The SPMS Box, a rectangular area comprising of four adjacent towns in Maguindanao province, is known to be the stronghold of the renegade Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). SPMS stands for Salibu, Pagatin (part of Datu Saudi Ampatuan town), Mamasapano, and Shariff Aguak. All four municipalities are among Maguindanao’s poorest localities, and the most affected by armed conflict, both vertical (between the BIFF and its factions and the Philippine military forces) and horizontal or communal, like clan wars and political feuds among rival political families in the province. SPMS Box is a military term for these four conflict-riven towns.
More than a decade ago, and until now, this “box” had become the refuge of all sorts of lawless elements—drug pushers, assassins, violent extremist groups like the factions of the BIFF, kidnap for ransom groups, and other nefarious elements in society. The box has gained notoriety among local folk living in its outskirts as a place where any outsider who enters it may not be able to exit alive.
Friends from the military corps of officers used to tell me they cannot just enter the box without going through a complicated round of coordinative calls to the local members of either the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group or the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities. These are the mechanisms put in place with the signing of various peace accords between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front prior to the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). The CAB is the reason behind the creation of the more than one-year-old government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Fast forward to 2020. Nothing substantial has changed in many parts of the box, inside and outside it, especially in terms of poverty, and vulnerability to armed conflict. Last May 24, as all the Muslim ummah (community of believers in Islam) celebrated the breaking of the month-long fasting (Ramadan), two children died and 15 others were seriously wounded when an 81-mm mortar exploded in a small neighborhood in Barangay Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan. Reports from members of nongovernment organizations documenting human rights abuses in the area mentioned the lobbing of a hand grenade at the municipal hall of Datu Salibu, and the killing of three men one after the other. Nobody seems to care about finding who the killers are, and what brought about these unfortunate people’s untimely deaths.
In neighboring Datu Hoffer Ampatuan municipality, indigenous communities like the Teduray are among the province’s most marginalized and impoverished. In 2019, an international NGO conducted a survey among the Teduray in this municipality on their access to health and sanitation services. In their report, Oxfam Philippines cited that even before the COVID-19 threat, 91 percent of the indigenous community members in Datu Hoffer did not go down from their homes in the mountains to seek health services in the poblacion for fear of getting hit by stray bullets when clan feuding and skirmishes between extremist groups and the Philippine military forces took place. The sick among them chose to remain at home, waited for the time when they became even sicker until they died without seeing a medical practitioner.
With the current COVID-19 threat, the already precarious situation of the poor and marginalized sectors of the population in these towns in Maguindanao is exacerbated. A report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that in March alone, seven out of 10 armed conflicts in central Mindanao occurred in Maguindanao (UNHCR Protection Cluster, 2020). The same report noted that around 250 families were fleeing from hostilities between government forces and members of the BIFF.
Morbid either or choices face these communities: getting killed by stray bullets and by shrapnel of mortars if they choose to stay put at home, and possibly getting infected by COVID-19 if they choose to flee to crowded evacuation centers.
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