Col. Benjamin Hao: The Continuing Challenge to Lead
Col. Benjamin Hao is a Civil Military Operation (CMO) Officer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the commander of an Army CMO Battalion based in the National Capital Region. He was born in Sampaloc, Manila and raised in Malabon City. As a child, he looked up to his father who served the country as a police officer.
Hao was in college when he took the entrance exam of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). The military life was something he did not anticipate. He didn’t know what to expect and had not realized then that entering the academy was a life’s commitment in itself. Nonetheless, he knew that he made his family proud when he passed the exam and got accepted into the academy.
"TAKE ME TO THE FARTHEST!"
His first year out of the PMA, Hao requested, with much enthusiasm, to be assigned to the farthest of places. He recounts the journey that seemed to be an endless climb up the mountains. He was welcomed by the sound of gunfire on his first day, and overheard the mocking chants of “Hao, Hao, Kalabaw1” over their two-way radio system which the rebel groups managed to intercept. It was a daunting welcome for an officer from Manila; nonetheless, Hao kept his idealism.
Hao left Mindanao for some time and was reassigned in Capiz, one hour away from the paradise island of Boracay. But in 2010, he was recalled to Mindanao to address the impact of an event that shocked the nation – the Maguindanao massacre2. His mission then was “to bring back normalcy” in the aftermath of the violence that exposed the gravity of injustice that took place in the region.
From 2011 until 2013, Hao became Battalion Commander of the 7th Infantry Battalion (7IB) based in Pikit, a municipality in the province of Cotabato. His mission was unlike any of the missions he had in the past. The task was to “win peace,” and he was surprised to be instructed to connect with Balay Mindanaw, a local network of no-government organizations (NGOs), upon his arrival. The leaders of Balay Mindanaw received him well and expressed genuine interest to assist and cooperate. At the same time, they challenged Hao’s readiness for the task at hand.
Armed with his Development Communications background, Hao worked hard to understand the environment he had to operate in. Shortly after, Hao was given the opportunity to meet other member NGOs of Balay Mindanaw. Through their help, he sought to understand how to sustainably address rido. Rido, a term commonly used in Mindanao, refers to clan feuds which include violent retaliatory acts enacted by families or clans aiming to avenge a perceived injustice. The Maguindanao massacre is considered one of the most notorious events that can be linked to rido in recorded history. It has been alleged to be a culmination of the cycle of acts of domination between two warring clans, a cycle that is considered part and parcel of clan politics and culture in Muslim Mindanao3. It caused the death of 58 individuals, the destruction of property, and the disturbance of peace efforts in the communities. It involved the death of 34 journalists; the brutality of the incident led the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to declare the Maguindanao massacre as the single deadliest event for journalists in history4.
Hao saw how the lives of the people in Mindanao were disrupted because of rido. He saw how children were forced to carry firearms and how they have begun to think that rido is normal, “that rido is already a part of their lives.” Hao feared how much these clan feuds, big or small, threatened the overall peace efforts in Mindanao, and studying the work of Wilfredo Torres III on the subject, he learned that many armed confrontations between insurgent groups and the military have actually been triggered by rido. “We were always involved in rido, whether we like it or not,” and so, Hao sought to understand how the different communities perceived the military in the context of rido.
For this task, Hao prepared his soldiers for peace mission instead of war. He transformed 7IB into his Panday Kalinaw team, which literally means ‘peace-builder.’ They went to the communities and learned that the military was perceived differently by different groups – some saw them as a strongly biased party who always picks sides and favors one clan over the other; others regarded them as the common enemy; others approached them as the neutral, third-party referee; others viewed them to be of no use at all to addressing the issue between the warring clans. Hao observed that however the military was being perceived, they were always involved in rido in one way or another. But even with their involvement in every single rido in the area, the conflict was recurring; it seemed that nothing was being resolved.
A DIFFERENT MILITARY LEADERSHIP STORY
Determined to address rido, Hao continued to engage the CSOs to talk about issues that concerned the communities. “They helped me understand Mindanao; but it took time.” With the shared goal of winning peace for the people, the group made the commitment to meet regularly ever Wednesday; later on, they decided to call themselves the ‘Good Wednesday Group for Peace.’
“The CSOs have told me the true story of Mindanao.” Slowly, Hao recognized the value of engaging the CSOs in achieving a better understanding of the environment, especially the people. Furthermore, the group’s openness and attitude for collaborative action became a source of hope. “The more organizations you have, the more chances of winning.” As he worked closely with the Good Wednesday Group, Hao noticed that peace-building existed as part of the mission of every organization that was represented. He realized then that what needs to be done is to establish the links that will serve as opportunities for the groups to work with each other.
It was Ariel Hernandez5, one of the leaders of Balay Mindanaw, who nominated Hao for the Mindanao Bridging Leaders Program (MBLP) of the AIM TeaM Energy Center for Bridging Leadership (AIMTEC) in 2012. As a MBLP Fellow, he realized that in order to sustain his peace-building efforts, he would need to rally more people to act for the cause. It was his challenge as the Bridging Leader to empower more people who will take ownership of the mission to win peace in Mindanao. As Hao put it, “you have to produce more ‘owners’.” Starting with his troops, the 7IB, Hao worked on producing more peace builders in the military. He observed that this brought back the trust of the people in the military, which led him to believe that “the ‘peace’ I have started to build is continuing.”
THE CONTINUING CHALLENGE OF PEACE-BUILDING
Hao learned that the journey to becoming a Bridging Leader is never-ending, and one of the most challenging steps is, in fact, somewhere near the beginning – getting a sense of “where you fit in.” For Hao, it is in sharing the concept of BL in continuing his peace advocacy.
In his mission of producing more peace-builders, Hao made it a point to engage the youth. He brought together youth from the different communities for a year-long leadership development program facilitated by the 7IB. Opportunities were provided for the youth to participate at an early age, and in so doing, he believes that it has brought the communities closer to a better future. Hao also volunteered to be a Faculty member at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Command and General Staff College (GSC)6 in 2013. He was assigned as module director, and during his time, Hao was able to introduce a peace module in the GSC curriculum.
Today, Hao holds on to his idealism, wanting to share more of what he has learned and what he believes are effective ways to win peace. Now that he has moved back to Metro Manila, he hopes to continue with a new chapter in his peace-building journey by enlivening the conversation on peace in areas beyond Mindanao.
In June 2015, Hao faced the 26 youth Fellows from the pioneer cohort of the Future Bridging Leaders Program (FBLP) of the AIMTEC. These young leaders were chosen from over 100 applicants nationwide based on their leadership track record and distinct ownership of social issues, and will undergo a 12-month leadership development and mentoring program with the AIMTEC. Hao’s story encouraged the young leaders to engage in lively conversation about Mindanao – its beauty, struggles and potentials – and made them think about the possibilities that lie ahead as they discover where they “fit in,” claim their own space, and develop change projects to address specific gaps in education, health, environment, governance, and rural and urban livelihood opportunities.
As he continues to advocate for peace among the people of the Philippines, especially in the security sector which he is a part of, Hao recognizes the need to further strengthen his links with fellow BL champions, and the opportunities a stronger network can bring for future collaborations. He realized that, in the work of a BL, as more stakeholders are involved, the better the rate of success becomes. His stakeholders are those whom Hao looked to not only for resources but for ideas and feedback. “You need a back-up, and someone to call when things are not working as planned!” At the same time, they are also the people who inspire him to continue the fight and never give up.
“Peace-building is tiring; even frustrating at times. But it is worth doing!”
1 Kalabaw is the Filipino term for carabao, a swamp type domestic water buffalo found in the Philippines.
2 November 23, 2009 – On a highway cutting through a banana grove, a large force of gunmen — reports say around 100 — intercepted the convoy of family members and supporters of Buluan vice-mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, also from a prominent local Muslim clan. They were on their way to the provincial capital to file his candidacy papers for Maguindanao's governorship in next year's general elections. It's a position that Ampatuan's father had occupied unopposed since 2001 and which Ampatuan planned to contest to keep the seat in the family. The Mangudadatu group was herded to what appears to have been a prepared killing ground in a hilly area a few kilometers from the highway. Television footage showed bullet-ridden bodies sprawled around the vehicles; others had been thrown into a mass grave and covered with earth. There are signs that the killing was done at point-blank range, using high-powered firearms. A mechanical digger at the site was used to bury some of the bodies and vehicles. [McIndoe, A. (2009, November 27). Behind the Philippines’ Maguindanao Massacre. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1943191,00.html)]
3 Arteche, J. & Estrella M. M. (2014, November). Revisiting the Maguindanao Massacre: Half a decade later. The Palladium. Retrieved from http://thepalladium.ph/legal/revisiting-maguindanao-massacre-half-decade-later/
4 Papa, A. (2009, November 26). Maguindanao massacre worst-ever for journalists. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/
5 Ariel Hernandez is also a Bridging Leadership Fellow of the AIM TeaM Energy Center for Bridging Leadership under the Bridging Leadership Fellows
6 The Armed Forces of the Philippines Command and General Staff College, known officially as the AFPCGSC or GSC, is one of the training units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It is tasked with training future generals, as well as general and command staff, and developing doctrine, training materials and courses for the AFP. [About AFPCGSC. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.afpcgsc.ph/About.aspx]