The fighting in Sulu has so far claimed 70 casualties among the combatants, and displaced some 2,000 residents of the municipalities affected.

There are only two ways the fighting can go, given the tenacity of the MNLF guerillas and the determination of the AFP leadership to crush them. Either it escalates into another major conflict, or it results in the defeat of the guerillas. One thing is certain, however. Neither the immediate cause of the conflict nor the social and economic realities that have made parts of Mindanao so volatile are likely to end up being wisely addressed.

If the conflict escalates, that will give the militarists in the Arroyo government the ammunition they need to implement one more futile effort at a military solution. If it ends with the MNLF guerillas’ defeat, it will confirm the same militarists’ view that the only way to deal with the so-called “Mindanao Problem” is through the use of force.

It’s lose-lose for the people of Sulu and other Muslim areas either way. It’s win-win for the various foreign and domestic groups that have been coveting those areas for years, the success of their dreams of unlimited access to the riches of those areas being premised on the dispossession of the Moro people.

The policy of the Arroyo government pays the usual lip-service to “addressing the roots of conflict,” which means bringing economic development to the Muslim areas. The Philippine military, however, has never believed in that nonsense, and over the decades has focused its efforts in Mindanao on achieving basically the same goals as those of the Spaniards and the Americans– and that is, the military defeat of the Moro uprising, and the absorption of the Bangsamoro into the “national community”.

The calls for an investigation into what triggered the present conflict are thus not likely to prosper, given the military propensity not only to dismiss any suggestion that its troops may not have acted honorably, but also its leadership’s low regard for a population that, aside from being as poor and powerless as the Christian majority in the Visayas and Luzon, are also of a different faith.

At least one columnist has suggested that the fighting is due to alleged Moro love of violence. Those Filipinos aware of the validity of Moro grievances may recoil from such simple-minded views. But those views are shared not only by much of the Christian population, but also by the leadership and the majority rank-and-file of the civilian and military bureaucracies. As a result, neither from the mainstream media nor from the populace at large is a demand likely to grow for an investigation into charges that Philippine Marines triggered the conflict by killing a Muslim woman and her child last week.

A number of reports from Sulu agree, however, that the Marines, while in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf elements, had killed the woman and her child in Barangay Kapok Punggol, Maimbung, Sulu.

The victims’ relatives, says the Cotabato-based Bangsamoro Women Solidarity Forum, had called on government officials and the military to look into the incident, but had been ignored, prompting their relatives in the MNLF to retaliate.

In urging an immediate ceasefire, Basilan Congressman Gerry Salapuddin also said his investigation into the conflict leads him to conclude that the killing of the mother and child by Marines was the immediate cause of MNLF raids on military installations.

Party-List Congressman Crispin Beltran has similarly argued that human rights violations committed by the AFP led the MNLF to retaliate. Don Long, the Provincial Administrator of Sulu, confirmed the reality of such violations in a message to the Tausug egroup over the Internet, in which he said that “[The] roots of conflict such as human rights violations must be addressed seriously by the national government. Otherwise, people with no access to courts [will] use the voice of the gun to air their grievances.”

The Sulu fighting thus suggests not only that the MNLF is far from a spent force. It is also saying that the same grievances at the community level in Muslim Mindanao persist, despite upbeat government issuances about impending peace.

Additionally and more fundamentally, there remains the persistent problem of poverty in Mindanao, particularly in the Muslim areas. Sulu has the lowest human development ranking, the lowest education levels, and the lowest incomes in the Philippines. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as a whole has the lowest literacy rate in the entire country (74 percent compared to 99 percent in metro Manila).

Every study ever made on the “Mindanao Problem” has pointed out that the key to a viable peace in Mindanao is development, specifically development that will lead to a decline in unemployment levels, and improvements in living standards as well as educational opportunities, and the delivery of social services.

In Jolo City itself, however, even basic health services are unavailable. The commander of the AFP troops which engaged the MNLF and several soldiers were themselves casualties of the lack of medical facilities and supplies–and of the AFP’s own deficiencies. (Shouldn’t the AFP have field hospitals during combat situations? Or have the funds for this purpose been spirited away and spent on New York condominiums? )

Lt. Col. Dennis Villanueva, wounded during an engagement with the MNLF, bled to death for lack of a blood transfusion, as did several other soldiers. But as Loong put it in his egroup message: “Yesterday six soldiers and a battalion commander died because there wasn’t enough medical support…in truth too many poor Tausugs had already died for lack of simple medical attention.”

The Muslim parts of Mindanao remain as volatile as ever. First, because of the grinding poverty that in 2000 led then Colonel Victor Corpus to observe that hunger will compel young Muslims to fight, and that therefore what needs to be done is to deliver basic services and widen economic opportunities in the region; and second, because the Armed Forces of the Philippines, true to its traditions as an anti-people force, remains as cavalier as ever in its treatment of the populace.

While the AFP does commit the same atrocities in the communities of Central and Northern Philippines where the NPA is strong, this is compounded in Mindanao by the AFP’s use of troops from Christian areas–troops that apparently have not been trained in relating to Muslim communities, or even in the most basic rules of civilized warfare.

Habitually dismissed by the government as a non-issue, the atrocities committed by troops cannot be minimized as a factor in the persistence of conflict in this country. Unfortunately, both the orientation of the Philippine military and its now fabled corruption prevent the making of a military force capable of treating the civilian population any better.

The orientation assures the making of a soldiery that regards civilian populations specially Muslims as part of the enemy. Military corruption, on the other hand, makes for a soldiery that must forage for food and other necessities among the communities they’re supposed to protect.

The result is the “Mindanao Problem” as well as similar ones all over the country, in the worsening of which the Philippine government and its military arm continue to contribute daily.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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