Worried for Mindanao

I first went to Mindanao (Davao City) as a young boy joining a sports event. It seemed normal, just like home, maybe because we were just in the hotel and in the sports venue. My next trip was as a teenager, again as a member of a sports delegation, this time in Zamboanga City. By then, I noticed a little difference. I was surreptitiously buying cigarettes (not yet allowed to smoke at that time) and Zamboanga was supposed to be the best place for imported and smuggled cigarettes.

That was my first ever encounter with a Muslim who was selling cigarettes. The look was different, the tone was different, and I do not know if it was because of the different language they were used to speaking. I was not afraid but I was a bit uneasy. I must have been influenced by the fact that I was buying smuggled goods and afraid of getting caught by a policeman.

Ten years later, the government was at war with rebellious Muslim groups. I totally felt the great difference between religions because the war seemed more religious to me than political. I then decided to delete Mindanao from my list of possible places to go to even later in my life. It seemed a very unsafe place and not worth risking my life for.

But as life would have it, as it usually does, I found myself in Davao City 30 years later. I was part of a lay community that had an advocacy for the youth and the poor. I thought then that this advocacy was worth the risk for me. After all, Davao City seemed quite safe by that time. Little did I know that I would be much more involved in the coming months and years – up to now for that matter.

As a volunteer worker for Gawad Kalinga, I found myself in the strangest places in Mindanao, and the most dangerous as well. I practically went to all the Muslim provinces, more provinces than just those who joined BARMM. And I was not visiting the major populated areas except when our port of entry was such. I remember the small towns and barangays where we built homes and communities.

For most of those years and places, we were given military escorts even if we did not necessarily ask for them. When we first built villages in Tacurong, Datu Paglas, Buluan, and S.K.Pendatun, there were military personnel accompanying us. I remember going to the Liguasan Marsh through a barangay in Buluan or Buluan, and I marveled at the community on stilts with bancas as taxis.

As we expanded the work, we reached the old Camp Abubakar (through Barira and Parang) which was almost totally destroyed by the all-out war of President Estrada. There, with the military as partners and protectors, we built hundreds of homes. Today, I still recall the thrill of Muslims and Christians working in peace.

We quickly moved into Wao, Lanao del Sur, too, before our momentous decision to work in Sulu. I felt fear just thinking of going to Jolo and Patikul but the lure of hope was stronger. Not only the lure but the basis hope of was the affirmation given by the positive impact of our work, not only in seeing poor Muslims have decent homes, but more the thawing of historical prejudice between Christians and Muslims.

It had then become more steadily positive with less armed conflict between our military and Muslim combatants. It went from tenuous peace talks to the Bangsamoro Basic Law that is now R.A. 11054 establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. We all prayed it would be the greatest turning point in Muslim and Christian relationship as well, not just autonomous governance of the Muslim areas.

It was and can still be the forever case. However, under a president who was regarded as the most popular among Christians and Muslims in Mindanao, the Marawi war broke out in 2017. The reconstruction is far from finished because terrorists who are deeply influenced, and maybe funded as well, by foreign groups refuse to join the peace train. Many Muslims, too, victims or sympathizers of the perpetrators of the Marawi siege, continue to agitate.

And, then, another very shocking and sad turn of events – the bombing of the gym of the Mindanao State University in Marawi is weighing heavily on our hearts today. Truly, the path to peace is not going to be an easy one, not after hundreds of years of animosity and also violence. The latest reports have identified at least four suspects, all connected to a foreign terrorist group. We have to endure more, it seems.

Especially the newly established BARMM. So much depends on the leadership who have now control, not only of authority, but also huge funds. If the leaders go with a similar failed experiment in the 90s, the next disappointment will make old wounds even deeper. I pray that the BARMM leaders will look to the historical poverty of their fellow Muslims who are among the poorest of our country.

The recent bombing places Mindanao in a delicate position. Terrorists doing their dirty job are difficult enough to contain. NPAs continue to operate in the same area, too. But, to me, the greatest and most immediate threat is the political infighting of the principal players of the Uniteam. It seems the growing conflict will color politics nationwide, but especially in Mindanao. Relentless political ambitions are always unsettling, but they may turn violent in Mindanao first because too many political and ideological combatants are already active there.

I am again beginning to fear for Mindanao. It had suffered so much already, its growth stunted for over a century. The tide had turned but again disrupted. The old adage about how the most important goals are also the most challenging must have been thinking of Mindanao.

But we have been here before, and we did not give up. We will not once more.