by Mak Chung Lai, SCM Hong Kong
When I was staying in Manila for my internship programme, I had an engaging conversation with my friends over lunch one day. One of them, Ms. Fides Bagasao, the Executive Director of Community Organisers Multiversity (COM) told me that she would go to Davao City for a conference. “If you want, you can go with me. It will be a good experience,” she said.
Prior to this invitation, many people in the Philippines told me that Davao City might be the most important and safe city in Mindanao Island because the city is still controlled by the Army. The Muslim militant groups (MNLF and MILF) would not attack it. However, it was an irony when it went through the bombing attack in the Davao International Airport in March 2003. Much news about the bombing attacks and kidnappings (especially from the Abu Sayyaf group) in Mindanao and the other Southern part Islands were then reported in the newspapers. Therefore, my first reaction was “visit Mindanao ------ just kidding?!”.
However, Mr. Na, my director in LOCOA (Leaders and Organisers of Community Organising in Asia), recommended me to visit Mindanao. He said that the environment and culture in Mindanao are very different to Manila. It will be a good opportunity to understand the situation of Philippines. Moreover, if the guide were Ms. Fides, it would be safer. I thought to myself, “If I don’t visit Mindanao this time, I may not have the second opportunity for the rest of my life.” I considered and then decided to go.
After that trip, I got a general concept about the situation, problems and the work of the peacemakers in Mindanao and I was interested to know more about the issues of independence and the situation of the Muslims in Mindanao. I wanted to visit the communities and experience their living. Thus, I asked Mr. Na if I could have an exposure to Mindanao. Actually, he was surprised by my idea. Then, we talked with Ms. Fides and the organisers from Mindanao. At last, they promised to arrange the exposure for me.
Hence, I left Manila for Mindanao on 2nd July and met Fahad, the organiser of COM who took me to the office. Then, we started the trip to the village after lunch. Four hours later, we arrived at a small village and slept in an organiser’s house. On the next day, we went to Cotabato where we would go to the “Peace Zone”.
Due to the conflicts between the Army and the MILF, many barangays (villages) and people were destroyed and killed. Therefore, the organisers and the leaders from communities made an agreement with the government and the MILF that the villagers were centrist without siding with any party at all, so both the Army and the MILF will not enter the barangays.
Although the communities were near to Cotabato, we spent about two hours by jeepneys to reach to the destination. I visited three communities (Makir, Brgy. Bayanga Norte in Matanog and Brgy. Barorao in Balabagan). Actually, I liked the natural environment of Matanog and Balabagan more than Makir because Makir was located besides the highway.
The people who lived in Matanog were mostly farmers and Muslims. They told me that all Muslim in Mindanao wanted independence. Therefore, most of them supported the militant groups and joined the resistance. The civil war started again a few years ago with serious results of destruction. Now, the people are beginning to redevelop their communities such as house building, water supplies and peace advocacy.
However, I observed that some of them were still bringing their guns everywhere they went. They said that it was for self-defense but I was nervous when I saw guns everywhere in the community. I remembered there were many check points and soldiers outside the community. It was because the Muslim militant group was staying in the mountains near to the community. Although there was a “Peace Zone”, there was a lot of fear around. I realised that the issues in this conflict were very complicated.
I stayed only for two weeks in Mindanao but it was enjoyable and memorable. This was my first time to live in the Muslim communities and communicated with them directly and deeply. I hope they could gradually redevelop the communities to make them become the paradise the villagers long for. Then, I would enjoy a trip to Mindanao again.