Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Mindanao in 2009

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / December 21, 2009) – The Southern Philippine region of Mindanao, despite its vast natural resources and beautiful and pristine beaches, remains to be a dangerous place.

With the spate of kidnappings and terrorism, the Philippines’ second largest island had been in the front pages of newspapers – in January, Abu Sayyaf militants whose group is tied to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya kidnapped 3 members of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sulu.

The trio – Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Jean Lacaba – were seized near Patikul town. They were released months later one at a time and with suspicion that ransoms had been paid to the kidnappers.

A Sri Lankan peace worker, Umar Jaleel, a 36-year old staff member of Nonviolent Peaceforce, was also kidnapped in February in Basilan’s Lamitan City. He was freed several months later. His organization said Jaleel was a victim of the very violence that he had been trying to deter.

But the murder in March of the daughter of a senior New People’s Army rebel leader, Rebelyn Pitao allegedly by government soldiers in Davao City drew widespread protests from various civil organizations and human rights groups.

Pitao was abducted by gunmen in Davao City. The next day, her naked body was found in a creek in the town of Carmen in Davao del Sur province. Her hands were tied and mouth was bound with a packaging tape – she had stabbed wounds in her chest and was believed tortured and raped by her abductors.

The young woman was the daughter of Leoncio Pitao, who is also known as Kumander Parago, leader of a New People’s Army command responsible for the series of attacks on government forces in Mindanao. Pitao’s family blamed the military for the killing.

And also in April, Sakur Tan, the governor of Sulu, declared a state of emergency in the province, to quell the growing threats of the Abu Sayyaf and to dismantle private armies maintained by warlords. It brought relieved to villagers in Sulu and fears to political warlords and militant groups. The emergency rule was also intended to deal with the Abu Sayyaf terrorists who are holding hostage two Red Cross workers Swiss national Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni kidnapped early this year.

But despite the troubles and negative news brought about by fighting and terrorism in Mindanao, Filipinos also rejoiced – at least temporarily - the victory of boxing legend Manny Pacquiao over British pride Ricky Hatton in May. Streets in most major cities were empty as residents watched the fight from their televisions in their homes and roadside restaurants. Pacquiao won the International Boxing Organization light welterweight title.

But the good news was also temporary. The governor of Sulu, Sakur Tan, who put his province under the state of emergency, survived an assassination attempt on his life by hired Abu Sayyaf militants also in May, but five of his escorts were injured in a roadside bombing outside his office. The people condemned the assassination attempt on the life of Governor Tan, who is working hard to achieve peace and development in Sulu. Police later linked the attack to a politician who is a known opponent of the governor.

The attack on the governor came barely a week after Abu Sayyaf militants ambushed and killed the Sulu police chief, Julasirim Kasim, and four others in Indanan town.

It was also in May that a faction of the Abu Sayyaf had freed three teachers kidnapped in Zamboanga City after four months in captivity. The trio - Quizon Freires, 28; Janette Delos Reyes, 29; and Rafael Mayonado, 24 – were kidnapped at sea on January 23 while returning by boat from a break on Sacol Island in Zamboanga City.

They were brought to Basilan province where kidnappers demanded P6 million ransoms for their safe release.

And while bad news dominate most of the media headlines in Mindanao, the sudden death of pop icon Michael Jackson in his home in the United States also brought shock to many fans in the southern Philippines. Filipinos had the privilege of watching Jackson perform in Manila in 1996 which was part of his History World Tour. As House Speaker Prospero Nograles said: “The great admiration of Filipinos on Jackson have not ceased over the years and this became evident when 1,500 inmates of the Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Cebu danced to the tune of his song "Thriller," which became an instant hit on Youtube.”

And in July, for the second time in seven years, the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ordered its 12,000-strong mujahideen to fight kidnapping-for-ransom activities in Mindanao.

It also ordered rebel forces to arrest and take drastic actions against kidnappers in areas where the MILF is actively operating. “The Central Committee of the MILF directs its freedom fighters comprising the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces to arrest and take drastic actions against the perpetrators of this heinous crime until these criminal activities are neutralized and stopped in MILF areas,” said an MILF order signed on Monday by the Front’s chief of staff, Sammy Al-Mansur.

The order was signed by Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF’s vice chairman for political affairs.

In August, many Filipinos in Mindanao mourned the death of former President Corazon Aquino, whose "people power" revolution swept Dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power in the Philippines. The 76-year old freedom icon Aquino was diagnosed with the disease in March 2008 but kept up public appearances this year.

And Mindanao was also the focus of a massive search and rescue operation in September after a passenger ship carrying more than 900 people sank off Zamboanga del Norte province. Many of its passengers had been rescued, but the news persisted for weeks.

It was also in September after visiting the Carmelite Sisters in Zamboanga City that Senator Benigno Aquino III announced his candidacy for the presidency in next year’s national polls.

Aquino, son of former Philippine President Corazon Aquino and ex-senator Benigno Aquino, made the announcement at the Club Filipino in San Juan City. Aquino went to Zamboanga City and met with his supporters and religious leaders to seek guidance whether to run or not in the presidential elections.

And two US Special Forces soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing later in Sulu province in September. The attack also wounded 5 more, including three Filipino marines. Defense officials identified those killed as 37-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Christopher D. Shaw of Markham in Illinois, and 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Jack M. Martin III of Bethany, Oklahoma.

US Special Forces are deployed in Sulu since 2006 and aiding the Philippine military in defeating the Abu Sayyaf. Although security officials deny US forces were directly involved in combat operations, there were numerous reports from civilians that American soldiers actually participated in the operations aimed at capturing or killing militant leaders in Sulu and other areas in the restive southern region of Mindanao.

Gunmen in October also kidnapped an Irish missioner Fr Michael Sinnot, 79, in Pagadian City in the southern Philippine province of Zamboanga del Sur.

At least six gunmen seized the priest from his house and dragged him to a waiting get-away vehicle and fled towards the coastal area of Pagadian City. He was later freed in exchange for an unspecified amount of ransom.

Also in October, United States officials have met with top Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders at a tightly guarded rebel base in Mindanao. The MILF is the country’s largest Muslim rebel group which is fighting for decades for self-determination in the main island of Mindanao.

Leslie Bassett, US deputy ambassador to Manila, led senior American officials in a two-hour meeting with Murad Ebrahim, the secluded leader of the MILF, in Maguindanao’s Sultan Kudarat town. Basset has assured Ebrahim of the US support to the peace process in Mindanao.

The MILF is currently negotiating peace with Manila in an effort to end the bloody fighting in the restive, but mineral-rich region of Mindanao.

In Bukidnon province, communist rebels accused US troops of engaging in combat operation. Jorge Madlos, a senior leader of the New People’s Army, said US forces have joined Filipino troops in offensive operations against the New People’s Army, which is a violation of the Philippine Constitution.

US troops have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2001 and since then had built forward bases in the provinces under the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. American troops are also deployed in the provinces of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu, all in the Muslim autonomous region, where they are aiding local soldiers in defeating the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group which is also tied with the Jemaah Islamiya.

Some 2,000 civilian volunteers also took their oath in November as members of a new police unit which will help Philippine authorities protect villages from rebel attacks. The volunteers are under the supervision of the Philippine National Police and the mayors of the town where they are deployed as peace-keeping force.

But despite the new police auxiliary group, Abu Sayyaf gunmen in November beheaded a school principal they kidnapped in Sulu province after his family failed to pay P2 million ransom. The severed head of Gabriel Canizares was discovered in a bag left at a gas station in the capital town of Jolo. His killings drew widespread protests from various civil groups in Mindanao.

And not were all bad news for the month of November, Filipinos in Mindanao joined the rest of the country in celebrating Manny Pacquiao’s winning over Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto in the 12-round WBO welterweight championship in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Roads, which were typically busy and crowded during ordinary days, were empty as many residents in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga watched the bout inside their houses, in restaurants and cinemas aired live via satellite.

But the most shocking news ever from Mindanao in November was the brutal killings of 57 people, at least 30 of them journalists who were abducted and shot at close by more than 100 gunmen allegedly led by Datu Unsay town Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the scion of a powerful political clan in Maguindanao province.

The gruesome killings later led to President Gloria Arroyo’s martial law declaration in Maguindanao and the arrest of many other clan members, including Andal’s father and namesake, who is the governor of Maguindanao; Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Muslim autonomous region and several of his brothers accused of participating in the massacre.

And in December, a Filipino woman married his long-time fiancé during a funeral of the man she loved for many years. It was a rare ceremony in the largely Catholic nation of 90 million people.

Argie Gulipato married her boyfriend John Caniban in Sultan Kudarat province, saying, they had planned the wedding long time ago, but their dream shattered after the 30-year old man was mercilessly killed along with 56 others in an attack on a caravan carrying supporters of Buluan vice mayor Esmael Mangudadatu on November 23 in Maguindanao province.

Caniban was one of at least 30 journalists who were in the caravan to cover the filing of nomination papers of Mangudadatu who is running for governor in Maguindanao against Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Ampatuan Jnr who is suspected of leading the attack.

The woman decided to marry Caniban at a church in the town of Isulan in Sultan Kudarat province on Monday and became wife and widow at the same time. The duo had long planned to marry in December. They have an eight-month old daughter.

It was also in December that Filipino leader Gloria Arroyo visited the funeral of journalists who were among 57 people brutally killed in Maguindanao.

Arroyo, dressed in black, condoled with the grieving families of the journalists at a funeral house in General Santos City. She spoke with the widows and assured them of the government’s action against the perpetrators of the massacre blamed by the police and military to a powerful political clan allied with her administration.

Government has filed at least 56 counts of murder against Andal Ampatuan Jr, the mayor of Maguindanao’s Datu Unsay town. The mayor surrendered three days after the massacre and denied all accusations against him.

The declaration of martial rule in Maguindanao also led to the discovery of huge arms caches believed owned by the Ampatuan clan and could well armed several army battalions in Mindanao. Philippine soldiers and policemen recovered over 3,000 voter’s identification cards while searching for illegal weapons at a mansion of powerful political clan linked to the gruesome murders.

And the month of December continues to rake bad news. Armed tribesmen abducted 125 villagers in Agusan del Sur and freed their hostages three days later after a tensed negotiations by government people.

In Basilan province, gunmen barged in the house of Orlando Fajardo, vice president of the Basilan State College, in Isabela City and took him away.

The attack occurred just days after Abu Sayyaf militants beheaded one of their three hostages, Mark Singson, whose poor family failed to pay ransom demanded by his captors.

More than 100 gunmen also stormed the Basilan provincial jail and freed 31 hardened criminals, including suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and Moro rebels.

But there is still good news - Filipino leader Gloria Arroyo inaugurated in December the airport runway in Sulu. US Ambassador Kristie Kenney joined Arroyo and Sulu provincial governor Dr Sakur Tan and Jolo mayor Hussin Amin and local officials in the inauguration of the P251-million Jolo airport improvement project. The United States Agency for International Development’s Growth with Equity in Mindanao granted most of the funding with Manila pouring in some P90 million for the development of domestic airport.

The lack of development projects and livelihood opportunities in Mindanao is widely seen as the root cause of insurgency. Corruption in government is also a key factor in peace and order in many areas in Mindanao. And for many Muslims in the southern Philippines, their aspiration for self-determination and for some the quest for freedom and democracy, remain a dream.

Aside from being the second largest island in the Philippines, Mindanao is the eighth most populous in the world. Mindanao is surrounded by the Sulu Sea to the west; the Philippine Sea to the east and the Celebes Sea to the south. It is divided into six regions which are further subdivided into 25 provinces. Mindanao was formerly under the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. (Mindanao Examiner)

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