Philippine Island Times Adventures of an American expat in the Philippines

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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