by Fred Hill © Islamic Horizons
Mindanao is continuing to earn its reputation as the "wild west of the Philippines." Heavily armed security guards are everywhere, displaying grenades and Armalite M-16s. Private armies and armed vigilantes rule portions of the interior, and government checkpoints circle the cities. Kidnapping and banditry, ethnic and "religious" violence, all contribute to the island's frontier image.
Western news reporters have found explosive stories in Mindanao in recent months. Typically, Mindanao's problems are presented in the press, but the causes of those problems are not discussed. Western journalists choose words like "Muslim" and "extremist" as if they are interchangeable, and add terms like "terrorist" to cast judgment on their cause. Repeated acts of violence appear to be beyond explanation, as if war was the inevitable result of mixing Christians with Muslims.
There is much more to the Mindanao story behind the headlines. Mindanao is an island with a culture and history quite different from the rest of the Philippines. Islam has dominated the island for centuries. Its proud mujaheddin have defended their homes against colonial invaders from Spain, the United States and Japan. Now the Philippine government rules Mindanao, and they are exploiting the resources, diluting the Muslim majority and containing tribal peoples in enclaves of underdevelopment. Settlers from the crowded and predominantly Christian Luzon and Visayan islands have grown into a dominant culture, seizing Muslim homelands declared 'public domain' by the courts of Manila. Newcomers prospered, while the indigenous were displaced and abandoned to poverty.
An armed resistance developed in the late 60s, with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) opposing the Philippine military and Christian vigilante forces. President Ferdinand Marcos responded with bombing, mass arrests and forced disarmament. MNLF leaders sought recognition from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the United Nations. Under pressure from Islamic states, Marcos began peace negotiations and offered a formula or regional autonomy. Today the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) poses as a cosmetic independence that satisfies no one. Yet MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari is cautiously committed to this experiment, and enforces his end of the cease-fire while giving peace a chance. More militant members of MNLF and the children of guerrillas martyred in the separatist battles of the 70s have chosen more dramatic means of resistance, including Abu Sayyaf.
"Ethnic cleansing" is a harsh term to apply to the Philippine government. No cattle cars herd the population into detention camps, as seen in Bosnia. No bulldozers destroy family homes as in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The tools of Philippine's ethnic cleansing are more subtle, and easier for the outside world to ignore.
In addition to settlement and "development" policies, the Philippine government regularly manipulates population statistics to minimize the Muslim count. Since only Christian birth and death records are recognized as official, there is no accurate census available on the current Muslim population. Voter representation and the need for government services in Muslim sectors can thus be denied or devalued, and electoral results are easily manipulated. Despite autonomy votes in 13 provinces with apparent Muslim majorities, autonomy was granted in only the four poorest provinces. Any visitor can see that the number of Muslims appear to be much more than the official estimates claim. The explanation given by the government is that the rest were "squatters" routinely evicted when their settlements were burned.
Development planners allocate resources to benefit Christian settlers at the expense of native Muslims. The National Power Company (NPC) has crowded 7 hydroelectric dams along a 30-km. stretch of the Agus River, to power the factories of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. This enormous strain is destroying Lake Lanao, the river's source, which covers 100,000 acres to depths of up to 300 feet. For centuries the Maranao ("people of the lake") have relied on this lake for the subsistence of thousands. Now more than half of it has been drained away to power coastal factories, while Muslim cities like Marawi suffer diminished resources. NPC executives explain that some "Muslim bandits" have retaliated by cutting power lines and sabotaging generators. These officials dismiss the international protest of this ecocide, only to hear all local concerns dismissed with a laugh: "The receding shoreline means that they will have to walk a little farther to wash their clothes." Hardships to the Muslim population seem to attract little concern.
Cheap energy lures out-of-town contractors to build up industry along the coast. National Steel Company, the Philippines' largest steel mill, is often trumpeted as a grand development scheme to industrialize northern Mindanao. Located in the Muslim countryside, west of Iligan City, it is a major employer in the area. But most of the 4000 employees are Christian Visayans, many of whom were brought there to convert and expand the plant in the 1970s. They remained to take the jobs and displace farming and fishing villages. Despite the official line that "local hiring" was the rule, no Maranao names could be found on the union list.
Responding to a query that how many Muslims work here, one of the bosses said, "Five or ten, I'd say." Not percent, but only 5 or 10 out of 4000. It is bluntly said that local Muslims are not educated enough to be employable in the steel mill. Recent efforts by the Mayor of Iligan to expel all Muslim students from the city's public schools would presumably preserve this imbalance.
The media publishes reports about the "Muslim" violence in Mindanao, but not the reasons for their frustration. Philippine policies to water down and displace the Muslim majority (now a minority, since the 1950s), government repression of all resistance and schemes of token "autonomy" co-opts the moderates and enrages the rest. As the forests and lakes recede and the benefits of the resources are drained off to others, some Muslims feel compelled to take more drastic action. Groups like Abu Sayyaf commit regrettable acts of violence, but these actions can hardly be dismissed as "pointless terrorism." Instead, these are the predictable responses of an endangered people.
[The author, Fred Hill, is an experienced editor and broadcaster who
teaches social studies in a New Hampshire high school. He visited Mindanao under
a Rotary Club grant. He is also author of the forthcoming book Teasing the
Tiger: A Third World Study of Muslim Mindanao.]
["The Philippines' new president on Tuesday announced a cease-fire with the
main separatist rebels in Mindanao, a resource-rich but economically backward
region where fighting has claimed more than 120,000 lives over three
decades."--"Cease-Fire Order in Philippines," AP, February 20, 2001]
[Update on the people's struggle.]