The National Peace Conference is the organization with which you are involved?

GARCIA: Yes, the National Peace Conference, the Coalition for Peace, the Multi-Sectoral Peace Advocates. All of these different formations are using creative means--such as the immunization of children--to promote peace. There are venues for citizens to express their vision for peace. That's a unique phenomenon. You don't wait for a formal accord between the parties of the conflict--especially if they really don't want to sign one--but the citizens are not giving up, they are becoming the authors of their own destiny.

SPENCER: People were so enthusiastic when Mrs. Aquino came to power but were disappointed that nothing dramatic happened in terms of land reform. Can you explain that?

GARCIA: Yes, the people's power experience of 1986, which brought down the dictatorship of Marcos, was a political upheaval of major proportions. However, the government that took over was perhaps not decisive enough to enact comprehensive socio-economic reform measures to transform the society. The expectations of large segments of society did not materialize. Of course, there were many problems that plagued this government. For example, the military establishment did not essentially change, except for the leadership at the top, and when they provoked coup d'etat attempts this put the government off balance. The social reforms, which might otherwise have been given greater attention, did not take place.

SPENCER: And what about the subsequent governments?

GARCIA: The subsequent governments simply stressed the economic restructuring programs which the International Monetary Fund wanted. The goal was to keep the government solvent and pay off its debts. It had inherited almost a $30 billion dollar debt. It is keeping its fiscal restraint program and paying its international loans to multilateral institutions. This does not allow government to use its financial resources for more creative investments that would benefit more of the population. There were many calls, even on the part of the church, for freedom from debt. The Freedom From Debt coalition was formed. This debt had been incurred by a dictatorial government. Money had been spent and could not be accounted for, but our government wanted to repay these debts faithfully. Peace is related to economic development. Political changes were not sufficient, and parliamentary democracy does not automatically create a democratic society. People have to continue to be involved.

I was one of the authors of our 1987 Constitution, which was ratified by nearly three-fourths of the population on February 2, 1987. It recognizes the importance of the contribution by citizens who brought about the changes of 1986. It provides for social movements to be consulted and to participate in formulating policy and even in governance. Unfortunately, social movements have not yet found representation in parliament, so the political parties still are almost in full control.

SPENCER: Had you already been writing about Gandhian methods before the People Power Revolution?

GARCIA: Yes, in 1970 I was one of the founders of the first nonviolent movement for change, which we called Lakas Diwa, a Filipino expression meaning soul force. It was a takeoff from Mahatma Gandhi's idea of satyagraha.

SPENCER: Then you went abroad?

GARCIA: Well first, in the 1970s, I was in jail for a while. I was then studying in the seminary. The Jesuits, with whom I was teaching at the University and working, suggested that I could go to Latin America to learn from the experiences there. So I went to Chile, where I witnessed the events of 1972 that led to the killing to Salvador Allende. I met Adolfo Perez Esquivel then, and later again in France and the Philippines.

This was a period of tremendous ferment. When later I went to Mexico to study, some of our professors were the Chilean leaders who had been deposed--like Clodomiro Almeyda, who was the foreign minister under Allende. I was in Mexico from '74 to around '78. This was a fascinating period when many of the ideas were being tested. I was committed to nonviolence but at the same time I was seeing what was taking place in Central America, El Salvador and Nicaragua, where there were also revolutionary movements trying to work for the changes they thought necessary. So having respect for that particular expression without embracing it was another interesting aspect of one's experience in Latin America during those years. There were the examples of Dom Helder Camera, the bishop from Recife, Brazil, and many other church leaders who were spokespersons for justice and human rights.

Regarding methods for change, one can differ without necessarily condemning the other side. One can exhibit tolerance. I even went to Cuba with some Mexican classmates. It was connected to my background in the Philippines, where some of my students had become leaders in the Communist movement and embraced armed struggle as a strategy to bring change. I was in constant debate with them. In the 1980s, especially leading to the 1986 Peoples' Power Revolution, we had the affinity and trust because we had learned to respect each other's integrity and credibility.

SPENCER: After Latin America, you worked for Amnesty International?

GARCIA: That's right. But Amnesty International has a rule that you cannot work on your own country, so rather than assign me to Asia, they took me on as a researcher for the Andean countries. I undertook a high-level mission to Colombia which exposed the situation of political prisoners there. I wrote that report, which became a major controversy, in April of 1980 in Colombia.

After two years of work with Amnesty I decided to stay another year in Europe studying languages and seeing a part of the world of which I had no experience--Eastern Europe. I had Polish classmates in my language courses in France and Portugal so I was invited to visit them in Warsaw in their dorms. I lectured to their Latin America department about the Philippines, about the U.S. military bases in our country, about nuclear weapons and the methods that people were employing to end this kind of situation, about Latin America--and I spoke to Solidarity members.

SPENCER: In 1986 I spent a day in Krakow with a priest who was responsible for his congregation's youth. He told me that that there would be another upsurge in the Solidarity movement but, until the Filipino People Power movement took place, he had not been confident that the next stage would remain nonviolent. That peaceful revolution impressed my young people, he told me, and I now believe that the next stage here will be nonviolent. Did you have any conversations along those lines?

GARCIA: Twice I had direct contact with people who worked in Poland. I visited Warsaw in October 1980, just before I went back to the Philippines, and we corresponded afterward. There's the power of the written word; I had published Free My People in 1972 which I brought with me to Poland. Later, in 1988, I was doing summer courses in Uppsala, Sweden and Oslo and there I shared with Polish friends some material on the Philippines which I had published; they probably took it to Poland.

SPENCER: You spoke in 1980 to members of Solidarity in Warsaw?

GARCIA: Yes, and also to the students--but under very discreet conditions. It had to be quietly organized--except one at the university, which was open. The main thing about such events was that we exchanged ideas for unleashing creativity. We had joggings for justice and song festivals and we would use the church for prayer vigils. Once people begin to imagine ways of resistance, you unleash the same creative spirit also in other people who are looking for ways out. Some of my classmates from South Africa later went back to South Africa and worked with the ANC using these courses. It was not the form but the spirit. That spirit then incarnates itself in the various ways which are culturally relevant.

SPENCER: Yes. I have heard in Moscow that there were Russians who were inspired by the televised examples that they saw in the streets of Manila and in Poland--so ideas did travel.

GARCIA: The only time I was in Moscow it was to help conduct a conflict resolution workshop in October 1991 for about 40 participants.

SPENCER: Nonviolence training has become popular there. There are many trainings going on in Russia.

GARCIA: That's quite right. We have a program here at International Alert now that deals with the former Soviet Union. In the 1991 workshop I conducted discussions of nonviolence with participants from all parts of the Soviet Union. I shared stories of how this worked in the Filipino context without attempting to influence them. Other people must be able to find out what is appropriate for themselves, given their own history, their own situation. Some of the people who were involved in the minority struggles stood up and said, But this would be so difficult here! Others saw this as an ideal way forward that they would like to undertake.

SPENCER: Since this occurred after the August coup, some of them must already have been experienced with it.

GARCIA: Precisely. The debate was very passionate because they knew it was not a closed chapter.

SPENCER: Some of the people who had been in the circle of bodies defending the Russian White House formed an organization called the Living Ring. I think they didn't understand what they had done. Sometimes people innovate but don't have a theoretical account for their own experience so they didn't really understand how they succeeded. Later the Living Ringgave up its commitment to nonviolence. I think some leadership roles were taken over by people who like to think of themselves as Cossacks. I don't know whether you had any contact with them.

GARCIA: I would have to go back to review my list of participants. But you are right; after action a period of reflection is needed. Without that philosophical phase, a movement will not last.

Also, in that workshop I mentioned that the Philippines is probably the only country in the world that has a movement against coups d'etat. After the coup of December 1989, a group of people forged a kind of covenant with the people to resist military intervention in governance. We told the military groups that, if they took over power, people would withdraw from all kinds of activity, paralyze the country, and make it impossible to govern. What these efforts do is to give people a sense of power and of hope--the knowledge that something is possible, even if it is largely symbolic. We went on TV for many hours explaining that plan. In the Philippines nonviolent resistance is not just rhetoric, for there is lived experience backing it up. But we also had to admit that what we can do is limited. Nonviolent efforts do not change everything or achieve an ideal society.

SPENCER: Yes, it's a great way of blocking things that must not happen, but you still need a pro-active politics to make things happen that should happen.

GARCIA: Exactly. The sustaining capacity must involve people in policy formulation, in lobbying purposes, in electoral activity, and so on. People can't rest on resistance, but must go on to construction.

SPENCER: Your group, International Alert, is working on such projects now under the rubric war prevention.

GARCIA: That's right. There was a meeting about that in Ottawa and I emphasized the unique role of Canadians. You are so respected in so many other countries. The contributions that Canadians can make are sometimes undervalued. It's a treasure that Canadians should not ignore.

Ed Garcia works with International Alert in London, England. Metta Spencer edits Peace and teaches Peace and Conflict Studies at Erindale College, U. of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1996

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1996, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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