The subtext of the ongoing military operation against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan is that this is as much a reassertion of national sovereignty over Mindanao as it is a bid to rescue civilian hostages taken by a bandit group. In many ways, the Manila government is still conducting a pacification mission in uncharted territory. It has chosen not to tap the local government units. It has assigned the job wholly to the Armed Forces, with the local police only serving as guides.
I am sure there are reasons for this, and I am not criticizing the government’s approach here so much as I am describing a political reality. Anyone who has been to Sulu, Basilan and other areas of Muslim Mindanao would know at once that state authority exists only in a very tenuous way in these parts.
A variety of notorious armed groups, known as “lost commands”, regularly roam these provinces in search of prey. They maintain checkpoints and collect toll fees from commuters on highways. Kidnap for ransom is their main economic activity, an echo of the Tausug and Samal slave raids of two centuries ago. The State has been unable to neutralize them. They weave in and out of villages, deriving protection from a dense network of kinship ties. Often, they hire themselves out as contractual private armies to some businessman or politician. But they are free men; each one owns the most important possession that an adult can have in this part of the country: a gun.
In many ways, this is still frontier country. Intrepid evangelical groups funded from abroad as well as all kinds of NGOs operate side by side the older Catholic missions. In a land thirsty for education, literacy remains the biggest challenge. And literacy campaigns serve as a convenient vehicle for propagating the Bible or spreading the gospel of family planning. Here, town mayors prefer to hold office and take up residence in the major cities, maintaining only nominal outposts in their municipalities to attend to the needs of their constituencies.
More than other officials of government, it is the public school teachers who promote the ideology of Filipino nationhood at constant risk to their lives.
The project of nationhood is far from finished. We hold national elections in these parts, but this mode of participation in national life may be largely fictional. It is not by chance that Muslim Mindanao is also the site of the most brazen attempts at vote padding or vote shaving. National politics is so remote from the concerns of the average Muslim Filipino that it would be surprising if an ordinary voter cared whether the certificates of electoral returns faithfully mirrored the actual voting.
This is not to say that a social order does not exist in this part of the country. It does, but it is doubtful whether it follows Philippine constitutional lines. It would be more accurate to say we are dealing with the traces of small nations here, of autonomous communities still ruled by custom and by powerful clans. If the Philippine state were to suddenly pull out of this place, the resulting situation might not be so different from the aftermath of the Afghan state’s collapse, which gave rise to the rule of the dreaded Taliban.
The terror of the Abu Sayyaf has been an eye-opener for us. Equipped with the latest weaponry, vehicles, and communication devices, this group has become a magnet for young alienated Muslims who could find no hope or opportunity for advancement within the stream of Philippine society or in the project of Islamic autonomy. Today they may seem as nothing more than kidnap-forransom entrepreneurs. But tomorrow they may decide to become a Moro revolutionary army. Their founder, the late Abdurajak Janjalani, was both a warrior and a religious teacher. They are operating within a way of life undergoing severe erosion; they have an ideological past they can always resurrect.
What has become apparent in all this is the vulnerability of the Philippine State. A small bandit group mocks its claim to sovereign authority over the whole archipelago. A year ago, Malaysia and Libya shelled out ransom money to free the Sipadan hostages. A Libyan diplomat was flown in to mediate the safe release of the foreign victims. Now, with three American nationals in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf bandits, the US government is offering whatever assistance the Philippines may need. The message is clear: this is your country but let us know if you need help to set it straight.
Before the raid on Sipadan, the Abu Sayyaf were content to abduct people who strayed into their territory. Today, with faster boats, highpowered weapons, and sophisticated communications, they are bolder, more mobile, and more menacing. They can go anywhere their raiding boats will take them, and that is virtually all the high-end diving and holiday destinations in the southern part of the country up to North Borneo. This should hardly surprise us if we knew our history. In the 1800s, when the raiding “prahus” were not yet powered by Volvo engines, the Sulu raiders ventured as far north as the Visayas to capture slaves.
Mindanao remained a thorn on the side of Spanish colonialism till its dying years. The Americans who took over treated the island as a separate Moro province, and dealt with it through its traditional rulers. The Philippine Republic chose to assert its sovereignty over this territory by bringing in waves of Christian settlers. Filipinas colonized Mindanao, but failed to make its people a meaningful part of the Filipino nation. We are still paying for the cost of that failure.
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