Philippine Island Times Adventures of an American expat in the Philippines

December 15, 2009

Into the Mountains

Filed under: Mindanao — Donald @ 11:32 am

While I was in Mindanao I wanted to get a glimpse of life in the countryside. The Pentecostal pastor above, who had helped to organize our peace symposium, kindly offered to show me around. Bukidnon province is spectacular. Rich soil and lots of rain make it absolutely lush, and thanks to its remoteness, steep mountainsides, and the indigenous presence, even a bit of rain forest is intact. Lots of the vegetables and fruits we eat in Siquijor are imported from Bukidnon. So are lots of the Del Monte pineapples eaten all over the world.

A few hours by bus got us to Malaybalay, where we took a little break in the park.

We went on to the village of Bangcud by jeepney and a homemade trike.

I could live in Bangcud.

The Datu (tribal chieftain) of the Higaonon tribe was away but we spoke for a couple of hours with his wife and others at their community center, noted on the banner below to be the “Office of the Integrated White Tape Bolo Batallion”. Their paramilitary goes by that name because its primary weapon is a bolo (machete) with white tape wrapped around the handle.

The Datu’s wife is strong, smart, and charming. She explained that the tribe is large and scattered around much of the island. In fact, as she sees it, the entire island belongs to them. I told her I had spoken with many groups, some of them Muslim, who claimed parts of the island as their ancestral domain, and asked her what could be done about that. She explained that long ago their chieftain and the Muslim chieftain met together and resolved the issue. Each placed a pile of rocks on the ground. The Higaonon pile began to grow and the Muslim pile did not, so both agreed that the island belonged to the Higaonon alone.

Her part of the tribe is centered in the mountains a few hours walk from Bangcud. Men there hunt and women grow crops and forage. Many have now come to the village in search of a better life, but it is still difficult.

She said that what the tribe needs most is a school.

We talked a lot about the magical powers of herbs, a huge magnetic and radioactive tree that transmits power by sending out particles that you can see and feel, and the special potency of snake oil.

I’ m invited back for a gathering of her tribe and six others on Christmas day. One of their celebratory drinks is wine infused with the body of a Philippine cobra. They promise me a taste.

We had dinner that night with one of the Pentecostal families. The man of the house was in the army hand had recently been shot. Sitting by his open casket in their living room, trying to explain borderline personality disorder to the pastor while we were surrounded by men wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying Armalites, was one of my stranger life experiences. We spent the night with another family in his flock.

I slept oddly well.

December 8, 2009

War and Peace

Filed under: Mindanao — Donald @ 9:48 am

I see the large island of Mindanao every time I walk the beach. Close as it is, and even though most people there speak roughly the same Visayan dialect as my neighbors do, iit’s a very different place. Our little island is soft and warm, and life on the coast is easy-going. Siquijodnons smile a lot. Even at a distance, Mindanao strikes me as hard and imposing. It mountains tower over the sea and lightning often flashes there at night. As our little prop plane made its descent into Cagayan de Oro on the north coast a couple of weeks ago, we passed very near the neighboring island of Camiguin, which supposedly has the highest concentration of active volcanoes in the world. The place just reeks power.

I was going back to Mindanao to speak at a peace symposium. The island hasn’t seen lasting peace since the Spanish tried to colonize it a few centuries ago. They were never entirely successful. Neither were the Americans or Japanese, or the many Philippine administrations which sent waves of settlers there from other parts of the country beginning in the 1930s. The indigenous tribes that have been in Mindanao for thousands of years and the Muslim communities that established themselves centuries before the Spanish arrival continue to claim their ancestral lands. The Muslims have been insistent about it. Their resistance took its contemporary shape in the 1970s with the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Several years of heavy fighting left about 100,000 dead and a million refugees. The Marcos dictatorship eventually made an uneasy settlement with the MNLF, and in succeeding years, MNLF forces have been more-or-less integrated into those of the nation. Other Muslim factions, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf, have not come along peaceably.

The MNLF was represented at the symposium by all of its commanders in the northern region down to battalion level and led by their Assistant General Secretary (pictured below, signing a peace covenant at the conclusion of the event).

When I mentioned to one of the symposium organizers that I wanted to spend a few days in the mountains to learn a little about village life, he introduced me to the Secretary, who promised to guarantee my safety “110%”. He took me to a General, who gave me his cell number and his signed photo ID (as proof of our relationship) and offered to arrange an armed escort if I wanted one. That’s a nuke where a flyswatter will do; the mountains near Cagayan de Oro aren’t dangerous; but I appreciated the grand gesture.

At the symposium I sat next to the gentlemen below, who turned out to be associated with the Sultan of Maguindanao.

I’m not aware of any connection between the Sultan’s family and the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao shortly after the symposium. I’ve exchanged quite a few texts with the Sultan’s son, on the left above. During the “picture picture” mayhem after the conference he insisted that this young lady give me her number too.

Apparently it improved my mood. The girls even got the MNLF guys to lighten up during the photo session.

They could not convert them to a new hand gesture.

It was encouraging to learn that a Turkish-based Muslim group, Risale-I Nur, is promoting a peaceful and scholarly brand of Islam in Mindanao. Their president (below left, at his home) was a gracious host, and the kind of guy who could become a real friend.

He filled my suitcase with about 50 kilos of books published by his organization and invited me to speak at their big conference in Istanbul. The Italian gentleman second from the left has worked for peace in virtually every major trouble spot in the world over the past couple of decades. Second to the right is the patriarch of one of the most prominent Muslim families in the Philippines. His father was the country’s first Muslim senator and he himself is past president of Mindanao State University. In our afternoon together he shared some great stories, including one about demonstrating against Marcos, and his subsequent year spent as a political prisoner.

Some of the indigenous tribes were also represented. The six people in the center below are Higaonon.

On the far left above is a Mormon professor at Xavier University (a Jesuit school). On the far right is a Muslim woman associated with Risale-I Nur. She is from Zamboanga, where people speak Chavacano, a Spanish creole. Lots of the organizing for the symposium was done by Pentecostal missionaries. It was the most culturally-diverse event I ever attended.

The government was represented by one of the five presidential advisors on the peace process, who updated us on the latest developments since talks resumed a few weeks ago. An Armed Forces of the Philippines General in charge of a Mindanao division discussed how the army has been working toward peace by promoting community development. By and large the talks were serious and informative. The assigned title of mine was “Inter-religious Cooperation”, but it really focused on how prejudice can get in the way of such good stuff, since prejudice and bad behavior are what I understand best. The audience was generally receptive, especially the Muslims.

For me, Mindanao is as interesting and exhausting as a high-stakes poker game. After two weeks I was elated to be home. Already I’m thinking of going back.

July 19, 2007


Filed under: Mindanao — lapulapu @ 11:49 pm

Overlooking Marawi

[Note: So that people may retain some minimum degree of privacy, it is my policy not to include identifying information on this blog. I’ve maintained that for this post, though I was sorely tempted to deviate so that I could give full recognition to the many people who were so good to me and who are doing such important work at Mindanao State University. Warm regards to them all.]


When it comes to security, local knowledge is best. No one I talked with in Iligan thought it would be safe for me to take public transportation for the short 50km trip to Marawi. They did think it would be safe to go up in a private car, particularly if I had with me a Maranao, a member of the local Muslim tribe. My friends arranged just that and up I went with two Mindanao State University professors, one a Muslim and one a Christian.

There has been no serious trouble in Marawi for a few years now. The last all-out war was in 2000. At that time this beautiful spot was one of the main battlegrounds.

Battleground near Marawi

The hill, a communications center of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was heavily bombed, and there was fierce fighting on the plains below. At the height of the violence, the road on which we traveled had army checkpoints every kilometer or so but it was still impossible to stop the ambushes. Our ride up behind heavily-tinted windows was uneventful and pleasant.

Army Checkpoint MSU

Mindanao State University is the only campus in the country for which security is provided by the army and the President is a General. He seems to have things well in hand, and in addition to keeping everyone safe, he has initiated many projects to advance the peace-building mission of the institution. All indications are that he has the complete confidence of the community.

Institute for Peace and Development, MSU

The President was meeting with alumni in the US when I arrived so I was received by the Vice President. He and everyone at MSU offered as warm and hospitable a welcome as one can possibly imagine.

With the Vice President

MSU administration staff

Administrators, staff, faculty, and students at MSU are a healthy mix of Muslims and Christians. Promoting good relations between the two groups is a central mission of the university and obviously it is successful. I expected that people would be respectful of one another and polite, but the widespread warmth and affection I saw surprised me. Muslims attend Christmas festivities with their Christian brothers and sisters (as they call them) and Christians join with Muslims during Ramadan. It is heartening to know that deeply devout members of the two faiths can live together so well, even in Mindanao. These are the members of the Buklod, an organization for people in mixed Muslim-Christian marriages.

Buklod, MSU

The Islamic City of Marawi is one of the great centers of Muslim culture in the Philippines.

Arch gateway to Lanao del Sur

Mosque, MSU

A Sultan’s bed

It rests high in the mountains on the shores of Lake Lanao, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the country. The Maranao who live there are known as excellent traders and craftsmen and are famous for maratabat, which roughly translates as “pride”. I had the opportunity to meet with a number of Muslim scholars, Maranao and otherwise.

At the King Faisal Center

Scholar of Islamic Law

Explaining to me the veil

Just as I was leaving the King Faisal Dawah Center a couple of huge SUVs full of US Army Rangers drove up.

Rangers at MSU

My colleagues in psychology gave me a warm welcome. I hope to do some work with them from time to time.

Psychology Department MSU

The campus is truly beautiful.

Near the MSU resort hotel

Near the MSU open air restaurant

MSU restaurant

VIP lounge, MSU

I was asked to give impromptu lectures to a couple of psychology classes, a couple of history classes, and a class on international relations. When I asked the students what messages they would like for me to bring back to the United States, here is what they said.

“We want peace.”

MSU class

“Maranaos are friendly.”

MSU class–maybe international relations

“We are not all terroists.”

“Come visit us.”

July 7, 2007

“We are abducted”

Filed under: Mindanao — lapulapu @ 6:29 pm

mindanao road block

It was my first full day on the troubled and beautiful island of Mindanao. My driver had made a mistake. When I asked him what was happening, his reply was simply, “We are abducted.”

The ferry trip to Dapitan had gone smoothly and “the shrine city”, home of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal in his exile before the Spanish finally murdered him, turned out to be truly beautiful. Mindanao is unbelievably lush, and Dapitan lies on a lovely bay with mountains all around, like a miniature Rio. The next day I wanted to scout the nearby city of Dipolog as a potential retirement spot before heading for Iligan. Our expedition by motor cab (motorcycle with sidecar) was almost complete when we approached a sign warning vehicles like ours not to proceed. Cars and motorcycles were continuing on without incident and I guess my driver saw no reason why we should not too. Traffic signs of every kind are routinely ignored in the Philippines; people just sort of work things out as they go. This particular rule was being enforced, though, and after a long delay by the side of the road we were hauled off to the station. My driver looked like a ghost when he was finally released. He had been fined 1010 pesos ($22, several days earnings for him) and his vehicle would be impounded until he paid. I didn’t have time to work out all the angles and make a good play. The constraints were: 1) I had to get to Iligan pronto and 2) I couldn’t leave my amiable driver standing on the curb with P5 in his pocket, a huge debt, and no way to pay it off. I paid the fine and we went on our way.

My original plan for traveling through Mindanao was to do it with a native who had family and friends in each location at which we would stop. We would take the ferry, bouncing along the coast, to avoid the overland route where ambushes and kidnappings occasionally occur. The first blow to that plan came when I learned that the ferry I’d been counting on was no longer in operation. Ok. A relative of my traveling companion would take us in his private car. I had been told that private vehicle transport is usually quite safe as long as one stays away from military vehicles, drives fast through sections where people may shoot, and never ever stops for anything (never, for anything, including the many police checkpoints with STOP signs posted). A few days before we headed off I learned that our driver would be unavailable due to continuing complications having somehow to do with the May elections, which did not exactly go smoothly in Mindanao. We would be taking the bus, which, truth be told, I expected would be fine. I had looked into it and discovered no reports of buses being targeted on that route in a long time. I’m a true believer in statistics. The only things that made me a little nervous were that the initial part of our journey was along the base of the Zamboanga penninsula, where an Italian priest had recently been kidnapped, and that all sources, from the locals to the US State Department, were saying that the situation throughout Mindanao was particularly dangerous at the moment due to the recent elections, which were reported to have been spectacularly corrupt and the results of which were still not settled. Now our little abduction had set my schedule back and would have me getting into Iligian, passing through areas with heavy Muslim populations, after dark and in the rain. Oh, and alone. My companion had come down with something and was unable to travel.

When I boarded the bus I headed for a seat in the middle as I always do, but the driver directed me to sit immediately behind him, offering an ideal vantage point from which to witness his many acts of daring. Probably he wanted to be able to watch over me personally and to give me a good view of the television in front, which featured an extremely violent vampire flick followed by a suspense thriller about a terrorist bombing. If you ever travel alone by bus through Mindanao in the rain during election season you simply must seek out that sort of soundtrack. Not really knowing just how dangerous things were for me I decided to take every precaution, however needless. I left the shade drawn on my window, pulling it back just enough to see. My turn to wear the veil. I stayed put at most of the stops, but when it was time to urinate and I did get off, everyone was so friendly it made me feel silly. Though there wouldn’t be much I could do if an ugly situation developed, I remained very observant. The only episode of the trip that caused me any concern was when a lumber truck pulled slowly across the highway and stopped just as we approached, blocking our way. It was like a scene from a movie. Men quickly emptied out from the lumber truck and in a matter of seconds they were joined by men from another truck that approached in the oncoming lane. Only a minor traffic argument ensued, though, and we were soon moving again. About six hours on the bus and an unexpected additional hour on a ferry got us into Iligan, leaving me a good thirty minutes to freshen up and relax before meeting my local contacts for a night on the town.

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