Monday, August 01, 2005

Unveiling the War in Sulu
By Amirah Ali Lidasan Posted June 26, 2005


WHAT WE FILIPINOS SHOULD KNOW: We Filipinos seem to forget, if not ignore, our fellow countrymen down south - the Muslims of Mindanao. Here are some background/update of their continuing struggle for justice and peace.

"A society that treats any serious segment of its population with distaste or disrespect runs the risk of convincing that group of its own inadequacy and thus alienating it from identification with the group and allegiance of its moral codes." - Willard Gaylin, MD, President/Founder, Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Religious tolerance means to refrain from discriminating against others who follow a different religious path. Tolerance is more difficult to maintain when you know that your religion is right and their religion is wrong." Anon

Nine years ago, President Fidel V. Ramos boasted to the world that the 1996 Final Peace Agreement that the government inked with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) would solve the centuries-old problem of the Philippine government against the Moro people struggling for an independent state in Southern Philippines. However, what took place in Mindanao in the period of nine years is not the peace that the Moro people expected from that agreement -- a decade of unilateral implementation of the agreement, coercive measures to subdue the continuing Moro rebellion, and the implementation of an anti-terror policy that aimed to destroy the revolutionary Moro movements but not necessarily resolve the root cause of the Moro struggle.

Mindanao, even before the creation of the Philippine Republic, has been the scene of a constant battle between the proud Moro people against Spanish and American colonialism. For centuries, a mighty fortress built by Moro warriors and their families stood barring colonizers from subduing the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao. This legacy of protecting the ancestral domains of the Moro sultanates continues to be fought by the descendants of the proud Moro race. Hence, it is not a mere piece of agreement that would finally give resolution to the Moro struggle.

SULU: The battle to control the Moro struggle In the southernmost tip of the Philippine archipelago lies an island the bulk of which is 1,600 square meters in length and sits in the middle of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi islands. Looking at the map, you would find this island more closer to Sabah, Malaysia than the rest of mainland Mindanao. It is composed of 18 municipalities, which includes little islands surrounding it. It lies in the heart of an enormous sea, and underneath this island is a known oil-rich basin.

Sulu is the land of the tribe known as the Tau sa Sug (people of the current), a proud tribe that gave birth to a sultanate that ruled Zamboanga, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and even Sabah for centuries before it was abrogated to the Philippine Republic under the American colonial administration. Under the Philippine Republic, the Tausug people lived peacefully as farmers, fishermen and traders -- unnoticed by the Philippine government until President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. Under Martial Law, the capital municipality of Sulu was burned to the ground. Till this day, the people of Sulu never recovered economically and politically from that devastation.

Some historians would say that the reason why Marcos declared Martial Law was because of the Moro rebellion in Mindanao. The Moro struggle against the Philippine Republic was initiated by the massacre of 28 Tausug youths under the hands of the Philippine military who trained them in a secret commando unit in order to take over Sabah from the Malaysians. The secret operation was called Operation Merdeka, and the carnage known as the Jabiddah Massacre became the birth of a unified tribe of 13 ethno-linguistic Islamized tribe in the Philippines named by Professor Nur Misuari, a university Professor turned leader of the Moro struggle, as the Moro people.

For four decades, Sulu became the base of the MNLF, the first Moro armed revolutionary movement that espoused the right to self-determination as the basis of the Moro people's struggle to break free politically from the Philippine Republic. The MNLF united the 13 tribes that composed the Moro people -- Tausug, Maguindanaon, Maranao, Iranon, Yakan, Samal, Kalagan, Kalibugan, Molbog, Sangil, Palawani, Jama Mapun, and Badjao -- in their bid for independence against the Philippine government.

In their bid to immediately resolve the Moro struggle, the MNLF entered into agreements with the Marcos administration under the prodding of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), an organization of Muslim states that recognized the political significance of the Moro struggle and the representation of the MNLF in their organization. The Tripoli Agreement of 1976 sparked the disunity in the Moro leadership that caused the split of the MNLF hierarchy and membership, and exposed the fragility of the Moro struggle. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was formed, comprised mostly of the Maguindanaon, Maranao and Iranon tribes and headed by then MNLF vice-chairman Ustadz Hashim Salamat, and built their armed camps and communities in mainland Mindanao.

The MNLF on the other hand, accepted on September 1996 the government's Final Peace Agreement which finally paved the way for the political accommodation of the MNLF to the Philippine government. Prof. Nur Misuari became the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and chairman of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), while the whole of the MNLF was integrated into the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.Five years after, Prof. Misuari and the MNLF would come to a final test.

The government's promise of peace is crumbling. President Joseph Estrada declared an all-out war against the Moro people which affected both the communities of the MNLF and the MILF. The Estrada administration accused Prof. Misuari of corruption and mishandling funds of the ARMM, each time he brought up the issue of non-implementation of the 1996 Agreement. In addition to this, MNLF communities in Sulu were bombarded and their commanders were killed by the AFP under the pretext of harboring Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, successor to the ousted Estrada administration, MNLF leaders close to Malacanang ousted Misuari from chairmanship and pledged their allegiance to the administration to make it look like Misuari was isolated from the MNLF.

These incidents prompted the MNLF to declare defensive measures and actions against the governemnt's incessant military operations in a meeting in Parang, Sulu on November 2001. After a series of attacks in the 104th Brigade in Sulu, and the Southern Command and Cabatangan Complex in Zamboanga City, President Arroyo declared Prof. Misuari a fugitive, and with the help of the Malaysian government caught Misuari and imprisoned him. Behind bars, Misuari is as potent as outside for he has with him the loyalty and allegiance of the field commanders and the Tausug community in Sulu. Years after his imprisonment, the MNLF commanders in Sulu continue to ward off the massive military operations of the AFP and keep them at bay from their strongholds.

However, in the Philippine government's bid to be in control of the conflict in Sulu, civilians bear the brunt of the military operations. This has only inflamed and revived more the struggle of the people of Sulu against the Philippine government.

Massacre sparked the recent offensives in Sulu
Civilians in MNLF communities in Sulu and unarmed MNLF relatives became the common targets when the AFP launched a massive operation. Marines, Navy, Rangers and even US-trained Light Reaction Company were deployed aimed at "pulverizing" the MNLF commanders loyal to Misuari. This is in retaliation against the MNLF attacks in AFP detachments that has claimed the lives of their fellow soldiers and commanders.

In a fact-finding mission conducted by the Moro-Christian People's Alliance (MCPA), Suara Bangsamoro Partylist and Concerned Citizens of Sulu, the testimony of three children reveal the real reason what sparked the war in Sulu.
According to the testimony of the Padiwan siblings -- 7-year-old Almujayal, 10-year-old Madzrana, and 3-year-old Aljeezmer -- on February 1 around 6:00 AM, elements from the 53rd IB went to their house in Banu Ice, Kapuk Punggul in Maimbong and began shooting their house and killing their parents Tal and Nurshida Padiwan, as well as their 14-year-old brother Aldassir and uncle Salip Faisal.

This incident and the killing of an Ustadz in Jolo, according to MNLF leader Ustadz Habier Malik, was what prompted the MNLF to launch an attack against the Philippine Marines detachment in Bgy. Siit, Panamao municipality on February 6, 2005, claiming several lives of soldiers including a certain Col. Villanueva.

This was the same reason given by Brig. Gen. Gabriel Habacon, 1st Infantry Division Chief, as quoted in a news article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer dated February 9, 2005, "17 Soldiers killed in Sulu," in which he states that:
"The honest truth here is that the [death of three civilians] have infuriated the [Misuari Breakaway Group]. The attack [of army posts in Panamao Sulu] was triggered by the death of three civilians, including 14-year-old Aldasir Padiwan on February 1."

In a house inquiry on the Padiwan massacre called for by the House Committee on Peace and Reconcilliation, AFP Chief of Staff General Efren Abu firmly denied a massacre occurred in Maimbong. However, he cannot deny the video testimony of the Padiwan children which accused the military of killing their unarmed parents, brother and uncle.

Three children's loss and plea for justice

On February 2005, weeks after the holy pilgrimage in Mecca, Temogen "Cocoy" Tulawie, Suara Bangsamoro National Vice-President and municipal councilor of Jolo, called our group and sought assistance in documenting the reported human rights violations in Sulu. As a known human rights defender in Sulu, he was approached by many families complaining about the military abuses in their area. He was approached by the Padiwan family who asked for his help.

When I first met the Padiwan siblings, I saw three frightened kids who clinged for dear life in their grandmother's hands. When our group interviewed them on February 18, I felt their pain for the loss of their parents and brother. I also felt hatred in 7-year-old Almujayal Padiwan, the wounded child who escaped from an hospital after he was threatened by the marines that he too will soon die.

Unknown to many, it was not Almujayal who was the key witness to the February 1 Padiwan massacre at Kapuk Punggul. It was her 10-year-old sister Madzrana and 3-year-old brother Aljeezmar who witnessed the incident from start to finish.

According to Madzrana, it was 6:00 in the morning of February 1 when several armed men clad in kabbang (camouflage in Tausug) went to their house in Sitio Baunu Ice and found her parents cooking rice cakes in the kitchen area, which was separated from their main house. Madzrana was with her parents when the marines asked her to take his baby brother and leave the kitchen. They then shot her parents and went up to the main house and sprayed bullets killing his brother Aldassir and uncle Sarip Paisal. She did not hear anymore the wail of his brother Almujayal who was hit on the right thumb. He was sleeping beside Aldassir.

Almujayal, on the other hand, woke up and saw an armed man shoot his brother hitting him on the stomach. He remembered being lifted to a 6x6 truck, together with his brother but has not seen him after he was admitted by the marines in an hospital. He heard from his relatives later on that his brother died along the way and was thrown in the highway.

Inside the Integrated Provincial Hospital in Jolo, he was constantly watched over by the marines. On February 6, news of the death of Col. Dennis Villanueva reached the marines. One of them went to Almujayal and told him he too would soon die. He made a sign of putting his finger across his neck, which prompted Almujayal to escape the hospital with the help of a cousin.

The Padiwan massacre in Maimbong is a classic story of the long list of injustices committed by the military and national government against the people of Sulu. I am aghast to hear military officials and local government officials covering the massacre and justifying the incident as an "encounter" between the military and the Abu Sayyaf, that the whole Padiwan family, including the pregnant mother Sidang and her children, are Abu Sayyaf members who participated in the shoot-out with the military.

At the tender age of three and seven, Aljeezmar and Almujayal are already fugitives, like Abu Sayyafs hunted by the military and local officials. It was a tough decision for the children to make, but the Padiwan siblings chose to escape Sulu and hide to survive.

The injustice suffered by the Padiwan family and the need to defend the lives of more Moro families who are usually suspected by the AFP of aiding the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu have become the root causes of today's conflict between the MNLF and the AFP.

Long list of human rights violations

This incident tells us how easy it is to lose the lives of the people in Sulu or the Tau sa Sug. At a very early age, children are exposed to such inhumane treatment by the military. They are the ones who suffer the wrath of the 104th Brigade and the Southern Command whenever the military lose their commanders in the battlefield or their ineptness to control the conflict situation in Sulu.

In the past, civilians bear the brunt of the military operations. A long list was already documented in a fact-finding mission jointly conducted by Karapatan and Moro-Christian People's Alliance in coordination with the Concerned Citizen's of Sulu on April 2002. The day after the mission, the military hit a school-turned-evacuation center in Kahuy Sinah in Parang municipality, seriously wounding a one-year-old child and a 12-year-old whose left limb had to be cut off.

Temogen "Cocoy" Tulawie, convenor of the Concerned Citizen's of Sulu, brought this incident to the attention of Sulu Congressman Hussin Amin and Bayan Muna Partylist Representative Satur Ocampo who then led a congressional inquiry on the reported human rights violations of the military in their conduct of hot pursuit operations against the Abu Sayyaf in the period of 2000 and 2002. The 104th Brigade Commander Gen. Romeo Tolentino could only offer a lame excuse, that it was an "accident," a miscalculation on the part of the military.

The list of civilian casualties and military abuses went on even after the fact-finding mission and congressional inquiry in 2002. One incident that Tulawie reported to the media was the beheading of four farmers and two minors in Indanan municipality on March 21, 2003 (see Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 25, 2003). The headless bodies were found in Sitio Lampaki, Bgy. Cabun Maas in Indanan. Ansajul Ayyadi survived the incident, the military failed to cut-off his head and he reported the incident to the local police. He said they were accosted by the military, blindfolded and their hands tied, accusing them of being Abu Sayyaf companions. They were tortured into admission, and when they denied their involvement they were told to lie down on the ground and then the military started hacking their heads off.
According to Tulawie, the recent military abuses are more abhorring than the martial law days because at that time the whole of Sulu is in a state of war. Tulawie finds it ironic that after the MNLF signed the 1996 Peace Agreement, more and more incidents and complaints of military abuses are being reported to their group, the Concerned Citizens of Sulu. Some of the glaring incidents are the killing of seven MNLF commanders in Bgy Tiis, Talipao municipality, the strafing of mosques and bombing of schools in Patikul, the destruction of civilian houses and use of school buildings as military camps in Indanan, and the bombing of the home of Prof. Nur Misuari in Parang.

These incidents prompted the CCS to finally stage a massive rally on January 15 2002, but they were fired upon by the military, hitting some of the rallyists. They found a saboteur with a grenade ready to bomb the rallyists.
These days, the CCS find it difficult to mount massive rallies because of the incident. But on February 24, the CCS conducted an indoor peace rally calling for the stop to the armed conflict in Sulu and the withdrawal of the military from their land. Thousand of youths and professionals flocked the rally. An hour after, Muksim Tagidig, one of the convenor of CCS and speaker at the rally, was shot in the neck by a death squad believed to be coddled by the marines. He survived the shot but is still undergoing medication.

The Sulu Mercy Mission

Amidst the cry for a stop to military offensives and calls for peace to reign in Sulu, President Arroyo called for a heightened military offensive. The consequences of this policy is what prompted several human rights groups and people's organizations to launch a mercy mission -- a fact-finding and relief mission -- to look into the reported human rights violations and grave disrespect of the Arroyo administration to the International Humanitarian Law.

The National fact-finding and mercy mission conducted by Kalinaw Mindanao on March 18-20, 2005 sums up the following violations perpetrated by the elements under the 53rd IB, 6th IB, Scout Rangers and Task Force Comet under Brig. Gen. Agustin Dema-ala:

* indiscriminate aerial bombing and shelling on civilian populations using artillery, mortar and cannons resulting to massive evacuation and displacement of communities in the municipalities of Panamao, Indanan, Patikul, Maimbong and Parang;

* specific serious human rights violations were documented, such as summary executions, desecration of remains, divestment and destruction of properties, looting, strafing, violation of domicile, grave/threats/intimidation and harassments;

* schools were turned into military camps and detachments resulting to the disruption of classes, and even private dwellings and mosques were used for military purposes

It is also worth noting that while the Department of Social Welfare and Development reports that the civilian evacuees have already amounted to more than 50,000, they have only managed to serve two thousand and in one area only which is in Indanan.

Stop the military offensives in Sulu

This is the deafening cry of the people of Sulu that we have witnessed and documented in our fact-finding mission. The key factor in ending the raging war in Sulu is for President Arroyo to send the AFP back to their barracks, call for a halt in the military offensives and hear out the root causes of the recent clashes between the MNLF and the AFP.

The Kalinaw Mindanao offers the following recommendations:
1. Stop to military offensives and the pull out of the military in Sulu;
2. Peace talks should be immediately held by all concerned parties;
3. In-depth and independent investigation should be conducted as to why the war in Sulu intensified given that there are existing agreements between GRP and MNLF;
4. All civilian victims of the military operations should be indemnified;
5. Serious efforts should be undertaken by the government to address the problem of peace and development of the Moro people.Challenge for Peace in Mindanao

Once again, we become witness to the failure of the Philippine government to keep its promise of peace in wartorn Mindanao. While pushing for an immediate final peace agreement to come up between the GRP and the MILF, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is violating the 1996 Peace Agreement that the GRP inked with the MNLF.Contrary to what President Arroyo has been telling the world on her move to resume peace negotiations with the MILF, her military incessantly conducts operations in MILF territories in the guise of pursuing international terrorists, even if the presence of the International Monitoring Team tells otherwise.

It is not by mere coincidence that the war in Sulu broke out at this very crucial period prior to the slated GRP-MILF peace talks. There is a clear visible pattern that every time the GRP-MILF or the GRP-MNLF peace talks are about to begin, incidents would occur that would later be used by the military to justify massive destructive military operations in Mindanao, and would either derail or altogether undermine the peace negotiations.

Her penchant for solving crisis purely on military operations is very transparent. President Arroyo is known to coddle and give commendations to generals who have a record of human rights violations against the Moro people such as Gen. Angelo Reyes who is responsible for the all-out war in 2000 and the bombing of Pikit and Liguasan Marsh in 2003.

Her incessant drive for legislators to pass the Anti-Terrorism Law is sowing fear among the Moro communities. Even without the law, the Moro people fall victim to the anti-terror drive of the military and the police for being the usual suspects and terrorist look-alikes. Raids in the communities and abduction of suspected sympathizers and members of US government-listed terrorists abound. Terrorist bombings in the cities that killed civilians are being pinned down on Moro groups, such as the MILF and the MNLF.

The bill does define what constitutes terrorism and terrorist acts, hence there is a probability that the Moro revolutionary struggle of the MNLF and the MILF might fall in that category. The bill excludes the destructive military operations and human rights violations committed by the AFP against the Moro people, such as the incessant bombardment of Moro rural areas, arbitrary arrests, illegal detention of Moro fall guys, and saturation drives in Moro communities. In urban areas, Moro residents are forced to wear ID's, a policy that further discriminates and enjoins other people to discriminate the Moro people from the Filipino majority by labeling them as terrorists.

We challenge the Arroyo government to be sincere in its offer of peace in Mindanao. The escalation of war in Sulu between the AFP and the MNLF is a glaring example of a failed peace negotiation, an insincere effort meant to crush and subdue the Morostruggle and not addressing the roots of the conflict. The Arroyo government must be sincere in its effort to offer peace to the MILF if it really wants to resolve the conflict in Mindanao. The Anti-Terrorism Law and other militaristic policies of the government will only inflame the age-old hatred of the Moro people borne out of injustice, discrimination and political suppression of the Philippine government against the Moro people.
The writer is the current vice-chairperson of SUARA BANGSAMORO Partylist (United Voice of the BANGSAMORO), a partylist organization committed to the cause of forwarding the rights and welfare of the BANGSAMORO people in Mindanao. She is also the secretary-general of the Moro-Christian People's Alliance (MCPA), an interfaith organization that provides venues for enriching Muslim-Christian unity in the Philippines. She comes from a proud Moro tribe, the Iranons of Parang and Matanog in Maguindanao. She is presently based in Cotabato City, the political center of Maguindanao. For comments and reactions, you can reach her through this e-mail address: and

"To oppose the policies of a government does not mean you are against the country or the people that the government supposedly represents. Such opposition should be called what it really is: democracy, or democratic dissent, or having a critical perspective about what your leaders are doing. Either we have the right to democratic dissent and criticism of these policies or we all lie down and let the leader, the Fuhrer, do what is best, while we follow uncritically, and obey whatever he commands. That's just what the Germans did with Hitler, and look where it got them." - Michael Parenti

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