Scary beginnings (1) | Inquirer Opinion
Kris-Crossing Mindanao

Scary beginnings (1)

/ 04:04 AM January 03, 2022

On Dec. 31, my husband and I visited Barangay Poblacion, Datu Piang, Maguindanao, to finish doing the last key informant interview for our research project on the interface of climate change fragility risks and armed conflict in communities surrounding the Ligawasan Marsh, in the central part of Maguindanao province. The greater part of the marsh straddles through at least 10 municipalities of the province, and among these is Datu Piang.

Ligawasan Marsh is considered the largest among the country’s wetlands, covering an area of more than 200,000 hectares.


Accessing Datu Piang has been quite challenging in the last few months due to the frequent monsoon rains that usually cause flooding in many of its barangays. But even without rain, many parts of Datu Piang experience flash flooding because the great river, the Pulangi, that separates it from Midsayap municipality of neighboring North Cotabato province receives all the residual floodwaters from the Ala River in Isulan and the headwaters of the Pulangi in far away Bukidnon province. This makes some parts of the road impassable. This forced us to postpone schedules for many community discussions and interviews in some of the barangays in Datu Piang and Shariff Saidona. Last Friday, Dec. 31, we accessed Datu Piang via the Mamasapano-Shariff Saidona Mustafa–Pagatin highway. From the main highway in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, we turned left toward Mamasapano until we reached our destination, a distance of about 150 kilometers from our point of origin, General Santos City.

Along the Mamasapano–Shariff Aguak crossing, we saw five military tanks and two army trucks filled with soldiers in full battle gear. It seemed to us that they were waiting for final orders before they entered Mamasapano. True enough, as we started cruising the Shariff Aguak–Mamasapano highway, the army tanks started to move, just following our car.


Mamasapano and Shariff Saidona Mustafa municipalities have been carved out of some barangays of its “mother” municipality—Datu Piang. Three of them are now part of Shariff Saidona: Ganta, Butilen, and Pandi. All three barangays are part of the area the military calls the SPMS box (Salibu, Pagatin, Mamasapano, and Shariff Aguak). In the map, these four localities appear to be a “box.” The Philippine military leadership has always referred to the area as the SPMS box, and any “uncoordinated” entry of armed individuals there might be seen as an “assault” to the armed groups there, thus the warning about doing prior coordination before deciding to enter the box.

The SPMS box is notorious as a “high-risk” security area, because many of its interior barangays are known important camps of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It can be recalled that the BIFF broke away from the MILF after the botching of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that was considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008.

Last Friday’s intense firefight between the BIFF and the Philippine military lasted for more than three hours, from 7 p.m. to until almost 10 p.m. We left Datu Piang in a hurry at around 4:30 p.m. It turned out to be a wise decision, otherwise we would have been caught in the crossfire while passing by the Mamasapano highway on our way home.

Early the following morning, my husband’s nephew who lives in Barangay Damabalas, Datu Piang, called us up, checking if we were able to reach home safely. Six 61 mm mortars were fired and hit the vicinity of Barangay Damabalas, landing in different parts of the barangay in its small ponds and marshes, and in the municipal garbage dumpsite where there are no houses. According to our informant, the 61 mm mortar shells were fired from a launcher in the detachment near GLACI (Gani L. Abpi Colleges Inc., formerly the Central Mindanao Institute). On our way out of Datu Piang, one of the soldiers in the detachment checkpoint demanded that we all get out of our car. Fortunately, another soldier intervened and gave us the go signal to proceed to our destination. I was starting to feel uncomfortable then.

(To be continued)

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TAGS: Kris-Crossing Mindanao, Maguindanao history, Rufa Cagoco-Guiam
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