War in Mindanao

The taking of civilians as hostages – including Western tourists – which has now been going on for some months, has brought the Philippines to the attention of the worldwide media. The usual explanation is for the most part limited to references to the actions of fanatic Muslims. The fact that, for many years, there has been a war raging on Mindanao, one of the islands of the Philippines, is also sometimes mentioned. In April Lenny Janssen returned to Mindanao, where she had earlier spent a year working with a union of farmers, in order to report for the Dutch Socialist Party’s monthly, De Tribune.

‘Once a culture is being changed by using violence, it will cause upheaval’

Together with Inday I am strolling around in Kauswagan. Inday is a 29 year old woman, Kauswagan a municipality in the Philippine province of Lanao del Norte, part of Mindanao, in the southern part of the Philippines. Kauswagan was brought to the attention of the worldwide media in March this year, when President Estrada declared an all-out war against the MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. ‘We will not spare any one of the Muslim rebels’, said Estrada. In the media, members of MILF – and sometimes even Muslims in general – are portrayed as terrorists or Christian-haters. Even Inday uses the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘rebel’ almost simultaneously. Since my arrival in the Philippines in April one thing has become more and more clear to me: that this conflict is not a religious one between Christians and Muslims – and that it must not be allowed to become one. Trying to gain more knowledge and understanding about the situation, I decided to pay a visit to Kauswagan.

On my way there, the woman sitting next to me tried to start a conversation. ‘Where do you live in America?’ I explained that I was Dutch and that I came to the Philippines through an exchange program in 1993. ‘That time I was in contact with different NGOs. Now I’m visiting again to meet with people and to be updated on recent Philippine society.’ When I told her that I was on my way to Kauswagan, she warned me about Muslims. ‘They are responsible for this war. They are terrorists. Mark my words.’ On arrival in Kauswagan two soldiers stood alongside the road. By this time I was already used to the presence of military checkpoints everywhere. I took a turn to the right, heading towards the densely populated part of the municipality, occupied by about 9000 families. On my left were big pieces of land, for the most part coconut plantations. Many of the occupants of Kauswagan make a living by harvesting, selling and processing coconuts or by fishing.

‘The Moros always resisted the attempts of the Spaniards to make us subject to their power and religion.’

Entering Inday’s place, I am not at all surprised to see a Bible lying on a small table. Nowhere in Asia can you find a country that has been so strongly influenced by Christianity, introduced here by the Spaniards. From 1565 they tried for three centuries to rule over the archipelago which they called after their King Philip. In Luzon and Visayas, colonization seemed to go smoothly, but in Mindanao it was met by severe resistance. Muslims originally occupied the island. They reminded the Spaniards of the Moors who had earlier occupied Spain, so the Spaniards called the Muslims Moros. Originally the people of Mindanao reacted with disgust to this new name given to them, but after some time the residents incorporated it as a term which indicated their common identity.

‘Mindanao was never subjugated by the Spaniards’, Sanguila, a Muslim of about 60 years old, told me a few days later. ‘The Moros resisted all their attempts to make us subject to their power and religion. But when, in 1898, their ‘territories’ were given to the Americans, Mindanao was included. They never even asked us about that!’ Mindanao was given a new name by the Americans: the Promised Land. The soil was fertile and therefore excellent for making profit. The Americans introduced new laws governing ownership of land, laws which secured their own interests, ignoring the traditions of Moros and Lumads, a people who originally practiced animist religions. The result was that multinationals claimed big pieces of land in Mindanao, engaged in mining and logging activities and established plantations growing crops for export. The new laws were accompanied in the 1930s by massive resettlements. On a huge scale, Christians from the North of the Philippines were offered pieces of land in ‘The Promised Land’. Moros and Lumads saw strangers take the soil -their source of life. It was around this time that Inday’s grandparents came to Kauswagan: ‘They were the first people to start their own business here. ‘It all started about land’, Inday told me when I asked her how the recent problems in Kauswagan had begun. ‘Paudac Sumucor, a Muslim, used to cultivate a piece of land which belonged to his ancestors and which was passed on from father to son. It was during the 1970s that a certain Mr Oliverio, a Christian settler in Kauswagan, claimed to be the owner of 24 hectares of land, among which Sumucor’s land. We can assume that, as he was at that time a land surveyor, Oliverio abused his power and illegally got his hands on a title. A conflict then arose over the piece of land’.

Sanguila: ‘This conflict has continued to this day and has been aggravated by the interference of fanatical anti-Muslim groups. Maybe they are encouraged by government to create a conflict among the people. Sometimes also local businessmen who want to secure ownership of another piece of land, support these groups. Hundreds of Muslims have been killed, while many of them still remember the past massacre of Tacub in 1972.’

Adona Orquillas, staff member of RCJP – a center for justice and peace, initiated by the Diocese of Iligan – had this to add: ‘The situation in Kauswagan illustrates the situation in many parts of Mindanao. The people filed a case against Oliverio, but without result. The Philippine law system sometimes serves more the rich than the poor.

‘As soon as the MILF is cleared out, the government can use the fertile soil by which the MILF camps are surrounded.

‘Did you know that Kauswagan was originally occupied by Moros?’ Sanguila asked. I had to confess that it was not easy to imagine. ‘Before the Spaniards arrived, this part of Mindanao was ruled by one of my ancestors: The Sultan of Lanao’. In 1913, 98% of Mindanao was Muslim. Now, the proportion has dwindled to 30%. This is true not only for Kauswagan, but for the whole of Mindanao. Sanguila: ‘History is being repeated. The government might have been waiting for the right moment to start a war against the MILF. Now they have been promoting local conflicts in Kauswagan and elsewhere in this country in order to ignite such a war. The reason behind it, I think, is that President Estrada is planning to turn Mindanao into a Bread Basket. As soon as the MILF is cleared out, the government can use the fertile soil by which the MILF camps are surrounded. They will grow crops for export, such as asparagus. But what will be left for us to eat? Originally owners of the soil, we will be turned into cheap labour. Already 60% of the Philippine national income comes from Mindanao, but in spite of that, the people here are mostly living in poverty. It doesn’t seem strange to me that the people, and especially the Moros, are resisting this government.’

In the Philippines, the MILF is not the only resistance, but it is the biggest. Founded in 1978, they are fighting for an independent state on Mindanao. One of their most important aims is the assertion of the right to self-determination. Sanguila: ‘They – the government – have to respect us as a people with our own religion and our own traditions. In the areas that are predominantly Muslim, we want to live our life by following Islamic Law. The MILF wants independence, so that we ourselves will be the ones to mould our lives, in political, economic and cultural ways.’ Inday and I have our lunch in a carenderia – a small restaurant. The place is covered with posters: an American basketball-team accompanies a smiling actor from the United States. The boys from Take That are showing us their smiles, hanging on the wooden wall. We eat our rice and fish and drink a glass of Coca-Cola. A few days later, during my visit to Sanguila, I am drinking Coca-Cola again. His family also offers me a glass of home-made pomelo-juice. We eat our lunch with our hands while we are sitting on a big banig – a kind of mat used for sleeping or covering the floor. Bowls from Saudi are placed in the middle of the banig, filled with rice, chicken, fish and a local vegetable-dish, prepared with dulaw – turmeric. A friend of Sanguila joins us in eating. He says: ‘I would like to use my hands in eating, but it seems I have forgotten how. The influence of American culture has already taken its toll on me.’ Sanguila remains silent for a moment and then says: ‘Maybe that is be to considered as one of the reasons for all this trouble right now. Once a culture is being changed by using violence, it will cause upheaval.

‘Intentionally, the Moros are being given a negative image, so fewer and fewer people will understand their situation.’

Sanguila asks me whether I am not afraid of kidnappings. For my part I ask him what he thinks about Abu Sayyaf, the group responsible for the sensational taking of hostages, which is taking place at the island of Jolo. Sanguila: ‘In newspapers the Abu Sayyaf is almost always associated with the MILF, but the Abu Sayyaf are not freedom-fighters, they are bandits. Most probably, the Philippine government together with the CIA secretly organized the Abu Sayyaf. Why? To discredit the Moros, so now fewer and fewer people will understand our situation.’ Adona Orquillas: ‘Through the media, the government is trying to justify this war by claiming that it is being waged to ‘eliminate all bad elements in our society’. Again, I think, this war is one way to give free entrance to the Americans into our country. If you really try to observe what is happening, you can see that the powerful rich are again exploiting the poor. ‘Many Philippinos don’t realise the effects that globalization will have on them. At the moment the government is investing in militarisation to clear out all opposition groups. The multinationals are waiting by the front door. Their only hesitation is caused by the existence of resistance, among which is the MILF. Our President is merely a puppet of the foreign investors.’

Since March war has been raging in Mindanao. For a whole day, Inday’s took shelter in their cellar because they could hear the shootings and bombs. Sanguila’s family were forced to flee Kauswagan a few months ago. His house was bombed then set on fire. Up to now this war has made hundreds of thousands of people flee their homes, many have died, anti-Muslim sentiments have been stirred up, the natural environment, houses, mosques and farms have been destroyed and daily the government spends 23 million pesos from the national budget. President Estrada is now seeking Emergency Powers, to enable him, he says, to ‘bring back peace’. His notion of peace may be described as the killing of all so-called ‘terrorists’, among which he certainly considers both the MILF and other resistance forces. Emergency Powers means that the President alone can decide on anything without consulting anyone. Proudly, Inday shows me a poster. Three people are holding each others’ hands. ‘They represent the Lumads, Moros and Christians of Mindanao. The words ‘cultural solidarity’ and ‘economic equality’ represent our common dreams and wishes. Unfortunately, I am among the few in Kauswagan who look at it this way. Many have become anti-Muslim because of the things that have happened. Sometimes they base their comments on nothing more than stories they hear. As far as I am concerned, I am not angry with the Muslim people. I can understand they’re fighting for their cause. In this country, you must know, if Christians suffer, the Muslims suffer twice as much. And if people are poor, they will fight so that they are no longer deprived of a decent life.’

By Lenny Janssen – Translation from Dutch of an article as published in Tribune, august 2000.