No particular place to go

The future is uncertain for the thousands left displaced by the violent conflict in Mindanao, where the local government is accused of using them as pawns in a divisive political game

Carlos Sardiña Galache
January 27, 2015
No particular place to go

Aleya was not even two years old when she died in January, one of the latest victims of the conflict in Mindanao, the restive region in the southern Philippines where the army has been fighting a war against Muslim insurgents for more than 40 years. At a camp for internally displaced people set up in the Joaquín F. Enríquez Memorial Sports Complex in the city of Zamboanga, Aleya’s mother, Anisa Abuhajim, a humble laundress, told Southeast Asia Globe how her daughter perished one week after getting a fever, despite taking medicine prescribed by the camp’s medical centre.

The conditions in this and other camps like it are so appalling that 186 displaced people have died here since it was hastily established a year ago, following a battle between the Philippine army and a disgruntled faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The conflict ravaged Zamboanga for three weeks, leaving in its wake 218 dead, including 12 civilians, and more than 10,000 houses destroyed.

The ‘siege of Zamboanga’ in 2013 also left 120,000 – out of a population of 900,000 – displaced. About 80,000 of those were sheltered in the sports complex. Today, 14,000 remain, with many having relocated to ‘transitory sites’. The camp remains so overcrowded that it’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live here before many left.

A surprise attack

“We never imagined that an attack like this could take place in Zamboanga. This is one of the safest cities in Mindanao,” said Ángel Calvo, a Spanish Catholic priest who has been living in Mindanao since 1972. He has been working with the area’s poorest communities, facilitating interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians with the aim of bringing them together.

The siege was launched by the MNLF faction led by founder and former leader, Nur Misuari. About 500 armed men arrived in Zamboanga with the intention of raising the flag of the Bangsamoro Republic in the City Hall. The standoff between the MNLF faction and security forces soon descended into an all-out urban war, with many still wondering how the combatants could have brought so many weapons into the city, right under the nose of the army.

It is widely believed that Misuari, who had a warrant issued for his arrest following the siege and who remains in hiding, organised the attack in an attempt to derail the current peace process taking place that involves the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF was born as a breakaway group of the MNLF and was formally established in the mid-1980s. There is speculation that Misuari, who was governor of the Moro autonomous region – established after an agreement signed with the MNLF in 1996 – tried to give a show of force after losing some of his power in recent years.

Misuari might not be the all-powerful man he was years ago, but he still has many followers. “They don’t follow him because they share his ideas, but because they believe he’s very talented. These people have no education; they never went to school. They are just fighters, they just follow the leader,” said Al-Hussein Caluang, military leader of the MNLF in the 1970s and
a former comrade of Misuari.

A descendant of the sultans who governed his native Sulu island until the arrival of the Americans in the late 19th Century, Caluang, 68, is treated with reverence by the region’s Muslims. Many even believe he is impervious to bullets. He attended the historic negotiations brokered by Muammar Gaddafi in the mid-1970s, which ended up in the Tripoli Agreement being signed in 1976 by the MNLF and the government of Ferdinand Marcos, who even asked Caluang to be his bodyguard during an official visit to the US in the late 1970s. The Tripoli agreement collapsed soon after its signing, however, and Caluang and many others went back to fight in the jungle.

Today, Caluang supports the peace process and disagrees with both Misuari’s approach and last year’s siege in Zamboanga. Many leaders of the MNLF, an organisation otherwise plagued by internal rifts, share his position. “We will try to get Misuari back, but sometimes he doesn’t agree with our ideas. We can’t exclude him from the MNLF because there are a lot of people who follow him, particularly in Sulu and Zamboanga del Norte [province]. Right now I’m trying to talk with them,” Caluang explained.

The protracted conflict in Mindanao

The armed conflict in Mindanao, a Muslim-majority region in the southern Philippines, started in the early 1970s after the militant MNLF was founded in 1969. But the roots of the conflict are deeper. “The root cause of the Mindanao problem is the land,” said Calvo. “The Americans opened Mindanao as a promised land for the workers from [the regions of] Luzon and Visayas in 1917. That’s what created resentment among the Muslims. From that time until the 1960s, the Muslims saw how people from outside took their land.”

Marcos continued the policy of encouraging labourers from other regions to settle in Mindanao. This strategy, and the abuses committed by both sides during the martial-law years, only worsened the conflict. Several peace agreements between the MNLF, the MILF and the government have failed to solve the conflict, which has killed at least 160,000 people.

Now the promise of peace seems to linger within reach. In 1996 the government came to an agreement with the MNLF, which meant Misuari’s rise to power as governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, established in 1989. Now the government of Benigno Aquino III has reached an agreement with the MILF to establish a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, which would supersede the previous Autonomous Region. According to the agreement, a referendum will be held in 2016 in which each barangay (administrative unit) with a population consisting of at least 10% Muslims contiguous to the Autonomous Region will decide whether it wants to join it. The referendum will be held in several barangays of Zamboanga.

Zamboanga: Asia’s Latin city?

Zamboanga, on the westernmost tip of the island of Mindanao, was the last city the Spaniards left when their 300-year rule over the Philippines ended in 1898. The Spanish legacy is still very visible here, and it is one of the few places in the country where people speak a Spanish-based Creole dialect known as Chabacano.

Zamboanga’s former mayor, Celso Lobregat, coined the slogan “Asia’s Latin City” for publicity purposes. But, according to Ángel Calvo, the social reality is much more complex. “This is a myth of the past. There’s nothing Latin left in Zamboanga. This is a pluricultural community where there are eight or nine ethno-linguistic groups. The local authorities don’t realise that and want to go back to the 1950s, when Zamboanga was a small place with a majority of Chabacanos (the Christian, Chabacano-speaking inhabitants of Zamboanga). They have an exclusivist mentality.”

This mentality may explain the tensions between the local authorities and Muslim organisations. “The local government in Zamboanga city is working against the inclusion of Zamboanga City in the Bangsamoro region. Their main purpose is to prevent the Muslim authority operating in Zamboanga City. They want the city out of the Moro grip,” said Darasid Daranda, MILF’s director of information for Zamboanga City.

Daranda also claims that the local government has prevented the MILF from opening an office in Zamboanga, as it has done in other towns in Mindanao. “They keep the Hispanic zamboagueños informed about the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the referendum, but they are bribing the Muslims and buying their votes,” he said. In any case, the MILF has the legal right to open an office in the city, but Daranda said he has received instructions from above not to do it in order “to avoid conflicts with the local authorities”.

The uncertain future of the displaced

Back in the sports complex, many of the displaced say they are in the dark when it comes to what the authorities have planned for their future. After last year’s siege, some of their neighbourhoods, especially those on the coast, were declared ‘no-build zones’.

Gaman Hassan is one of those who cannot return to his original house. The local activist has organised several demonstrations to demand the right of the displaced people to go back to their houses. He believes that the real motives of the local authorities are political: “We think that they wanted to dismantle the Muslim areas in some districts because, as the Basic Law of the Bangsamoro says, every barangay can qualify to vote to join the Bangsamoro Autonoumous Region, so they have decided to dismantle them.”

The mayor of Zamboanga, María Isabel Climaco Salazar, flatly denies this. “There are areas called no-build or no-return zones. These are places labelled as geo-hazards, because between the years of 2007 and 2013, they suffered strong storm-surges, and we cannot send the people to those places. We cannot put them in dangerous areas,” she explained, using a mixture of Spanish, Chabacano and English.

Security considerations have also played a role in deciding where and how the displaced people will be relocated. “We were consulted by the mayor’s office about that,” said Reynaldo Yoma, mayor admiral of the Naval Forces in western Mindanao. “We are trying to establish a presence in certain areas constructing our facilities. The Zamboanga Peninsula is very porous, so there should be some semblance of control. Anyone cannot just dock their ships or boats there and unload their cargo.”

Some of the MNLF fighters disembarked in those areas. And the Philippine Army faces another enemy: the extremist group Abu Sayyaf. Dismissed by Caluang as a “bunch of drug addicts”, Abu Sayyaf  operates from the islands of Sulu and Basilan, near Zamboanga, where government control is weak.

Ultimately, the future of Zamboanga’s displaced remains uncertain and many attribute the dire straits to the ineffectiveness of the authorities. “They see this as an opportunity to clean certain areas,” said Calvo. “I don’t know what they want to do next; I don’t think they have a plan. But this [cleansing of some areas] is a simplistic solution for all the problems in the city.” 

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