In Other Words

Staying Alive in Mindanao

Newsbreak, Special Issue January-June 2003, Manila For journalists covering the conflict between guerrillas and the Philippine government on Mindanao, the island evokes contradictory images. My own memories of visiting the southern Philippines as a journalist in the mid-1980s are vivid: Cruising around Davao City at night in a car filled with gun-toting vigilantes, rifle barrels ...

Newsbreak, Special Issue
January-June 2003, Manila

For journalists covering the conflict between guerrillas and the Philippine government on Mindanao, the island evokes contradictory images. My own memories of visiting the southern Philippines as a journalist in the mid-1980s are vivid: Cruising around Davao City at night in a car filled with gun-toting vigilantes, rifle barrels protruding from open windows. Walking past stuffed coffins toward a military commander’s office, where a poster of Sylvester Stallone stares at me as a general proudly describes creating militia groups that still haunt the island. But I also remember joining friends at an open-air seaside restaurant where we ate grilled tuna jaws and enjoyed the gentle evening breezes. Which is the real Mindanao?

The events of the past year offer a grim partial answer. Peace talks and a cease-fire between the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government broke down amidst bombings and intensified fighting. (It took a subsequent Malaysian-brokered effort to resume the talks and reach a new cease-fire.) Military ties between the United States and the Philippines grew closer and more controversial. A coup attempt in Manila revealed continuing unrest in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and raised fresh charges of military corruption and collusion with terrorists. Meanwhile, the Mindanao conflict threatens to become more internationalized, due to the U.S.-Philippine alliance and the alleged links between Moro rebels, terrorists, bandits, and Islamic extremists in Southeast Asia.

A special edition of Newsbreak, a small Manila biweekly of news and opinion, presents a comprehensive picture of Mindanao, focusing on ordinary life as well as the conflict between Moro, or Islamic, rebels and the Christian-dominated Philippine government. The essays cover conflict, culture, U.S. involvement, business, religious reconciliation, and even the role of "yuplims" (young Muslim professionals) who socialize in coffee shops while applying their education to help solve their homeland’s challenges.

The 30-plus-year war between the Philippine government and Islamic groups, particularly the no-longer-warring MILF and the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, provides the tableau upon which the special issue unfolds. Manny Mogato’s "Not by Tanks Alone" examines the AFP’s war-fighting capabilities. Mogato writes that a U.S.-Philippine review finds a "lack of coherent doctrines and outdated strategic concepts and technology in almost all areas of defense and military management" within the AFP. Mogato properly criticizes a doctrine that uses "overwhelming forces to annihilate a much smaller force" for producing some battlefield victories but with extensive military and civilian casualties. For example, in the four-month battle for control of a central Mindanao highway that the author describes, the AFP emerged victorious, but only after 200 soldiers were killed and more than 1,000 people injured.

Newsbreak then draws attention to a more mundane yet equally pressing concern: education. In "Math, Science, and the Koran," Gemma B. Bagayaua investigates the difficulties of integrating Islamic and secular education in the madaris, or Islamic schools, of Mindanao’s low-literacy, high-poverty Muslim provinces. Many students must choose between poorly funded public schools and the independently operated (and also impoverished) madaris. As Bagayaua reports, even though those who study in an Islamic school learn the religious obligations and social responsibilities that Muslims are expected to perform and enjoy in Philippine society, they find few career options. "Math and science are taught, but lessons are normally limited to addition, subtraction, and rudimentary science principles," the author explains. Meanwhile, public school graduates are ill equipped for leadership roles in the Moro community. Various administrative committees are developing a unified curriculum and standards that would allow students to study Islam and secular subjects in the same accredited schools.

Newsbreak‘s special issue helps place the ordinary lives of Mindanao’s people in a political context. Military success is needed to defeat terrorists and bandits, and only serious bargaining will produce a settlement between the MILF and the government. But the next challenge is for day-to-day concerns, such as education, to gain some urgency on the national political scene. Bringing lasting peace to Mindanao requires attending to the discrimination and poverty found in the everyday experiences of Muslim Filipinos. In the real Mindanao, it’s very difficult to separate ordinary life from armed conflict.

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