Bicycle Diaries: Mindanao redux

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Mindanao redux

(until 7 August)

That was the least surprising response I got when I told folks that I was going to Mindanao last summer. Most surprising were the responses I got from those who know that Mindanao is the largest and southernmost of the 7000 islands that make up the Philippines. When I went to get me visa at the Philippine consulate, just opposite the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, an older Filipino gentleman waiting in line behind me asked rather straightforwardly, "Are you afraid for your safety?" I would have easily dismissed his grave concern if the official behind the counter hadn't nodded his head in agreement, adding, "There are a lot of nice tourist sites in Manila. Why don't you go there instead?"

But I wasn't going to Manila except to spend eight hours waiting for a connecting flight to Mindanao. I wasn't going there for the tourist sites either. I was going there for the very reasons that the US State Department tells Americans going to Mindanao, "kidnappings, bombings, violence, and insurgent activity make travel hazardous in many areas." In addition to making the deadlier aspects of human conflict sound rather like a severe weather alert, this travel warning, the highest the State department can give, does little to tell Americans why there is conflict in Mindanao and what, if anything, is being done to end it.

That was why I was going.

The US Institute for Peace had given the Interfaith Youth Core, where I was the Director of Education and Training, a field research grant to study how our interfaith youth approach to conflict resolution might be adapted for use in some of the world's conflict areas. It funded my four-week trip to Mindanao in July and August this summer. This gave me an utterly astonishing view of the paradoxical relationship between Mindanao and the US. More significantly, it revealed an extraordinary group of young people there who, with little support from their national government in Manila and little visibility outside the Philippines, are working hard to fulfill the promise of peace.

Throughout the Philippines, Mindanao is known as "The Land of Promise." It is a mountainous tropical island with rich volcanic soil. Vegetarians who come to Mindanao will think they've gone to heaven. Mindanoans eat an unimaginable variety of fruits, some like the Jackfruit larger than a watermelon, others small and spiky like the Rambutan. As a result, successive Philippine governments in Manila as well as colonial occupiers have encouraged large numbers of migrants from the other islands to settle and farm the land there over the years. But despite the generous gifts of both geography and climate, the promise of the good life so enthusiastically offered in Manila has gone largely unfulfilled. For Mindanao's natural diversity is surpassed only by its ethnic and religious diversity.

When Muslim missionaries came in the 14th and 15th centuries from what is today Malaysia and Indonesia they encountered an indigenous population, today called Lumad, organized into tribes governed through extended family networks with headman or datus, at the top. Reflecting the genius of Islam's adaptability, these missionaries established two sultanates largely on this existing social structure. Coming a hundred years or so later, the Spaniards were surely surprised to be facing yet another Muslim foe. Expecting to repeat their dubious achievement of removing the Moors from Spain, they christened the local Muslim population, Moro. History, however, did not repeat itself. Successful Moro resistance forced the Spaniards to largely bypass Mindanao as they occupied the rest of the Philippines, converting the vast majority of the population to Catholicism.

Until the end of the 19th Century, Mindanao remained an isolated outpost of the declining Spanish Empire with both the Lumad and Moro increasingly marginalized by the Catholic settler majority. This abruptly changed in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. After a rapid victory, the US refused to honor its promise of Philippines independence. Mindanao along with the rest of the Philippines suddenly became the focus of US imperial ambitions in Asia. And it demonstrated the extreme difficulties in suppressing a local armed movement of national liberation. The Philippine Insurrection, lasting until 1902, left a legacy that for the most part remains forgotten in the US today. Echoing Viet Nam 60 years later, it left more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers, 20,000 Filipino soldiers, and 200,000 Filipino civilians dead.

In Mindanao, the US army, fresh from its Indian Wars in the American West, fought a scorched earth campaign still remembered locally as the Moro Wars. But American policy was a paradoxical mixed of brutality and benevolence. Army commanders such as John J. Pershing, who later in WWI would be lionized as Blackjack Pershing, built roads, hospitals and schools. Today, Mindanao's double-edged experience of this period strongly colors its special relationship with the US. During my first days in Zamboanga City in the southwest of Mindanao, I discussed this with a two local university professors as we sat sipping coffee just off Plaza Pershing. One referred to the scene from the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian, where the People's Front of Judea compiles a list of its grievances against the Romans . except for good roads, safe streets, and the aqueducts.

Despite eventual Philippine independence in 1946, Mindanoans continue to acknowledge this special relationship with the US. Each year the many who are denied US visas nevertheless remain hopeful that one day the promise of the American Dream will be fulfilled. Those who actually make it here to study at colleges and universities or work in the health care and other professions have become part of the second largest and fastest growing Asian immigrant community in the US. Their success as new Americans results in even closer social and economic ties between the US and Mindanao.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most Americans remain ignorant of our ties with Mindanao. This would be merely unfortunate if it weren't for the fact that Mindanao is now one of the fronts in the US Global War on Terror. Indeed, since 9.11, US foreign policy has given considerable military and diplomatic support to the Philippine government in its counter-insurgency war against two local Islamist groups: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, and Abu Sayyaf, one of al-Qaeda's most aggressive affiliates in southeast Asia. The relationship between these two organizations is murky and controversial. Nonetheless, most Mindanoans with whom I spoke agreed that they are both outgrowths of the more secular Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, which first appeared in the early 1970s to fight for Mindanao independence from the Philippines. Today, it is one of the few Islamic national liberation movements to have successfully laid down its arms to peacefully govern the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, with grudging support from the Philippine government.

What is not murky is the US military and diplomatic presence in the south and west of the island where the Philippine army is fighting both the MILF and Abu Sayyaf. And like US counter-insurgency polices a hundred years before, US support is again perceived locally as a paradox. US Special Forces units have operated in MILF territory since the summer of 2002. While training the Philippine army has been their official mission, there seems to be little doubt locally that they are conducting the military operations themselves. In Marawi City, known as the only Muslim City in Mindanao, I met with one of the founders of the MNLF, the unofficial minister for propaganda for the ARMM. He not only reiterated this position, but also forcefully added that the CIA was responsible for both creating and arming the MILF and Abu Sayyaf to defeat the MNLF.

These and other conspiracy theories abound throughout the island despite the generally successful efforts of US public diplomacy. In addition to the roads and clinics built by US Special Forces and USAID, the State Department has reached out to local and regional peace groups working to sustain Zones of Peace where the Philippine army and the MILF have negotiated cease-fire agreements. For the last three years, it has funded a project at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb that bring groups of Christian, Muslim, and Lumad university students and their adult advisors to the Midwest every April to develop their skills in interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution, and community service. Upon returning they implement action plans to create and sustain the promise of peace in their own communities.

The opportunity to observe these young people in action in their own communities after working with them here in Chicago dispelled any notions I had concerning the intractability of Mindanao's conflict. These young people are impressive for they combine an infectious enthusiasm with a hard-won realism. They come from communities caught directly in the crossfire. Many have been evacuated for their neighborhoods and villages or worse, have lost family members. Clearly, they are the best and brightest of Mindanao's emerging generation of leaders. And for me, their work is one important way with which Mindanao can truly become the Land of Promise.

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Anonymous Don Sorsa said...

Brilliant writing and very important work you're doing. Thanks much, Garth.

31/7/08 14:25  
Blogger Da' Square Wheelman, said...

Thanks, Don! C U after the 7th!

1/8/08 20:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"US Special Forces units have operated in MILF territory since the summer of 2002."

They are operating at the Country Club pool.

6/8/08 22:02  

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