By Elena Masilungan
Yasmin Buran-Lao, peace activist, women’s rights advocate, community organizer, is walking her talk by running — that is, running for senator in this year’s election as a candidate of the Liberal party.
The 48-year old Lao has made public service her life’s mission. She works with disadvantaged communities and the women of Muslim Mindanao, having grown up amid its violent conflicts and grinding poverty. For her efforts, she was awarded the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Fellowship for Professional Development. The award was given by the American embassy and the Benigno S. Aquino Foundation in 2005.
“Fighting for the rights of Muslim women and other marginalized groups is something personal for me. I get enough satisfaction helping people gain a certain control over their lives,” she said.
Lao believes that ordinary people must be given opportunities to serve the country even if “they do not have the money and the clout that most politicians have.”
“There has to be new politics that can come in. This kind of new politics comes from ordinary people like us (who) have the capacity and the ability to serve this country…. It is time for the citizenry to be the spokesperson of its own agenda,” she said in a recent interview.
Running for any electoral post was not in Lao’s immediate future. She was all set to leave for Hawaii for an academic fellowship early this year. Her nomination to fill the 12th slot of the LP’s senatorial slate was a “shock” not only to her sisters in the women’s group PILIPINA and her fellow advocates in civil society but, more so, to her.
“For quite some time, the NoyMar campaign team had been headhunting for a Muslim candidate who would embody the reform-oriented politics of the team,” related Elizabeth Yang, national coordinator of PILIPINA, in her email to other PILIPINA members. Lao was one of those nominated, and eventually chosen, to represent Muslim Mindanao, grassroots leadership, and women in the LP’s senatorial slate.
“In our talks after she filed her (candidacy), Yasmin said she felt she had to accept the challenge to raise the bar for her (and our) advocacies on gender rights, peace and good governance,” Yang said. “We need to connect the dots of the struggle for democratic rights and good governance with meaningful engagement in electoral (partisan) politics.”
“I have been advocating for women seizing the center of power and reframing politics. And how can I go to the community of women and talk about women’s political participation when I was given the opportunity and I said “No?,” Lao added..
A woman, a Moro and a Muslim
Lao’s advocacies have been founded to a large extent on her being a woman, a Moro, and a Muslim. Moro is the collective term that ethnic groups living in southern Philippines who have separate local cultures and who belong to the Islamic faith use in referring to themselves. Lao, who hails from Lanao del Sur, is from the Maranao ethnic group.
“They impact my life in such sweeping, profound ways that my life’s work and purpose have become firmly grounded on them. On account of my being a woman, a Moro, and a Muslim, I came to know the meaning of violence, discrimination, injustice and inequality. I not only witnessed them as a regular occurrence within my family and community. I have been personally living through them ever since I was a child,” she explained.
As a woman and mother, the war in Muslim Mindanao, particularly, weighs heavily on Lao.
“Whenever war breaks out between the army and the Moro rebels, or between various clans, it is the civilians who are caught in the middle. They leave their homes and communities for the evacuation centers. But conditions in the evacuations centers are no better, especially for the women and children. They are not favorable to one’s peace of mind nor sense of dignity. When you live in an evacuation center, however temporary, your family does not have access to food, safe shelter, sanitation, education for the children, and income. This weighs heavily on the women who constantly worry about their families’ wellbeing and safety,” she said in describing the ordeal of women and children in evacuation centers.
As an NGO (nongovernment organization) worker, Lao has been focused on peacebuilding, the right of local communities to self-determination, and good governance in the Bangsamoro homeland.
“The war in Mindanao, which is a consequence of bad governance, has shortchanged not just the people of Mindanao but the rest of the country…. In 2008, government spent P50 billion of taxpayers’ money on it, equivalent to the cost of building 50,000 public school classrooms. It costs the country P20 million a day, money that could instead go to creating livelihood opportunities to help our people live better, more productive lives,” she rued, connecting how what is happening in Muslim Mindanao is also affecting the rest of the country.
“Running for the Senate gives me a chance to translate my advocacies to a legislative agenda that is borne out of the experiences of marginalized people who have been confronting poverty and armed conflicts for most of their lives. I have the chance to bring my message of hope that we can achieve lasting peace, justice and equality among all Filipinos, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion, even in war-torn Muslim Mindanao. Our hope is to build a country that is inclusive and respectful of each other’s differences despite all the diversities that divide us,” she said.
Lao admits she faces a daunting run for the Senate, what with her limited campaign funds and her being a relative unknown to voters, except perhaps in the NGO community. But she shrugs this off. “I cannot disregard the opportunity the campaign provides to impart my message of hope to different sectors of Filipinos. And of course, it’s time for me to walk my talk,” Lao said with a confident smile.