Internal displacement and mass evacuation have been hounding my homeland for about half a century now. The armed conflict in Mindanao, the second biggest island in the Philippine Archipelago of 7,106 islands, is known to be the second oldest internal conflict in the world – next only to North and South Sudan.
In the mid-seventies, shortly after Martial Law was declared by then President Marcos, the firefights between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) caused the exodus of illegal Muslim migrants to the neighboring state of Sabah, Malaysia, which resulted to en-masse deportation during the crackdown by the Malaysian authorities as part of their anti-terrorist campaign in 2002.
The World Bank estimated 120,000 casualties and an undetermined number of injuries in the two decades of the rise of the Bangsamoro struggle in the Southern Philippines in the early seventies led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). By 2001, internal displacement was pegged at two (2) million, with half a million rendered homeless in April 2000 by the “all-out-war” policy of then President Estrada to “crush the Moro Islamic Liberation Front” (MILF), the MNLF break-away group which became the bigger force to contend with.
While President Arroyo, in contrast, declared an “all-out-peace policy” toward the MILF, the same policy was temporarily abandoned when the military launched another assault of MILF-controlled territories in February 2003, in pursuit of “criminal elements” operating in the area. And again, this drove residents in the conflict zones into massive evacuations.
The collapse of the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) by both the Philippine Government and the MILF in August 2008 ignited warfare, with the rampage of “renegade” MILF commanders who expressed anger and disillusionment on the government’s “insincerity” in the peace talks. The armed conflict caused the displacement of about 69,000 families (approx. 350, 000 persons) in Central Mindanao, most of whom took refuge in almost a hundred evacuation centers. It likewise caused deaths and injuries and damage to properties (dwellings, schools, health centers, crops and livestock) pegged at about Php64 Million.
And yet the situation on the ground is more complex than what is often viewed from the outside. There are complicating factors that include clan wars, land disputes, widespread banditry and natural calamities, amidst confusing socio-political dynamics, varying economic interests and unique cultural dimensions. More directly relevant to the violence in the area are the chronic conflict among different “clans” (rido) and land disputes within the Muslim population, that become more visible during elections (i.e. Ampatuan massacre), and which generates sporadic flare-ups—often drawing in military reaction. There is also this ordinary but widespread banditry which all the more confuses the origin of violent attacks, and often drags the military into alleged “indiscriminate response”. Thus, mass evacuation and displacement in certain communities has almost become a way of life.
Even at the early stages of the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF, the negative impact of the El Niño phenomenon in 1997 to 1998 had already taken its toll on the conflict areas like the Liguasan Marsh, where communities thrive largely on agriculture (farming and livestock), so that displacement was inevitable. Another compelling factor that has aggravated and prolonged the most recent internal displacement is the occurrence of natural calamities like flooding during heavy rains. Most of the IDPs come from the Liguasan Marshland, the country’s biggest swamp straddling three regions and three provinces, which consists the conflict-affected areas. Frequent flooding prevents repatriation, even if the IDPs are willing or ready to normalize their lives in their places of origin.
Recent raw estimates on the ground pegged the total number of IDPs at a quarter of a million. But the figures can not be qualified in any easy manner since some of the IDPs have settled for good with friends and relatives and prefer to merge into the host communities than stay at the evacuation centers.
The Philippine government has been confronting this challenge of addressing the armed struggle spanning many centuries – the Bangsamoro struggle on their claim for ancestral domain. The Tausugs, Maguindanaoans and Maranaos, three of the biggest tribal groups of the island that embraced Islam long before my country was colonized by Spain in the 14th century, have fought for the longest time to preserve their faith, identity, culture and traditions and re-claim their “homeland”.
I have been with the peace talks between the government and the Muslim rebels since 2003. In August of 2008 in Putrajaya, Malaysia, I was there when both peace panels were on the verge of sealing the MOA-AD, set to be witnessed by the international community, when the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order. What could have been the most awaited and painstakingly crafted breakthrough burst into a painful embarrassment and disillusionment. We knew then we rammed into a dead end. And now we’re confronted with close to half-a-million IDPs.
Armed government troops hovered around as I made my way to the boat landing, a battalion of Philippine Marines as escorts. This was how I do my rounds as a state peace worker! Ironic and absurd as it may seem, my field work in conflict-affected areas have always been carried out this way, with “security measures”. I was in one of the biggest “bakwit centers” (IDPs evacuation camp) to see how the IDPs are faring.
I helped myself to one of the boats anchored on the landing, if only to pose for a souvenir in my country’s biggest marshland … and to my amazement I was cruising! The boatman let go of the anchor and off we went! As I plunged headlong into God’s boundless embrace, my heart marveled at the beauty of my homeland and the goodness of my people. Inside “enemy lair”, amidst rebels, crocodiles and deadly mosquitoes, I knew I have conquered my greatest fears in the joy and pride of knowing I belong here.
Our National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, had this to say more than a century ago: “My people have always been poor. Our only possessions are our lands and our families.” Unfortunately today, even our lands are no longer ours … and our families are wounded and shattered with so much strife.
At the background my escorts were overwhelmed and furious … with all the apprehensions on the perils that my “irresponsible behavior and improper judgment” could result to – that I could get killed or abducted … or worse, it could trigger an armed confrontation between my “protectors” and the rebels and cause more casualties and damages.
But home is where my heart is … and there is no safer place than being right there where you belong. Our lands may lie beyond our reach now… but even through the strife and amidst our grief we are blessed with the certainty of belonging. For lack of any chance spontaneity became our way of life; for lack of any choice durability became our tradition; for lack of security we hold on and hold fast to each other’s embrace. My soul is grieving … but I am not alone.