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Ana Theresia Hontiveros-Baraquel

"We have to find another way of engaging in conflict and trying to resolve our conflicts without violating each other."

It's said that crisis usually brings out the best in people. This is particularly true in the case of Filipino peace woman Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros-Baraquel (born 1966), whose activism grew during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. At the time, the country was in deep social and political unrest. Risa, then still in high school, was among the many students and youth who rose up to challenge and expose the abusive Marcos regime.

As a young Catholic schoolgirl, Risa had other things going for her, such as music, theater and the media, but she chose to put all these options aside to pursue a greater passion and cause. As she puts it, she was “ambushed” by the student movement.

Risa's early foray and involvement in activism can be traced to the socio-civic orientation of her parents and also her school, St. Scholastica's College in Manila, which is known for cultivating critical minds and social consciousness. Risa also considers herself a child of various streams of thought, inspired by the ideas of Gandhi and Paolo Freire, Active Non-Violence and Latin American Liberation Theology. These became the scaffolding of her dynamic involvement in student activism.

She recalls in an earlier interview: “I became an activist the summer after my second year in high school. My mom (Chit Navarro Hontiveros) brought me to a forum of the Nuke-Free Philippines Coalition where I met Sister Mary John Mananzan, Nini Quezon-Avancena, Mary Concepcion Bautista. I was inspired by the fight against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant and by [the struggle for] denuclearization and, of course, eventually, the removal of the US military base in Subic.”

This early influence encouraged her to organize her school mates in junior and senior high school into an initiative they called the “Nuclear Disarmament Group.” By organizing discussions and exchanges, Risa got involved with other socially oriented groups. By the time she entered the Ateneo University for college, she was already a notable figure in the anti-dictatorship movement. Together with other young activists, Risa formed Alyansa ng mga Kristiyanong Mag-aaral {the Student Christian Alliance or AKMA), as an alternative to other radical student groups. AKMA espoused active non-violence with its battle cry “Makadiyos, Makabayan, Makatao” (Pro-God, Pro-country, Pro-people). As one of her colleagues points out, “Even during her student days, it was clear to Risa that fundamental changes are needed in Philippine society and these can be achieved not through armed struggle but through peaceful means.”

Risa shares that as a child she was revolted by physical violence, which explains the kind of progressive stance she has assumed as an activist. Exemplifying an activism that does not resort to the use of force, she insists that while we are immersed in a politicized arena of conflict, “We have to find another way of engaging in conflict and trying to resolve our conflicts without violating each other.”

With this principle in mind, Risa became deeply involved in issues of peace, and helped make peace a central advocacy of many grassroots communities. Her volunteer work as Secretary General of the Coalition for Peace served as the core of her engagements, influencing civil society groups, peace advocacy to communities across the country, and introducing the concept of peace zones. Risa's involvement in the Coalition brought her to different communities, including remote villages that can only be reached on foot.

Risa underscores the atrocities that both state and non-state actors inflict on others that in turn result in cycles of violence. Risa advocates for a more holistic approach to peace, which has led her to explore various formal and informal venues for intervention. Apart from her direct involvement with marginalized sectors and communities, Risa worked closely with government and the communist National Democratic Front, (NDF) a group that espouses a belief totally different from hers, as a member of the government’s panel negotiating peace with the NDF. Her work in the peace panel exemplified her unique contribution and service to peace in the land. As one of her colleagues underscores, “Risa has the ability to work with different kinds of people and sectors. She truly listens to all their sentiments. In the process of all the dialogues, she is able to earn their respect and trust.”

In 2004, Risa assumed the post of party representative of the party list Akbayan to the Philippine Congress. For Risa, this new arena is challenging and potent. The challenges manifested themselves early on during the campaign when Risa received threats from the New People’s Army of the NDF that tagged her “persona non grata”. But Risa exuded grace under pressure, braving the campaign trail to reach out to as many communities as possible.

Even after her party's victory, Risa's four children, her husband and family continue to fear for Risa's safety. But Congress presents her and the movement she represents with options and opportunities to further the work she has already begun. She hopes to legislate progressive and holistic policy measures that will facilitate the socio-economic and political reforms that are requisites to bringing about lasting peace. As such, Risa continues to work with peasants on the issue of agrarian reform; with the labor sector on the issue of just wages and humane working conditions; with the urban poor on the issue of housing and social services; with the youth and students on the issue of education; and with indigenous peoples on the issue of self-determination and ancestral domain.

Risa’s work in the peace movement is far from over. But gradually, with the commitment of peace workers like Risa, peace advocacy in the Philippines has achieved the kind of urgency and attention it deserves.

 

It is said that crisis usually brings out the best in people. This is particularly true in the case of Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, whose activism grew during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. The country was in deep social and political turmoil and Risa rose to become a notable figure in the anti-dictatorship movement as a student leader and founding member of the Student Christian Alliance. Risa considers herself a child of various streams of thought, inspired by the ideas of Gandhi and Paolo Freire, active non-violence and Latin American liberation theology. Seeing life through such lenses, Risa is certain that fundamental changes are needed in Philippine society. But she is firm in her belief that this should be achieved not through armed struggle, but through peaceful means.
Even as a child Risa was revolted by physical violence, thus her progressive but pacifist stance as an activist. Helping grassroots communities establish zones of peace in villages across the archipelago, she underscores the atrocities that both state and non-state actors inflict on others that in turn result in cycles of violence. Risa advocates a more holistic approach to peace, which has made her explore various formal and informal venues for intervention. Married to a police officer and the mother of four children, Risa is secretary general of the Coalition for Peace and recently, she assumed the post of representative of the Akbayan Citizen's Action Party in the Philippine Congress. Through the peace movement and the commitment of peace workers like Risa, peace advocacy in the Philippines has gradually attained the urgency and attention it deserves.

 

The costs of the continuing armed conflict in the Philippines have given rise to citizens' groups pushing for thoroughgoing political, economic and social reforms and urging both the government and the armed rebel forces to come to the peace table and negotiate an end to the violence.

 

Coalition for Peace
Philippine Panel in Peace Negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDFP)

 

Southeastern Asia | Philippines

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