PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Philippines: The Bangsa Moro People by peaceprobe
February 1, 2007, 9:14 am
Filed under: Islam, Philippines

The road to Cotobato goes through the mountains. When it levels out more than 50 kilometers from the municipality of Midsayap which is down the road from the province capital of Cotobato you pass village after village with tiny, recently built simple bamboo houses all along the road. Behind the houses you may observe once luscious fruit trees, a water buffalo or crops. But it doesn’t have the feel of small farm agriculture that you might experience elsewhere. Occasionally there are tiny mosques, so tiny that you might miss this clue that you are passing through a Muslim area. So I ask my host, Is this a Muslim area and if so is it possible that this is one of the areas that experienced heavy fighting in 2003 or the more distant past? My hunch was correct, Muslim families had returned here only in recent years when the seven village area was declared a peace zone beyond the reach of armed groups by agreement of all the actors.

Muslim influence and conversion in the Philippines began several centuries prior to the four century occupation of the islands by Spain. Fresh from driving the Moro people out of Spain in the 15th century the colonizers found similar worshipers in their new colony heavily concentrated in Mindanao.. By the time Spain arrived the larger tribes in Mindanao had converted to Islam and the smaller groups who resisted conversion escaped to the open parts of the southernisland and to the mountains. These escapees were referred to as Lumads and were descendants of ancient migrations to the Philippines. Some of the Moro groups were also related to the Lumads in history.

When the Americans arrived in 1898, relative newcomers to the colonial enterprise they determined to do it right by developing a plantation economy in Mindanao while carrying on a 50 year long effort to pacify the majority Moro population. Pacification failed but plantation economy developed in selected areas of the island like Davao. Workers were needed for the plantations so the American administration borrowed a page from the North American experience of frontier expansion. Settlers from northern islands were encouraged to go to Mindanao. Boat loads of land hungry and poor settlers poured into the southern island and continue to do so until the present hoping to find land, work, and opportunity. In the last century the Moro people have therefore become marginalized, largely centered in the eastern five of the twelve Mindanao provinces. But the struggle for autonomy for the Moro Nation has continued. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front now negotiating for autonomy backed up by 12,000 armed soldiers is just the last in a long series of movements and negotiations.

“Our struggle is not for economic help. We are not poor. Our struggle is for self governance.” said Ghazali Jaafar, Vice President for Political Affairs of the MILF. “This is an armed revolution” he continued, “carried on by the Bangsa Moro people. We want our own government. We were once free. This is a nation of people who are Muslim. We have bases all over the Moro provinces. People all over follow us. We are now engaged in negotiations with the Philippine government but we will not eliminate the possibility of use of force if there is no solution to Bangsa Moro nation. We will push forward. We do not protect terrorists. Any terrorists in the Philippines are connected to foreign groups, particularly Indonesia. The root cause of our struggle is the persistent annexation of Moro land first by the American government and then by settlers reenforced by the Philippine government. Our goal is self government”.

“We are like the Indians of America,” he continued, “because we have been pushed off our land. But at least the Indians have some self government and control over some land. We have neither.”

The MILF now has local structures in place to negotiate and monitor flare ups and to maintain Peace Zones like the one we passed through on the road to Cotobato.. To stem the violence of decades of land conflict between settlers and Moros, local officials, non-governmental organizations (ngo’s), underground groups, the military, and others cooperate to monitor these clearly defined zones. Armed combat groups agree not to bring weapons into the area. Bantay Compacts have been created in other areas where, through the use of cell phones and other conventional means of communication various outside and inside actors cooperate to spring into action if or when violence is threatened by any armed group. Regular dialogue(s), a third initiative, are now happening and help stem the tide of violence in areas where one or more of the armed actors threaten. Christian and Moro Clergy have worked with various NGOs to bring these devices for local peacemaking and monitoring into practice. These helpful building blocks can be harbingers for a final solution where each side agrees to fundamental change and responsibility. A century of divide and rule tactics from Manila governments has not helped. Each village has its own special history that either contributes to peace or to episodes of violence or both.

When we arrived in Midsayap, a three and half hour journey to the west from Davao, conditions were peaceful. The new road built for economic development purposes is good but planners easily forget the advice of Ghazali Jaafar whose words ring in my ears. “Our struggle is not economic. Our struggle is for governance.” But of course the new road does help the Dole Pineapple and Banana company develop a new banana plantation on a 27,000 acre plot on the lover slopes of Mt. Apo near the road to Cotobato.

As we prepared to leave Midsayap two days later, advocates and leaders who reach across the divide between settlers and Moros were occupied on their cell phones in frantic calls to respond to a fire fight that had broken out between other villages pressured into action by local fanatics.. In this case violence was not set off by either of the primary armed groups – MILF or Philippine Arm. However both had to spring into action to show their power to protect the people. Before leaders from both sides could get involved to stop the fighting, six people, three on each side were killed and 2000 Moro families were evacuated.

The conflict evidently was set off by festering local issues. With time the Moro evacuees may return but only when their leaders signal that it is safe and the MILF can assure protection for the returnees. This violence will probably not cause the collapse the negotiations between the government and the MILF which have been taking place in Malaysia since 1997 but like elsewhere in the world they remind us of the interconnection of local history and lasting agreements. In Mindanao tiny points of light where local peace mechanisms are holding, patience is limited because voices invoking the sacred call to arms remain in the fields and in the dreams. Sightings of US forces in the Bangsa Moro provinces there under the Visiting Forces Agreements remind Bangsa Moro people of one phase in the long history of divide and rule governments. Their presence will not awaken the imagination of the youth to the dream of self rule. “They say they are here to paint schools and help the people.” says the MILF spokesperson. “Well so what, we know how to paint schools and can do it any day we want.” No one here wants the region to turn into another Baghdad, a city in a Muslim region that will stand for violence and death for decades to come.


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