“Owners” of Mindanao

Odd that, while countries such as UK and Australia have rallied their support behind the Moro people’s quest for self-determination, Filipino leaders from here have not shown the same active enthusiasm. Why? What is difficult with giving your own kin the freedom that you are fully enjoying? This country needs to take a hard look at why; therein lies the key to why this part of the country is constrained from attaining its potential.

​Christian Filipino legislators in the bicameral US civil administration played a hitherto unacknowledged role in pushing for the colonisation of Mindanao, as part of the Philippines, by proposing a series of Assembly bills (between 1907 to 1913) aimed at establishing migrant farming colonies on Mindanao. This legislative process was fuelled by anger over the unequal power relations between the Filipino-dominated Assembly and the American-dominated Commission, as well as rivalry between resident Christian Filipino leaders versus the American military government, business interests and some Muslim datus in Mindanao itself for control over its land and resources. Focusing on the motives and intentions of the bills’ drafters, this study concludes that despite it being a Spanish legacy, the Christian Filipino elite’s territorial map — emphasising the integrity of a nation comprising Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao — provided the basis for their claim of Philippine sovereignty over Mindanao.

Upholding Filipino nationhood: The debate over Mindanao in the Philippine Legislature, 1907–1913, Journal of Southeast Asiam Studies, National University of Singapore, Volume 44 Issue 2, Nobutaka Suzuki

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Muslim Moro in a modernizing Philippine society

But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that we have to confront part of the Muslim world while it is going through such a period, and when most—though by no means all—of that hatred is directed against us.

Why? We should not exaggerate the dimensions of the problem. The Muslim world is far from unanimous in its rejection of the West, nor have the Muslim regions of the Third World been alone in their hostility. There are still significant numbers, in some quarters perhaps a majority, of Muslims with whom we share certain basic cultural and moral, social and political beliefs and aspirations; there is still a significant Western presence—cultural, economic, diplomatic—in Muslim lands, some of which are Western allies.

Is Islam, whether fundamentalist or other, a threat…? To this simple question, various simple answers have been given, and as is the way of simple answers, they are mostly misleading.

(There are those for which) there is no way but war to the death, in fulfillment of what they see as the commandments of their faith. There are others who, while remaining committed Muslims and well aware of the flaws of modern Western society, nevertheless also see its merits—its inquiring spirit, which produced modern science and technology; its concern for freedom, which created modern democratic government. These, while retaining their own beliefs and their own culture, seek to join us in reaching toward a freer and better world. There are some again who, while seeing the West as their ultimate enemy and as the source of all evil, are nevertheless aware of its power, and seek some temporary accommodation in order better to prepare for the final struggle. We would be wise not to confuse the second and the third.

– Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror

These, too, were my discovery in the time I’ve spent in southern Mindanao. The realization that the Moro Muslim society, contrary to the image formed by media, is not homogenous, and that it is also wrestling with the winds of change threatening it’s culture and faith, dawned on me while I was listening in on a seminar session.

We were waiting for the session’s resource speaker as he was an interviewee in the study my friend who I’d been visiting in the City was undertaking for an organization. With the way the speaker’s assistant assured us, we thought it’d only take, maybe, half an hour to wait. We ended up waiting for three hours, more or less. When we took our seats at the back and had adequate time to survey our surroundings, the sea of mostly black traditional Muslim clothing among the women and white among the men many of whom, I recognized, are ulema, hit us. My friend and I were the only non-Muslim in there. My friend suggested we wait outside. But I reassured her we’d be fine right where we were, besides the session seemed interesting. My friend whipped out her smartphone and focused on it the entire time. I listened.

They were speaking in the Maranao dialect. Previously, for some weeks already, I’d been exposed to the Iranun dialect (it’s said the root of all Moro dialects is the Iranun) and became acquainted with the meaning of their words, thus I wasn’t exactly a fish out of the water among the seminar participants. Otherwise, you can say I can sense the meaning of foreign words and phrases (in contrast to having learned them) which is similar to people who could, say, smell their way around. The Iranuns laughed when I told them “I just know” after I “guessed” a conversation correctly.

The session entailed participants to present skits of Moro life in Marawi City prior to and during the armed crisis, and afterward, the audience provided their feedback, and the ulema elevated further in terms of implications on their faith.  The portrayals were honest, laugh out loud humorous, and to me, enlightening. They were stories of dirty politics, arms, drugs, and families dealing with parental imposition of careers onto their children (promising them kilometer-long tarpaulins to publicly extol their graduation and board or bar passing), homosexuality, displacement, etcetera. As I said, the presentations were done to humor but for fear that I’d be seen as a non-Muslim laughing at Muslims I tried to trap my laughter inside my chest. The three-hour wait was worth it and serendipitous for me.

Moro Muslims face the same issues that hound modern societies such as those by mainstream Filipinos, but that their religion and cultures  (13 tribes comprise the Moro people, meaning they don’t always see eye to eye) render these issues in different light which in effect means their interpretations of them hence how they deal with them is different. Just as Christians see the world and life from the perspective of Christian teachings so do Muslims, in varying degrees, from the perspective of Islam. Just as the Bisaya or Ilocano or Mangyan approach the world and life from their cultural heritage, so do the different Moro tribes. Being a Moro doesn’t necessarily mean one is a Muslim (as there are the Lumads who also belong to the Moro group). But, otherwise, at the core, we all want the same thing:  a society that’s corruption-free, equal regard for all, equal opportunity for all, and such like. We just need to talk to each other more often.

This is what the media, being the first source of information of many Filipinos, need to correct in it’s language describing natives in the south. ‘Moro’ and ‘Muslim’ need to be unpacked to reveal their varied facets.

Sustainable security

The sustainable security of states can only be based on the security of people: their physical safety; their socio-economic well-being; respect for their dignity and political and cultural identity as individuals and as members of communities; gender equality; and the protection and promotion of all human rights – including women’s rights – and fundamental freedoms in the home, in the community, in their country and in the wider world.

Agents for Change: Civil Society Roles in Preventing War & Building Peace, Catherine Barnes, European Centre for Conflict Prevention

Martial law: whose perspective?

I’m not, never will be, for martial law or any restrictions to liberty and freedom. Even if it’s a benign form of martial law, the fact that civilians are searched or required to present evidence of who or what they are to armed personnel instill an environment of distrust that in turn gives birth to other negative feelings (fear, paranoia, anxiety, more distrust, and the like) and thoughts (am I going crazy? am I the only one distressed over restricted movement?). I can’t help feel angry that I’m searched or asked for identification. Do the checkers really give a hoot about who I am or what I do? No. They only need to see that I am not one of those wanted men and women. The wanted individuals that’s who or what they care about, bottomline, which is why it doesn’t really matter to them if good and law-abiding citizens are made to line up even in scorching high noon heat. Who are being persecuted? But this is my perspective.

I do try, for my own sanity, to understand martial law or forms of restrictions from the perspective of Mindanaoans. They welcome it. People here, Moro and migrants alike, tell me, “people in Manila who are protesting and complaining about martial law here do not know anything, if they want we’ll exchange places, they could come stay here and we’ll go there. See if they don’t embrace martial law.” I have no response to such, just a smile. But I understand now that I’ve been here some time and have gone around in conflict areas where you don’t know if you’re going to be sniped at driving through a village while Michael Learns to Rock is crooning 25 Minutes Too Late in the background, or becoming a secondary victim of a blast in a shop next to the one you’re in. Such does things to your psyche. What more for folks who have been subjected to such a volatile environment for the longest time? I understand, travelling on the Pan-Philippine/Maharlika Highway to and from conflict-ridden areas, why people from Visayas and Luzon would want to build their homes here and why some people here would want to defend it at all cost. This place, this region, is very beautiful. I’m caught by the beauty of it’s landscapes, it’s wilderness. It’s a much-contested space. But I also understand what somebody who’s working in peacebuilding in the region for more than a decade meant when he said “pagod na din ang mga tao dito. Mamamatay tayo na baka hindi pa naayos itong problema (people here are already tired. We’d probably die without the conflict getting resolved).” What a sad, sad thought. I wanted to weep.

Whose voice? Whose agenda? Whose perspective? Whose future? These should guide us as we make a decision or a judgment about what is best for a community.

Duterte at 365 days: fixer-President

Jose C. Sison in his Philippine Star article Unity in uncertainty writes,

the lingering questions that remain unanswered in the minds of our countrymen especially in the affected areas, are: why no preemptive action was taken to prevent the siege? Why the members of terror groups were able to carry out their plan and infiltrate the city with seeming ease? Why Marawi City? Are there many sympathizers of the group there as would enable them to stage a rebellion or uprising that led to the declaration of martial law in Mindanao? Is there really a rebellion happening in Marawi City now?

Maybe if these questions are satisfactorily answered, our people will be more united in supporting the moves of this administration and in praying that the fighting in Marawi City will soon come to an end.

The answer doesn’t have to always come from Malacanan or those the people elect, rather it should first and foremost come from the governed as a result of doing their part as good citizens. If the masses of Filipinos only make an effort to read more and often, invest in a home library, or visit and support their local libraries instead of always holding unnecessary fiestas (every month or so!) and boozing themselves to death, we should’ve all known by now that

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is likely to create branches in the Philippines and Indonesia this year.

Although the Indonesian military pre-empted ISIS plans to declare a satellite state of the so-called caliphate in eastern Indonesia, ISIS is determined to declare at least one province in Asia in 2016.

The creation of training camps will lure not only South-east Asians but also other nationalities – from Australians to Chinese Uighurs – who cannot easily reach Syria. The nationalities trained in the new ISIS province, and seeking to carry out the ISIS vision, are likely to be a threat to their home countries.

Just this month, ISIS announced the unification of four battalions in the Philippines and the allegiance of their leaders to Baghdadi.

Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is the group that pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2014. After it did so, it released a video threatening to deploy suicide bombers in the Philippines and make the country a “graveyard” for American soldiers. On two occasions, attempts by the group to transport weapons to Mujahidin Indonesia Timur were disrupted by the Philippine National Police working with their Indonesian counterparts.

Based in South Cotabato province, Sarangani province and General Santos City, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines is led by Abu Sharifah, who is also fluent in Tagalog.

The Philippines has been an important arena for domestic, regional and global terrorist groups for 20 years.

The ISIS-initiated merger of the fighting formations and unification of the leaders will present an unprecedented challenge to Manila. As the “soldiers of the caliphate” in the Philippines, they will mount operations that will increasingly mirror those of the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq. There is no better time for the Philippine government to act. If the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, President Benigno Aquino, procrastinates, ISIS ideology will spread, gravely damaging the peace process. The four ISIS “battalions” will grow in strength, size and influence and present an enduring challenge to his successors.

ISIS in Philippines a threat to region, Rohan Gunaratna, January 12, 2016, Straits Times

Same with the other threats to human security- illegal drug use, criminality, insurgency, and corruption. These did not suddenly happen during the current President’s time or watch. In a way then we could call him the fixer-President. But imagine the burden (of past inactions) on the shoulders of this 72-year old, foremost, that to his life from red ants scampering to get out of their mounds that are under attack. History is replete with stories about belated recognition of sincere and genuine leaders.

The conflict in Mindanao from the perspective of Malthusian theory

There’s a joke that Muslims here like to tell, to which Muslims and Christians alike laugh at. It’s this- Muslim men could have as many as four wives max and still be legit by standards of their religion and law. Beyond that, however, they said they’d have become Christians. I hurt my stomach the first time I was told this. I couldn’t stop laughing.

In a way, this joke summarizes the complicated relationship between Muslims and Christians in the region particularly as you move further south where it’s more visible. If certain Muslims have taken arms to defend their sociopolitical and cultural survival in a country of 80-90% Catholic largely mainstreamed into the globalized economy and with that it’s sociopolitical and cultural ethic and, for some other groups, to defend at whatever cost the dictates of their conscience, there is or was, following the rule in physics, also the corresponding movement from Christians in the region- the Ilaga.

The Ilaga, the most notorious among the Christian vigilante groups, was reported to have been organized by seven local Christian politicians (“Magnificent Seven”) who were bent upon preserving their respective power and expanding them further by infiltrating and dominating areas traditionally controlled by Muslims. It was reported also that the Ilaga was supported by some influential Christian capitalists and logging magnates. The Ilaga group was the most feared to many Muslims primarily because of what its members did to their victims, like carving out ears, slashing nipples, plucking out eyes, and marking bodies with cross.

Yasmin Busran-Lao, Human Development, Economic and Social Costs, and Spillovers of Conflict: The Case of the Province of Lanao del Sur, background paper submitted to the Human Development Network Foundation, Inc. for the Philippine Human Development Report 2005

That dark period in the region’s history is apparently an experience that people here Muslim and Christian alike do not want to forget hence is passed on to younger generations in the form of stories which in turn may explain why there is still such vigilance, in their unconscious, between the two (which only a few have truly transcended the ones who are free to “cross over” invisible yet palpable boundaries such that we hear for instance Muslims protecting their Christian neighbors when armed fellow Muslims raid villages). Such stories were given as part of the orientation I had about the region. I was not yet five days old in the area. I was, what? can you spell that out please, because, for the life of me, I haven’t heard the word until then (I guess the reason is, I was schooled abroad).

Nothing apparently is what it seems. To truly understand the situation in Mindanao, ML or not, one must approach the subject with humility and in the calm or neutral spirit of scientific inquiry ie. if one is a Muslim, to be ready to accept that Muslims or certain Muslims are culpable and if one is a Christian, to be ready to accept that Christians or certain Christians have also had a hand, and, for both, in accepting that, to be open to the fact of our shared humanity which is that there is only one earth, one Philippines. How the planet, the country should be divided up for each and every human being should be done through intelligent and peaceful means (otherwise we have not really transformed from our ape past). Then again the rhetoric of ‘One Philippines’ need to be unpacked.

In one of the community discussions, somebody mentioned about population growth and population control as a related issue. Oh? I said in surprise. But it was obvious although not readily perceived. Filipino Catholics make up 80-90% of the country’s total population, and what is the total population? 100M. This means Catholics, whatever the ethnicity, greatly outnumber Muslims whatever their ethnicity. Such is true in the region. In other words, the droves of non-Muslims in continuous migration to Mindanao in search for land and greener pasture just by their sheer number easily overpower the original settlers hence easily impose their politics and culture on the “new land.” Now, population control. Catholics/Christians, since they make up much of the population, should share the bulk of the responsibility for birth control (the most rational, strategic, and intelligent means to population control (hence adequate space and quality of life for all)). That is equity. But the funny thing is, they are the ones, the Church leaders at least, who cite religious teaching as justification for disallowing Catholics to openly subscribe to a civic responsibility.

Without any checks, population would theoretically grow at an exponential rate, rapidly exceeding its ability to produce resources to support itself (Thomas Malthus).

I remember another joke about the root cause of this world’s problems, which is that, if it’s not economic, it must be sex. This brings us back to the joke about the wife taking.

De-constructing IS or ISIS in the Philippines

For the many of us here who have not given a fug about IS (or, ISIS as popularized here), because why should the topic muddle our daily conversations, until the Marawi City incident, IS or Islamic State is none other than the former al-Qaida in Iraq. ISIS is acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the self-styled Islamic caliphate that the (former) al-Qaida group “overran huge chunks of Iraqi and Syrian territory” after the demise of bin Laden.

Al-Qaida (now IS), according to several independent studies, such as J.Milligan’s Islamic Identity, Postcoloniality and Educational Policy: Schooling and Ethnoreligious Conflict in the Southern Philippines and Samira Gutoc’s Causes of “Terrorism”: The Philippine Case had “thoroughly penetrated” the country by the late 1990s. Purportedly, in 1980 the MILF “had begun sending mujahideen for training and combat experience in Afghanistan. One result of this effort was the establishment of ties with the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden which began…recruiting soldiers for the war in Afghanistan”.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a splinter group from the MNLF and Filipinos who fought in Afghanistan, appearing in the mid-90s, has been linked to the al-Qaida network. However, when this link weakened in the late 90s, the group connected with Indonesia-based Jeemah Islamiyah (JI) that has “ideological origins in the Darul Islam (DI) movement of the 1950s and 1960s” also networked with al-Qaida. JI aims to establish a pan-Islamic State in South East Asia.

Another group affiliated with the al-Qaida network which appeared around the same time, in 1991, is the RSM (Rajah Solaiman Movement). The group is comprised of Christians from Northern Philippines who converted to Islam, supports violence against Filipino Christians and maintains base in Metro Manila. Reportedly, it gets funding from JI and training from ASG. It has been alleged that the group was behind the 2004 Superferry bombing that killed 116 people

Yet another group, AKP (Ansarul Khilafah Philippines) founded by a former MILF member disgruntled by the collapse of the peace talks in 2008. It is reported that the group has direct connections to ISIS fighters and has it’s base in Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat.

Last, but only so far as this post goes, the Maute Group also known as IS-Ranao or IS-Lanao. The IPAC Report writes of the group,

The Maute Group based in Lanao del Sur has the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated
members of all of the pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines. It is largely ethnic Maranao, and its
stronghold is Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi City, where it has been able to attract
students and teachers.

The Maute group reportedly began as a training unit set up by Marwan around 2011 or even earlier, called al-Ghuraba and briefly Jamaah Tawhid wal Jihad – the name used by the late Abu Musa Zarqawi in Iraq and later by the supporters of radical Indonesian cleric Aman Abdurrahman in Indonesia.

By 2012, it had become Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM), initially reported to be led by one Ust. Humam Abdul Najid alias Wai but in fact the Mautes are believed to have been the organisers even then.56 KIM was said to have been responsible for the 26 July 2013 bombing at a Cagayan de Oro bar and bistro that killed six.57 After ISIS’s recognition of Isnilon as amir, the Mautes began using the name “IS-Ranao” to indicate a division of the new as-yet-undeclared province of ISIS – just as BIFF became IS-Maguindanao and Isnilon Hapilon’s territory was IS-Basilan.

Locals call these groups “spoliers of peace”. 

But why all these splinter groups and their more extreme views relative to their more principled former organizations? Synthesizing their histories, we come to see that they have become disenchanted over the inconsistencies in the decades-long peace talks that appear to have no end, like drawn-out criminal cases in corrupt courts and we can site the massacre of journalists in Mindanao, and have taken matters into their own hands, the hard way or no way. Looking deeper, the root of their struggle is continuing injustices to the Moro/Muslim people. When you go to Mindanao, the mass of the Moro/Muslim people remain living on the edges of villages, sa laylayan as VP Robredo calls it. Mawawalan ka talaga ng dignidad living in these places, and the Moro are proud people.

” Attention grabbers” the armed groups are also called. Precisely, in the sense that their violent acts underlie and point toward the real ills in Mindanao society. Remember that once in the lives of these terrorists they believed, trusted and allied themselves with government or the rule of law. But at one point, abandoned that because of not being able to take anymore government’s failures. Pity, because their talents have been misdirected. How does one resolve such a misdirection of people? 

Government, national and especially local government, needs to re-boot it’s style and system of governance in the region. It also needs to undergo healing as what it has been extolling people in the region to do. It can start by making a sincere apology. Recall when the Australian PM offered an apology to the aborigines, “unfinished business of the nation”, for the mistreatment the natives suffered under past governments, in order “to remove a great stain from the nation’s soul”. The Filipino nation is inextricably bound to the decisions and actions of the State as the resources behind State decisions and actions come from the people. The people share in the consequences, good or bad, arising from the decision or action of their elect.

Further, when you go around the villages the common statement locals make is that government’s promises made to the people in the region have remained just promises. Nagkapatong-patong na over the decades. What do villages in the region need? Land (many migrants as well as marginalized Moro/Muslims remain without titles to the lots they occupy), jobs and access to training and capital for the masses to establish and sustain their livelihoods, barangay roads, health centers (many are without staff and equipment), inclusive education (ie. the use of Maranao as mother tongue for Maranao children and not Cebuano/Bisaya), adult education, rules and processes that do not disenfranchise the already poor, upholding the rule of law as well as TA and respect for positive traditional mechanisms eg. council of elders, etc.  Recognition of the unique culture and beliefs of the Moro people and provide for their integration in national policies. Presently, policies regard Filipinos as a homogenous people. The Cordillera is better off in the sense that each tribe has their own land or territory eg. Mountain Province for the Bontoc people, or Kalinga and Apayao for the Kalingas. This the Moro people don’t have. From their perspective, it’s now the non-Moro who’ve occupied much of their land or at least the best or most fertile portions of it. Religion is incidental.

The above , basically the MDGs or the SDGs now  are what more progressive Mindanao areas like Davao enjoy. And, with Davao, it was not national government extending it’s arm to the City that made it a premier city in the South, rather it was local government. In many provinces, however, it is local officials who are obstacles to good governance and therefore contributed to the opening up of a space right under their noses in which extremism has taken over.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”

The recommendation of the TJRC (Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission) is to create an independent national mechanism that will address the issues connected to transitional justice in Mindanao and in the Philippines. This National Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission for the Bangsamoro is the mechanism that will address the four important aspects:

One, is the Historical Memory,

the issue of Impunity and Accountability,

the issue of Marginalization through Land Dispossession

and Healing and Reconciliation.

The Philippine Government, and I mean it’s decision-makers, need to be sincere and honorable in following through their commitments for Mindanao. To walk their talk. This is also true for the groups on the other side- the MNLF, MILF, and CPP-NPA. For instance, we have seen that despite ARMM in Mindanao which is the resulting system and structure that the MNLF fought for with much bloodshed and which they said is the answer to the armed struggle in the region, the story of the Moro masses has not significantly changed. How is it that ARMM provinces remain the poorest in the country? And where is that alternative system of governance that MNLF said it wanted to establish that would solve the ills in the region? The Filipino people, the Moro people included, see the same old issues re-playing itself in the ARMM system.

Peace therefore starts with having peace in one’s heart, and by having peace I mean sincerity (what is your real motivation in pushing for independence? presumably not for private interests), empathy, humility (recognition of one’s limits), and constraint of one’s baser tendencies eg. desire for limitless material wealth and beliefs of superiority be it in race or culture, morals, and socio-economic standing. For we cannot give what we, individually, don’t have.