Along the highway in the municipality of Datu Salibo, Maguindanao province, Philippines, on the island of Mindanao, an old man sits on his chair, watching the cars, people, and cows slowly pass by. Small swamps lie next to him and around his house, and children are playing in them, swimming and throwing water at each other. Teenagers wearing fake NBA shirts of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant are playing basketball with improvised rules and baskets on the road. At the close-by market, loosely veiled women wearing colorful headscarves are selling bread, while their proud husbands, some with baseball caps, others with a traditional taquiyah, are loading chickens and goats into small carts. Small cafeterias along the road offer steamed rice with soy sauce, beef, and fresh cooked vegetables to the hungry villagers. Soon enough, the muezzin will call for prayer. One might feel that the land of the “people of the flooded plains” is a peaceful idyll. Yet just some days ago the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivered food assistance to the municipality, rice was badly needed in the wake of the previous events.
Over the last few months, several bombing incidents, skirmishes and raids by rebel groups have taken place in Mindanao. These events have awoken the prior sentiments of an island set on fire by the concentric circles of war, low-scale insurgency, terroristic acts, kidnappings and even beheadings. There is no war in Mindanao now like before – but the closer peace comes, the more desperate and violent the spoilers are. The reality is – despite incidents of violence over the last weeks and months – that the past few years have been relatively quiet and some progress has been achieved. The government and the main insurgency group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are negotiating and trying to provide flesh to a skeletal peace agreement – the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. This will happen via the drafting of four separate annex, which will elaborate further on the peace architecture and multifold provisions to give the Bangsamoro people substantive autonomy. Two annexes have been signed so far, yet the 41st round of Peace Talks between government and MILF ended on October 13th without a significant outcome. Both peace panels need to continue negotiating and experts say it is just a matter of time before a comprehensive agreement will come.
To an extent, the MILF is already acting as current de-facto government and police force. It chooses handpicked candidates to run for village elections in order to prevent shoot-outs between rival politicians, their bodyguards, or private armies. It is statebuilding on the micro-level. In fragile democracies and in contested post-conflict spaces, the void of governance is often filled by non-state actors and a non-state actor such as the MILF who has firm support in communities, a solid ideological base and means to enforce its version of “statehood” is thus always trying to bridge its former status as revolutionary movement to that of legitimate actor, especially during the critical time of peace talks.
But there is another side. Rival guerrilla commanders feud over small pieces of land, honor, or political positions. The MILF has to prove unity and dedication to the government – yet what can it do about fractures and fringes of the movement? During the last round of peace talks, a clan war or rido in a village has resulted in the displacement of more than a thousand of families from three villages. Both conflicting parties are connected to the MILF and their weaponry and re-enforcements are linked to different units or “Base Commands”. After two days of intense fighting the conflict has calmed down, but the larger malaise of commanders getting involved in local politics and the escalation/potential of clan feuds remains high. Centripetal and centrifugal moments within the movement are deciding about the movement’s capacity and opportunity as the potential governing force in Muslim Mindanao a few years from now.
The conflict in the Southern Philippines is of peculiar kind. Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are the epicenters of a century-old struggle and home of at least three-and-a-half insurgencies in the last three decades. The wide green plains of Central Mindanao are full of rice fields and marsh, they conceal an even more localized system of violence. In particular the heartland of the Bangsamoro struggle deserves a thorough look. The swampy green of Maguindanaon landscapes carries a dark melancholy when you look at it, hiding many skeletons underground. It is one of the hot spots of violent conflict in the Southern Philippines in the last four decades and its political structures reveal almost everything that is wrong with the modern Philippine and neocolonial state.
There are still those areas around the world that are, as the writer William Burroughs wrote, ambiguous zones where worlds and spheres collide along fluid borders. They are not hearts of darkness in as much they are “hearts out of synch,” conundrums between Westphalia and Hobbes. Interzones where the stream of time is not flowing in a regular pattern but where outliers of war and conflict have created a whole new zone of time. The names of these zones do not reveal much except to those who mutter them with fear and to the scholars of their borders. Maguindanao, Manipur, Sabah, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel are not the “fault-lines of civilizations” proposed by Samuel Huntington, features repeatedly (and falsely) invoked to establish the “bloody borders of Islam”, but rather rifts in communal fabrics, categories that are difficult to grasp using the traditional modes of social science. Their complete history is unwritten, their darkness isn’t infinite and their future depends on how we policymakers, scholars, travelers, writers see them – as lakes of fire or new shores of hope.
Maguindanao is just one province of the entity known as the “Autonomous Region on Muslim Mindanao” which was created in 1989 to give Filipino Muslims in the South an autonomous region. Their powers were supposedly newly renegotiated and strengthened in 1996 after the Final Peace Agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – the first Moro rebel group – and government. But a newer peace document, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) describes this entity as “failed political experiment.”
Maguindanao tragically occupied the headlines in 2010, when a powerful political family, the Ampatuans, had orchestrated a large-scale political killing of its rival clan and innocent bystanders, including journalists, altogether 57 people killed. This is in addition to the all-out-wars between governments and MILF in 2000, 2003 and 2008. The Ampatuans have long been allies of the government in confronting the insurgency but this “pact with the devil” reached its tragic climax in this infamous “Maguindanao massacre.” The scourge of politics hangs loose over the province and the region. “Politics is business”, says Jamal, a tricycle driver from Shariff Aguak, the former capital of Maguindanao and main turf of the Ampatuans. And politics is also the necessary outcome of the contextual evolution of a society. Everything from land disputes over governance failures to justified grievances of the Muslims in the Philippines evolves around thickets of history and the constitution of Mindanao as a trajectory/outlier of the country.
Even today, the province lives in a peculiar symbiosis with a variety of armed actors, the recent conflicts are the tip of an iceberg that reaches back centuries. Resources are subject to everyday theft and corruption and the population is oppressed and exploited. Maguindanao could be the agricultural powerhouse of the country but it is rather the target of plunder, nepotism and ignorance. The structures daring to change the status quo are only semi-nascent, not quite ready to replace the rotten state-like structures. Small steps are necessary. In a world where hope comes literally both from a gun and the holy book, our eyes should be focused on Maguindanao as a laboratory of ideas, political (d)evolution and the specters of conflict.
Past Perfect Progressive
The old man is not the only person sitting on a chair and watching. One kilometer away, further up the highway, is a group of soldiers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Five young men are staring at the cars passing the road and watching their colleagues at newly installed roadblock checkpoints. Sipping on ice tea or Coca-Cola, these modern-day jungle GIs are manning a defense post in one of the most critical areas of Maguindanao. Right now, the security challenge is coming from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the MILF. The MILF claims to be the legitimate representative of the Bangsamoro people, 13 ethno-linguistic, Muslim tribes from the Southern Philippines. Colonized by the Americans, Spaniards, and for a brief but disastrous interlude the Japanese, the Bangsamoro have resisted foreign occupation for centuries.
The mainstream MILF is currently talking peace with the Philippine Government, whereas the radicalized splinter group BIFF still demands independence from the “oppressive and imperialist occupation force”, waging “jihad” against the government and military. The former MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato is BIFF’s leader. The rebels are not many, between 600 and 800 fighters according to estimates. Yet they harass the AFP on some occasions, delivering both a poisonous tickle and a reminder to the government of their existence. Those hit-and-run attacks on detachments or sporadic fire on military camps are followed by more massive guerrilla activities like coordinated attacks in one concentrated area or an intense assault on one particular position. The BIFF is a temporarily guerrilla entity running on trial-and-error concerning tactics and goals. But so far the ability of BIFF to draw on the surplus value of fringe armed actors in Central Mindanao has been remarkable. Short-term alliances and individual commanders’ support offering rifles, passages and men have proven successful and the military has not fully understood this new challenge. For the army, the “Freedom Fighters” are just bandits who want attention and who plan to derail the peace talks.
Miles after the military checkpoint, passing Datu Saudi Ampatuan, one can stumble upon silent remnants of the past. A red flag is being waved, symbol of the first Bangsamoro resistance movement, aforementioned MNLF. Founded by the intellectual Professor Nur Misuari, this group has now been overshadowed by the MILF. After fighting in the 1970s and 1980s, the secular identity of MNLF was challenged by a more Islamic perspective of some guerrillas which broke away and founded the MILF (the same pattern has now repeated itself with the BIFF split). Now, the latter group is negotiating in Kuala Lumpur. And the original is deeply divided into factions that are both simultaneously co-opted and frustrated. This frustration translates into a concrete form of violent aggression.
In October 2013, rogue MNLF elements allegedly funded and commanded by Misuari’s men besieged Zamboanga City, a predominantly Christian seaport in Western Mindanao. The once beautiful “Latin City of Asia” became a battlefield for three weeks and displaced over 100 000 persons. Many of the Muslims in the outskirt village-ships also suffered from a wave of flash floods after the conflict. During the stand-off, heavy firefights took place around the city at all times of the day, grey ash and smoke marking the once peaceful city with the everlasting color of war, sapping it of its former joie de vivre. For the self-perceived Tausug warriors and government-branded “terrorists” the fight until the end paved the road to heroic self-sacrifice without giving victory to the martyr’s cause. The attempted invasion of Zamboanga City slid into oblivion and the young angry men ended up dead or in jail.
Far from the AFP checkpoint and still along the highway in the municipality of Datu Odin Sinsuat, named after a great Maguindanaon “datu” or “leader”, a framed sign on a small building’s porch reads, “Arab Bakeshop.” The blazing sun mirrors off the flashy tricycles and jeepney graffiti giving those vehicles such original names as “Scorpio” or “Datu Ali.” Bikers and tricycle drivers slow down the traffic more than usual, for it is market day here. Still the tree patterns, scents, and road landscapes are purely Maguindanaon. So are the timid smiles of the population and the farmers along the road. The market is a primary means of survival in an atmosphere where bleakness and grey matter reside, where a potential tropical paradise is trapped in a perpetual groundhog’s day of guns, goons and greed.
I am eating pan de mongo, small bread with a sweet bean filling inside. Most of the villagers are too hurried to pay attention to a foreigner standing at the side of the road. A fully veiled woman rushes by holding her small daughter by the hand heading toward the Islamic School. A vendor carries mudfish. A thirtyish man with a New York baseball cap and army jacket munches on a pineapple slice, a 45-caliber pistol in his pocket sticking out. Acknowledging my presence, he grins and nods.
Dream a Little Dream of Peace
Under the Buco tree (a coconut variation) he slept and dreamt. Nineteen years old, a M-16 hanging over his shoulder, and happy Bugs Bunny smile on his face. He is a member of the Taskforce Ittihad, sent by the Central Committee of the MILF to secure the area, protect civilians, and act as a buffer force between feuding MILF commanders, feuding clans, the BIFF and the army. He joined the force one and a half years ago when he was seventeen. This is generally considered as the recruitment of child soldiers, but the MILF claims that this practice is now forbidden and the regulation strictly enforced. For a Maguindanaon like Bugs to feed his family, the barrel of a gun and not only farming works best, at least for now.
The irony of the current situation is that the MILF perceives itself as the embodiment of Bangsamoro interest. In reality the political actor MILF and its large number of political, communal, and military components is only the biggest concentric circle in Maguindanao. Other rings of power involve disgruntled guerrillas, group and factions of MILF and MNLF, individual big men and datus (tribal chiefs), the provincial government and criminal groups. At the same time, external electrons moving on those rings are the Armed Forces, the Christian settler communities, and Imperial Manila. And this is only the topography of Maguindanao. The upper regions of Lanao (including the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur) and the islands of the Tausug and Yakan tribes – Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi – are just other small overlapping worlds in the big picture.
Mindanao is affected both by conflict and poverty. Would the conflict still persist and loom at the same scale if the vast resources of this island were distributed in an equal way and the “land of promise” was indeed a place where everyone got his or her share? Perhaps. However, it is it difficult to imagine that a peace agreement would trigger a boost in the region, opening up space for investments, development, and growth if it does not address other historical issues, specifically around the question of land. Many claim that land lies at the origin of the Mindanao wars. The settlement of Christians in Muslim areas, initiated by the American colonizers and happily carried out by the first independent Filipino presidents, is viewed as the root cause of the conflict. Land is crucial and on the local level it may be the greatest factor in triggering a village war. Yet efforts to allocate or reallocate land without giving the Bangsamoro sub-state fabric the chance to get rid of the strongman legacy and bossism or building up a class and civil society consciousness for the rule of law – a manifestation of Sharia? – is not the ultimate solution.
Peace is not merely the absence of war. According to Baruch Spinoza, it is also a virtue and a disposition for benevolence and justice. Peace is something inherent to mankind, something which is closely related to “human security”, and which concerns us all. Peace between government and guerrilla, between clans and communities, require time and effort. So what will the Framework Agreement and the Annexes bring? Great expectations lie ahead. The 1996 Peace Agreement of government and MNLF remains a cautionary tale – it teaches about the value of inclusion, the necessity of proper implementation, the need for full disarmament of all armed groups, eradication of structural root causes of the conflict, transitional justice, bigotry of spoilers and hubris of all-too-ambitious state-builders and fallibility of revolutionaries.
I do wonder what the old men in Camp Darapanan, the base of the MILF leadership and headquarters of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) – the armed wing of MILF – are planning and thinking. They are stern faced when dealing with all types of decisions, from the deployment of a platoon to secure rice harvest in a remote village to issuing a directive for Islamic education in a school, and recite suras of the Qu’ran, relying on the will of the Almighty to guide them and at the same time knowing the urgency of their own human agency to act and make a change for their people. Factions within compete, sometimes more, sometimes less vocal, and it is contest of patience against risk, bleak and pragmatic optimism of the visionaries or the intellectual pessimism of the old warriors.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Under the full moon of Datu Piang, I am sitting on the naked wet ground of a small field, not far from a narrow road leading to a small part of the town. If you walk it for some kilometers, you’ll enter farmland that is heavily contested between two local commanders, caught up in weeks long warfare to control the space. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to understand if the combatants are genuinely half-maddened by the will to revenge or merely subconsciously bored by the prospects of the jungle’s lack of opportunities for livelihood, education and health. I decide to walk back to the main square of the small town.
Although Islam doesn’t believe in ghosts, folk beliefs in manifestations of djinns or other creatures may be common. I wonder if the lost souls of thousands of men killed here over the centuries are leaving some sort of impact on that soil. It seems that phantoms of history will haunt me even in my dreams. Shaking my head under the nocturnal sphere, I know it better. The real ghosts of Maguindanao are peculiar manifestations of space-and-time-cracks in a context which defies time, because this time zone is not singular, it’s rather a conundrum. Everything comes together, the bitter past, the tumultuous yet slightly better present, and an unknown future. But there are no boundaries here, time just flows and breaks. It never goes straight. To understand this is the key to understanding violence and war, this has dawned on me now. The moment of truth in Mindanao seems like one never-ending, eternal minute; an incessant pause which hides the possible outbreak of noise as much as it fosters the blissful silence of nothingness. Infinitesimal moments have become a vicious time loop.
The roots of rebellion could be very well the seeds of its destruction, if only the government knew. But as in most conflicts around the world, the powerful are often too blind to see. A political practice completely unwilling and incapable to transform the power structures and to eradicate the twin conditions of exploitation and poverty will continue to attract local resistance. On the other hand, the sub-national concept of the Bangsamoro as institution and state-building exercise will be only as strong as its ruling clans in their various disguises are weakened as autonomous and absolute holders of authority and ammo.
Still, the government can take many wrong steps, one more divisive than the other. Ignoring the ground realities is only one of which within the realm of possibility. Racketeering, kidnapping outfits and criminals are as much political actors as the insurgents or the political and civilian state representatives. Those “Hobsbawmian guerrillas” are other elements of the complex system of Maguindanao and intertwined with the primary systems of coercion and violence. Taking the fuel out of structural violence which makes these minimal movements thrive is an essential long-term task of peace-building. Transforming the layered violence inherent in small villages and weak-governed spaces is the task. Government and MILF can be in the driving seat –but they shouldn’t be alone in the car.
What are the lessons from Maguindanao? First, conflict almost always stems from local complexities catalyzed by history and second, conflict could be transformative under the precondition of a genuine will for inclusion and careful analysis. The actors committed to resolving it should go with the flow and be ready to accept changing paradigms of conflict resolution according to new and unexpected situations, yet not losing the big picture and critical challenges either. Otherwise, the gates for the known and still unknown spoilers will be truly open, right next to the gate of meaningful autonomy, and will take everyone by surprise. Small waves of violence might not become tsunamis, but still flood the environment and take lives. How long more can one endure this condition?
Only the sound of mosquitoes and rain pervades the silent night in Datu Piang. Moonlight falls down on the mosque. I look to a graffiti painted on the side of a small restaurant opposite the house of God – guns and an Anime-like character screaming victory. Maybe it’s time to sleep after all.
Hope is both a powerful potion and illusion for a people. It dies last.