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Philippines

REBEL PRIESTS BALWEG AND ORTEGA MAKE PEACE OFFER IN PHILIPPINE TV INTERVIEW

Updated: April 22, 1986 05:00 PM GMT
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Fathers Conrado Balweg and Bruno Ortega, former Divine Word (SVD) priests turned rebels, said April 18 that the communist-led New People´s Army (NPA) in northern Luzon´s Cordillera mountains will accept President Corazon Aquino´s offer of peace if military withdraw from the area.

The rebel priests said peace in the Cordilleras is possible if the military is removed and a "bodong" (traditional tribal pact to end war) is signed.

"If a bodong is made by the people, if it is respected, if landgrabbing is stopped and the military is removed there will be peace," Father Balweg said.

The priests and other NPA members were interviewed for the first time on Philippine television, during an hour-long report on a government station.

Both reaffirmed their commitment to remain priests, and Father Balweg said he would not have joined the rebels if the Church had made a better response to injustices against his fellow tribals 10 years ago.

"We are very happy that Cory Aquino is declaring peace, even at least verbally. That is what we would like her to prove," Father Balweg said.

"She is offering a ceasefire here in the Cordilleras, while troops under her are at present waging war against our people," he added.

June Keithly, who received a "plaque of courage" in the Catholic Media Awards presentation March 24 for her coverage of events leading to the downfall of deposed president Ferdinand Marcos in February, hosted the report.

-- The priests, both belonging to the Tinggian tribe in the guerilla stronghold, said the NPA gained support from tribespeople when government and multinational development projects displaced communities from their ancestral lands more than 10 years ago.

During the interview, Father Ortega stated, "The CRC (Cellophil Resources Corporation, which was granted the biggest logging concession by the Marcos government in 1973-1974 for its paper project) was the primary issue in this area, and (this) helped the NPA build up here.

"It affected many people and territories here. Much of our ancestral land would have been destroyed. It affected over 200,000 hectares of land."

Fathers Balweg and Ortega said the military is seen as an enemy of the people because it helped the government and private corporations denude forests, dislocate villages and disrupt lives.

"When the people resisted the development projects," Father Balweg said, "they used presidential guards (who) went far up north and started shooting. All employees of CRC were provided with presidential guards."

In Father Ortega´s view, "It should be the people who decide if there will be a dialogue with the military reformists. To be practical, at this point, how can there be a dialogue when they keep on attacking our area?"

"When I was still in the ministry," Father Balweg added, "we were forbidden to travel around to do our missionary activity because it was linked with the land and life issues."

If the Church in Abra province where he worked had done enough to stop human rights violations, Father Balweg said, he would not have joined the NPA.

-- Both priests were expelled from the SVD order for joining the NPA.

"It was a very ticklish situation for the SVDs at that time," said SVD Father Florante Camacho, president of the University of San Carlos in Cebu and former head of the Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines.

"There was a split between foreign SVDs (who had projects pending with the Marcos government and did not like Father Balweg´s opposition to the Cellophil project) and Filipino SVDs who supported Father Balweg," said Father Camacho.

-- In the interview, Father Balweg said that people in the Cordilleras want international support because they realize they cannot develop by themselves.

"This can be discussed," he said. "What we cannot accept is that decisions on what is good for our people are decided for us by people outside the Cordilleras. We know what is good for us."

-- President Aquino has offered reconciliation with the communists since she was sworn in Feb. 25. She told a University of the Philippines graduation ceremony here April 20, "I am sending a message of peace and reconciliation to the communist-led insurgents. Some have already responded. I pray that more will and that we shall see an end to the insurgency problem without further loss and suffering, but I have no illusions that peace will come easily."

-- Both priests reasserted their commitment to the priesthood.

Father Ortega said, "Working up in the hills is something spiritual for me. It does not make me feel less a priest."

"As a revolutionary we work with the masses," Father Balweg said. "Whatever the masses are doing in history, there is something spiritual, because we are just projecting the image of the creator. We would like to continue to create this land."

Because of their commitment to the masses, they cannot surrender, they added.

"What should I surrender?" asked Father Balweg. "I was never a criminal. Do we have to surrender the interest of the masses? Surrender is absurd to me."

-- Keithly gave the priests a foam rubber replica of a hand making the "L" sign, Aquino´s campaign sign. On it was written "Kabilang ako" (I count).

Taking the "gift from the lowlands" as a peace gesture, Father Balweg said, "We accept it because our history ... upholds peace. We don´t want war."

-- After the interview, observers said it succeeded in projecting a different image of the rebel priests.

Jesuit Father John Carroll of the Institute on Church and Social Issues in Manila told UCA News that Father Balweg seemed more open than when he appeared in an underground video tape one year ago.

"He expressed his own position and not a Marxist standard line," Father Carroll said. "It seems he has returned to the original motivation for going to the mountains: a solidarity with the Tinggian tribe."

Other reactions were generally favorable: -- A young parish priest said the interview showed the Cordillera situation from the locals´ perspective.

-- Community organizer Alice Murphy said Father Balweg´s arguments were not offensive and his demands seemed legitimate. The posture he took during the interview invited people to understand him and his cause, she said.

-- "Showing the report over the government channel is a sign Cory (Aquino) is serious about dialoguing with the communists," a 19-year-old student said.

-- A seminary colleague of Father Balweg, now pastor of a Quezon City parish, said he sympathized with his arguments but did not agree with his conclusions.

"I don´t agree with armed struggle, and the Cordillera should not be treated in isolation. It should not be seen above the cause of the whole Philippines or even of all mankind," he said.

-- Bishop Odilo Estpueler of Bangued, Father Balweg´s diocese, and SVD Northern Province superior Father Artemio Rillera were unavailable for comment.

END

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