Resurrecting old ghosts of Mindanao

While browsing the web, I found a copy of this article published in Business World in 2003. To my surprise, I was quoted by the author. Actually, I think he got his quotes from a speech I delivered in 2000 at UP Los Banos. It’s quite a good article. Business Mirror does not keep archives of articles years ago. Fortunately, another site, AFRIM does. Click here for the AFRIM copy.

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Resurrecting old ghosts of Mindanao

Author: ROMULO T. LUIB
Source:  Business World
Date Published: 03/21/03
Starting Page: internet edition

It’s ho-hum to entertain thoughts of imperialism again when interpreting images of the United States government excitedly digging pathways to establish military presence in Mindanao. After all, it seldom plays a barbaric spectator to many major conflicts having to do with Muslim communities in the world. But the presence of American troops in Mindanao is interesting in
that it evokes an image of ghosts that have come to haunt anew the future of Mindanao.

It may have won the hearts of some Mindanaoans who gaze at American troops as noble peacekeepers in a foreign land, but the US isn’t at all a stranger there, having helped propagate the roots of this tumult in Mindanao about a century ago. Whether this will become tinder for Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels to factor in their own war any sentiment favoring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, as some fear, can be dismissed as irresponsible play-up of the tension in the home front. If sympathy attacks do happen, these will trace beginnings to a page in history just the same.

Scholars have always insisted for people to ground their viewpoint of the Mindanao conflict to the past, particularly when assessing the potency of economic assistance to Mindanao’s poor Muslims. Not a few scholars have criticized efforts to provide such assistance as a way to appease the separatist movement, noting it smacks of utter disregard to how Muslims in Mindanao came to be poor in the first place.

“It’s like bribing,” Julkipli Wadi, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, said in an interview. It’s not to say that helping poor Muslim communities to improve living conditions is unimportant, he said. But without addressing the political question that of the Muslim communities’ clamor to realize a century-old desire to govern themselves, the conflict will continue, he said.

Historical accounts written by Muslims and some Christian scholars highlight the US connection to the Mindanao conflict when it colonized the archipelago by the turn of the 20th century. It bought the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and the purchase included Mindanao and Sulu. Before the US began integrating Mindanao and Sulu with the entire Philippines, it was Spain that attempted to claim the Moroland as among its territories, scholars say.
But the Americans proved it had better strategies to occupy the southern part of the archipelago, Madge Kho, a native of Jolo who now resides in Boston, Massachusetts, said in a paper on the Mindanao conflict. “What the Spaniards did not succeed in accomplishing, that of Filipinizing the south, the Americans did in less than several decades,” she said, noting what took place was the US’ so-called policy of attraction.

In maintaining that Spain failed to conquer Moroland, Muslim scholars often quote historian Vic Hurley, who wrote, “The close of the unsuccessful Spanish conquest of Moroland marked the beginning of the end of one of the most remarkable resistance in the annals of military history. The Muslims staged a bitter and uninterrupted warfare against the might of Spain for a period of 377 years.”

HISTORY OF DECEPTION

Aware of this, the Americans signed a peace treaty with the Sulu sultanate in 1899. This was meant for the US to buy time in fighting resistance to occupation in the north, Ms. Kho said. But the US later broke this treaty and moved to colonize the south after consolidating its rule in the north in 1901.
Over a decade later, the US lured Christians from the north to relocate in the south. The objectives, according to Ms. Kho: to forestall peasant uprising in the north and change the Mindanao ethnic landscape. These years are critical in understanding the appreciation of the conflict that persists to this day.

Some representatives of the US government would later lobby to keep Mindanao separate from the Philippines when the US Congress was debating to grant it independence. While deliberations were under way, American businesses took up huge landholdings in Mindanao, Ms. Kho said.

This explains the entrenched interests of such giants as Dole and Del Monte in Mindanao’s farm sector. Scholars stress that through those years tension over land between Christians and Muslims brewed steadily. Christians’ edge was boosted with the establishment of a land titling system, the implications of which on their culture Muslims failed to appreciate at once. “Mindanao was virtually Christian-free before the arrival of the US,” Ms. Kho said in an article
published in a Web site hosted by Waltham Concerned Citizens. “In 1913, Moros made up 98% of the population. By 1972, the percentage had fallen to 40. Today, Christians outnumber Moros nine to one in mainland Mindanao though Sulu still remains 95% Moro. Only 15% of the land in
Mindanao today are still in Moro hands.”

These drastically altered demographics have made the Moro’s political desire ticklish to say the least. Manifestations of the conflict in recent years, however, appear to have taken on other dimensions including religious as perceived by many. What began as a purely political contest has today become for the government an arena to cleanse Philippine society of
terrorists.

While peace advocates in the country abhor the use of terror labels, it has not escaped Muslim intellectuals that the fight for self-determination could one day slip into terror tactics. In September 2000 when the Abu Sayyaf, a group that would be later brushed off as a criminal gang, became effective in capturing international attention, Datu Jamal Ashley Abbas raised this
possibility: “A more serious effect is the apparent success of the Abu Sayyaf and the apparent failure of the MILF. This means that more Moros would now be inclined to go the way of terrorism instead of a semi-conventional warfare practised by the MILF.”

The MILF leadership continues to insist it has nothing to do with the recent spate of terror tactics used to down civilian and military targets. And President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is among those demanding for proof the group isn’t into this ballgame. Her seeming incredulity at MILF innocence in recent events has fuelled speculation that her administration’s drive to stamp
out criminality has become another rationale to create a concourse for American troops on Philippine soil. It also fits snugly into the US war on terror for which the Bush administration has built alliance with friendly nations.

So there, the US is back on Mindanao soil. Its soldiers may not know the topography by heart, but they are not necessarily unfamiliar with the political terrain that was created partly as a result of the US’ “policy of attraction” in early 20th century.

STATE TERRORISM

Filipinos overwhelmed by the surge of criminality in Mindanao find it a relief that American troops are around to help quell terrorism. But scholars are on guard against accepting the all-American view of terrorism that exonerates the US contribution to the overall scheme of things. “We posit that US-supported terrorism is one category of terrorism,” a paper published
in the Journal of Peace Psychology stated.

Authors Cristina Jayme Montiel, psychology professor at Ateneo de Manila University, and Mustafa K. Anuar, professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, noted the use by the US of “terroristic violence” to advance its political goals. “The armed intrusion of a world power into the everyday lives of populations in weaker states sows very great fear and intense resentments among a civilian citizenry victimized by these foreign military attacks,” they said.

The authors’ main thesis is to expand the meanings and categories of terrorism to include “structural invisible violence.” They said this refers to “unequal social systems” under which massive deprivations thrive. And in the case of Mindanao, the deprivation is clearly an offshoot of the colonial years. Many would rather bury the past and move on, Mr. Abbas said. Yet,
like it or not, a people’s resentment to others has a way of surviving the passage of a century.

It is not only in the Philippines where the US interest has helped spawn resentment among peoples and, in some cases, resentment against the US and its allies. Ms. Montiel and Mr. Anuar said: “In many parts of the majority world, the US is believed to have backed terrorist groups and
helped undermine legitimate governments in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. Israel, a close US ally, likewise practices state terrorism as illustrated by its bellicose attitude towards the occupied Palestinians.”

That the US has returned to Mindanao isn’t for the books, but it stands out in how old the ghosts that will lurk in the shadows when American troops deal with MILF rebels directly or otherwise. Knowing these ghosts can help clear the mind and know when and who to tag as terrorists.

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