Bloodshed in Mindanao

Today's election results will do little to reassure the Philippines' lawless southern island.


In the Philippines, politics is a family affair — and frequently a bloody one as well. Last November, a political dispute between two rival clans in Magunidanao, led to a brutal massacre that left 57 people dead, including 34 journalists. It’s no wonder, then, that the mayor of the nearby city of Davao has banned guns from his city, meaning that the ubiquitous black SUVs that spirit around politicians and their bodyguards must relinquish their firearms at the border.

Outside of last year’s killings, however, the bulk of the country’s bloodshed has derived from a longstanding conflict between the government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). As Benigno Aquino appears poised to take the presidency after the election on May 10, it seems unlikely that he, or anyone else, will be able to pacify Mindanao, an impoverished island of swampy jungles, saggy mountains, and deserted beaches where Maguindinao is located, that has suffered from a violent, decades-long insurgency.

Since the 9/11 attacks, this lawless fringe of the southern Philippines has been garnering more international attention for its predominantly Muslim separatist groups., especially the Milf. Founded in the late 1970s, the group is one of the world’s oldest insurgencies. The organization formed as a less radicalized outgrowth of the Moro National Liberation Front, but later splintered into more virulent strains, such as the Abu Sayyaf group, which has been linked to al Qaeda. Other Islamist groups loosely affiliated with al Qaeda have carried out a number of attacks against Western targets in Southeast Asia, the most notable being the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub, whose perpetrators were given sanctuary by the MILF. Around the same time, Washington dispatched a small unit of roughly 600 forces to assist the Philippine Army with its counterinsurgency operations.

The results have been mixed. There is a fragile peace, a tentative cease-fire negotiated by the government and the rebels in July 2009, which no one sees as a permanent thing. The Philippine Army tasked with patrolling the province has followed a U.S.-inspired "hearts and minds" strategy for winning over the locals — but it has been performed clumsily at best. At a military barracks near the site of November’s massacre, a preppy-looking Filipino commander with wraparound shades hands me the Army’s new field manual. The front cover displays a photo of a broadly smiling soldier wielding a shovel, an obvious symbol for the Army’s help in rebuilding the southern Philippines. Local Moros see it differently. They have long felt culturally, ethnically, and religiously estranged from the Christian politicians in Manila. They want autonomy for their "bangsamoro," or ancestral homeland, which they consider to include much of Mindanao’s hinterlands and the surrounding islands. Many of those displaced by war have come to loathe and distrust the local soldiers.

Near Cotabato City in the province’s southeast, I spoke to several internally displaced persons holed up in a nearby camp, a hastily constructed arrangement of squat bamboo huts and skimpy tents in orderly rows. Many can’t return home for fear of being arrested on suspicion of belonging to MILF. "I cannot go back home," Mahad Pagatin, draped in a headscarf and flowery dress, told me recently. She complains that air attacks leveled her home and a nearby grove of coconut trees (the livelihoods of many Moro locals depend on milling dried coconuts for coconut oil).

That distrust also extends to the U.S. military. When American soldiers recently handed out flashlights and radios at the camp, the displaced persons tossed them out because they thought they were spying devices.

It hasn’t helped that human rights abuses — torture, rape, arson, disappearances, illegal arrests — often go unreported. Of the hundreds of human rights abuses documented over the past few years, only five were officially reported. "People don’t talk," a peacekeeper told me. "They fear reprisals."

The bad blood also blurred the distinction between the militants and the rest of the Moro community, leading to finger pointing on both sides when civilians get killed. "You cannot tell a MILF member from the community," Ismael Kulat of the Consortium of Bangsmoro Civil Society told me recently. "The army has a martial-law mentality and believes civilians are the enemy, while the civilians believe the army is the enemy." At least when martial law was declared, he says, the military dropped leaflets. "Now they just bomb and kill civilians without warning." There are estimated to be roughly 10,000 "organic" (card carrying) members of MILF, yet untold numbers of "inorganic" members (sympathizers).

The view from inside the Phillipine Army barracks is very different. I spoke to Lt. Col. Benedict Arevalo, a local battalion commander in an air-conditioned whitewashed office within earshot of the displaced persons camp. He denies that the Army intentionally targets civilians and accuses elements within the MILF of violating the cease-fire agreement. "Where is the Philippine law that says the MILF is the armed forces of the Philippines?" he asks. "They say if the Army would avoid an area there would be no conflict. But we’re supposed to go and secure these areas. They are part of the Philippine government. We don’t want to fight, but when they try to spoil the peace, we are sometimes forced to react."

This week’s elections are unlikely to usher in a lasting peace to Mindanao. The victory of Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, the son of former president Corazon Aquino and her assassinated husband, was met with mixed feelings by Moro leaders. While Aquino is "less hawkish" than his opponent — ex-President Joseph Estrada — according to Kulat, his Liberal Party remains "anti-Muslim, anti-peace."

This is not to say there are no hopeful signs. Time, exhaustion, and simple calculus have tempered the MILF’s demands and views on violence. It has made the most progress toward achieving greater self-autonomy during times of peace, not war. There are still sporadic shootings and occasional kidnappings, but the group’s commanders have renounced the terrorist tactics and targeting of civilians favored by Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Even the Army commanders I spoke with agree that the MILF leadership is sincere about peace, but is hamstrung by "spoilers" within its own ranks, bent on derailing the peace talks.

Outside Cotabato City, I took note of the red, green, and yellow banners festooned across the dusty bamboo shacks of a barangay, or village. "That’s good news," Jeya Murugan of the monitoring group Nonviolent Peaceforce  told me. "That means there’s a wedding. People are coming back."

But some locals predict that next year will be bloody, because war seems to break out here in three-year intervals. In late 2008, violence erupted after an August peace agreement that would have granted the Moros more self-determination was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. White banners, brought out for funerals, outnumbered the colored ones then — and there’s always a possibility they could return now.

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