Saturday, July 19, 2008

Visiting Jolo, Sulu for the first time

The airplane is so tiny that it shakes every time a strong gust of wind hits it. The 15 passengers are flying over big islands, small islands, and islands arranged in circles like pancakes floating in the ocean.

Moments later, the plane touches down and everyone’s attention focuses on the airport’s entrance where a cement arch proclaims: “Welcome. Jolo. Sulu.”

I am thrilled to be here, home of the Sulu Sultanate which was once the most powerful in Asia. My mission: listen and learn from the over 70 Bangsamoro participants from civil society organizations in Sulu as they discuss about their realities, their aspirations and recommendations for self-determination.

Along the road leading towards the venue of the Bangsamoro Civil Society Organizations (CSO) Provincial Consultation, huge acacia trees grow beside the small wooden houses of the residents; like giants and dwarfs. Everywhere trees cover the mountains, not a bare patch of soil indicating logging activities. I ask the driver if there’s a possibility to go mountain climbing. He laughs and warns that the mountains are crawling with Abu Sayyaf, MNLF, Filipino soldiers, and American soldiers. “So don’t even think of exploring the town on your own!” he says.

The soldiers stay at the very top of the mountains where helicopters drop off food once a week. Below the soldiers stay the Abu Sayyaf and the MNLF. The driver shares that often, when everyone’s asleep in Jolo, sounds of drilling pierce through the night. Nobody knows exactly what’s going on behind the high fences that the American soldiers have constructed around these drilling sites because nobody is allowed to come near. “Those aren’t military operations!” jests the driver, “They’re American soldiers secretly digging for minerals!”

Here in the municipality of Jolo live some 150,000 Tausugs in about 22 square kilometers. It’s not much space for a people who have built their houses even on creeks and canals. Majority are squatters living in ramshackle dwellings built so close to each other that every day they live in fear of their houses being razed to the ground. Many of them have built their houses at the sea’s edge turning the ocean into a giant septic tank and garbage dump.

Adding to the congestion in the municipality of Jolo are the people from neighboring municipalities who come during the day to sell their fruits and vegetables but go home at night and leave behind some 60 tons of garbage.

At the wharf there are around 20 little boats with people either sitting or standing in them. Can Jolo really be as dangerous and unsafe as the media project? The picturesque scene of mountains, sea, fishers, spotless sky make this hard to believe.

Some half hour later in the conference room of the Sulu State College Hostel where the Bangsamoro CSOs are gathered, a well-respected member of the community, (let’s call him Dr. Mike), is ready for his presentation on the Sulu Situationer. “There are two problems in Sulu,” he begins, “Problems created by Muslim themselves and problems created by external forces.”

Dr. Mike describes a province where the PNP is too weak to enforce the law and the AFP perpetuates hatred between the military and the people instead of ensuring everyone’s security. Time and again, civilians are being arbitrarily arrested and locked up for years just because the military, without any concrete proof, suspects them of either being a member of the Abu Sayyaf or being in cahoots with them. Their properties have been seized and their houses burnt. They are the luckier ones. Others have been salvaged and massacred. Living without peace for the past 40 years has displaced around 450,000 Tausugs.

In today’s Sulu, Dr. Mike says, gone is the exemplary leadership of the Sultans of long ago. Political leaders have no capacity to chart the destiny of the Tausugs, the people of Sulu. In fact, most municipal mayors are not holding office in their respective municipalities. Local government units have become instruments for promoting vested interests and oppress constituents through graft and corruption. Local Special Bodies, the mechanisms for participatory governance, have never been activated. During elections, voters are coerced into voting for politicians; there is massive vote buying, fraud and cheating.

The state of education is not a pretty picture either. Sulu has a 39% illiteracy rate. Last year, only 2% out of 3,000 examinees passed Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET). Dr. Mike asks, “How can we expect our students to excel when three students have to share one textbook and six students have to share one chair? Worse, out of 410 barangays in Sulu, 105 barangays have no schools!” In places that do have schools, the problems are poor school management, poor school facilities, poor performance of teachers who have a hard time implementing the curriculum.

Shaking his head and throwing his arms in the air, Dr. Mike shifts to another hotly debated topic in Sulu: health services. He reveals that out of 410 barangays only 50 barangays have midwives. The few existing hospitals lack modern health facilities and specialist doctors who are unable to help the scores of people dying of preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, and malaria. “This isn’t surprising,” says Dr. Mike “because 98% of our water sources are polluted and only 30% of the population have access to potable water!”

One gloomy scenario is presented after another. There are no manufacturing industries in Sulu because most of the 87% road network is gravel and earth, the drainage system is poor, the sea port, the airport, and the roads are of substandard quality. Dr. Mike informs everyone that the unemployment rate is 20.87% and that the poor comprise 63.2% of the population.

“How can we be so poor when we are literally sitting on a goldmine?” he questions and proceeds to enumerate Sulu’s rich natural resources: seas and lakes are thriving with fish, there’s abundant seaweeds, coffee, coconut oil, and cassava to earn from. Without waiting to be acknowledged, one member in the audience stands up and almost shouts, “It’s the foreign capitalists who control production because we, the people of Sulu, can’t do it ourselves since we lack access to finance, technology, land, and water!”

This, it seems, has been the perennial dilemma of a people who all have legitimate claims over the fertile lands of their ancestors, but because they do not have land titles, they fight each other over the right to till the lands until some rich politician or the national government shows ‘official’ documents that render all other legitimate claims null and void.

Then there is also the problem of rapid environmental degradation that is caused not only by the abuses of the rich and powerful. For instance, though fishing is a lucrative business, 80% of coral reefs around Sulu are destroyed by dynamite fishing and trawling. Only seven (7) islands out of 157 still have mangrove forests; the rest are destroyed by farmers. There’s poor management of watershed and garbage disposal and there’s no sanitary landfill.

The conclusion: although many of Sulu’s problems are the people’s own doing, in the Philippine government’s list of priorities, the wellbeing of the people of Sulu is placed at the very bottom. “Aren’t we citizens too?” Dr. Mike asks. “Clearly the state itself is a threat to the Bangsamoro people!”

He challenges the Bangsamoro CSOs to prioritize human security issues through promoting constituency building among the Tausugs. When he declares that the problems confronting Tausugs are the result of their failure to assert and exercise their right to self-determination (RSD), the audience jump to their feet and clap enthusiastically.

“We Tausugs,” Dr. Mike continues, “should make RSD alive regardless of the political arrangement be it regional autonomy, federalism or independence!” A roar of approval fills the room as Dr. Mike leaves the stage. People come up to him and shake his hand, wishing aloud that the politicians of Sulu should have been present to hear everything he said.

Shortly after Sulu’s Provincial Bangsamoro CSO Consultation concluded and its success had yet to be broadcast nationwide, the entire nation’s attention was focused on an unfortunate event in Sulu. On June 8, 2008, (my birthday), ABS CBN TV news reporter Ces Drilon and her two videographers were kidnapped while on their way to interview a high-ranking leader of the Abu Sayyaf about a possible peace negotiation between the bandit group and the government. Filipinos were glued to their TV sets when the news broke that after nine (9) days of captivity and eating instant noodles from saucers, sleeping in hammocks and on sacks laid on the ground, and being beaten with M-14 rifles, the three kidnap victims were released. Until now, it’s not been confirmed whether the 15 million peso ransom demand was paid. But that’s probably not the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter, as Drilon correctly pointed out during the press conference held shortly after her release, is that many of her kidnappers were 12, 15, 17 years old and holding guns. She wondered aloud, “Why are these children holding guns instead of holding notebooks and studying?”

How ironic it now seems that this was exactly the same scenario that was discussed just weeks before during Sulu’s Provincial Bangsamoro CSO Consultation. If Drilon had been present, she would have learned that because of the extreme poverty in Sulu, out-of-school youths too poor to enroll become vulnerable to drug abuse and end up working as fighters for the MNLF, Abu Sayyaf and private armies of the local politicians. So instead of annihilating these young kidnappers, wouldn’t it be better if the Philippine government ask themselves, “What can we do to make these youths give up their guns and turn to their notebooks instead?” That’s exactly how Sulu’s Bangsamoro CSOs would approach the problem of child bandits.

If Drilon had been at the two-day CSO Consultation in Sulu, she’d be surprised at everyone’s fast and easy solutions: There should be sufficient education funds, free from political intervention. There should be dedicated, effective Bangsamoro teachers and school officials who are hired and promoted based on their qualifications and who are paid a just compensation. There should be scholarship centers for the Bangsamoro and equal access to scholarship opportunities. And so on.

Clearly, if Sulu’s Bangsamoro CSOs had their way and be given their right to self-determination, they would be making sure not to kill the young criminals but improve their living conditions for them to become contented, secure, self-sufficient, happy citizens that all Moro tribes – Tausog, Meranaw, Maguindanaon, Iranun, Kalagan, Yakan, Jama Mapun, Molbog, Badjao, Kolibugan, Sangil, Palawanis, and Samal – deserve to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found your blog by googling Sulu as I wanted to learn more about Philippine history. There are lots to learn of our past and because human life is too short there is very limited things that we can do, I mean those of us that care care about our homeland. You wrote a very good argument here but lacking in important facts. I am originally from Luzon and now residing abroad. First we should ask ourselves, why are we in another country and not in the place where we were born. Maybe by asking why, we can turn back the time and find the answer. Good luck.