It was late afternoonn and Lianga's parliament of the streets was again in session. The hot topic was the recent attacks on some towns and villages made by the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) in North Cotabato and the on-going military operations being conducted by government forces against them.
"There is only one solution to the Muslim problem in Mindanao," a would-be people's representative declared firmly, feeling his oats. "They must be taught a lesson they will understand. Total war against them is the answer. Enough is enough." A murmur of assent came from all around.
"Muslims cannot be trusted," added another regular pseudo-parliamentarian, forefinger up in the air to make his point. "You may think you are negotiating with them for peace but all they want is time to build up their forces to finish all of us off. It's either them or us. Enough talking and negotiating with them. War is what they can only understand so let's give it to them."
A bystander with a a balding crew cut was even more forthright. "The government is pussyfooting again with the MILF," he said. "That is why they despise us. The government is weak. Unleash the army and let the air force bomb all Muslims until they either submit or are totally destroyed. That is the only way."
As I sat in the shadows listening to more talk along the same vein from the others among the group, I did not have wonder how much of what was really being said was bombast and hyperbole and which was real sentiment expressed in unequivocal terms. I heard much of the same thing from others in Lianga and even from those who consider themselves tolerant and liberal minded members of this town's intelligentsia and educated elite.
In the post-9/11 world, in the reality that is al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Abu Sayyaf, who can blame them? It seems as if Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise and is hell-bent on world domination at any cost and leaving no room for either compromise or peaceful co-existence. It has become, in the view of many, an either them or us situation and with nothing but only chaos and destruction in between.
In the Philippine context, decades of increasingly violent conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in Mindanao have sapped both sides' reservoirs of tolerance and capacity for compromise. So much blood have been spilled yet more and more lives, most of them from innocent civilians and non-combatants, are still being sacrificed for no other reason than the continuation of a protracted clash of cultures and religious views that should have no place in the modern world and between two religious movements that despite their doctrinal differences all vehemently espouse brotherly love and respect for all men.
The truth is I fear for the future of Mindanao. There are many here who hold the view that unless something is done soon to address the roots of the on-going conflict, the future will see the emergence of a situation similar to that of the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 where violent clashes between ethnic groups resulted in mass genocide and ethnic cleansing committed against cultural and religious minorities.
Years ago I would have laughed and scoffed at such an assertion as being unduly alarmist and being totally inapplicable to the situation here. This time I am not so sure. The fighting between government forces and "rogue" MILF forces are still confined to isolated parts of Mindanao but the repercussions are spilling over to the other provinces in the island. Are we here on the verge of an all out war or merely watching another skirmish in a "contained" conflict with no end in sight?
No one may know the answer to that question yet but the street parliamentarians of Lianga are at least absolutely sure of one thing. The time to let loose the dogs of war is at hand.
Now, it is easy to think that they may either have stayed out in the sun too long or had imbibed too much of Bacchus's brew to think right but theirs is an opinion many here happen to share even if most of them are not willing to profess such views so publicly. That is where, in the final analysis, the real danger lies.
If indeed an all-out war between Muslims and Christians will break out in Mindanao then it will because we want it to happen and believe it to be the only and final solution. We cannot claim to have been forced to fight because not to fight and work for peace even in the midst of a war against an apparently implacable enemy is always a viable choice at any time.
That is if we still are willing to choose it.