On ‘Moro violence’ and other falsehoods

A conversation with Amirah Lidasan, Moro woman activist.

“Non-Muslim Filipinos have practically lived next door to Muslim Filipinos all their lives. Haven’t we gotten used to each other by now?”

“You buy DVDs from Moro people; buy clothes from stores they own or manage in Baclaran or Divisoria. You go to the malls and Muslims are also there with their families. We attend school and they’re our classmates. At work, they’re our colleagues. They’re also our neighbors in the communities and barangays where we live. The only places Christians and Muslims don’t visit together are churches and mosques. It’s frustrating that whenever there are reports of a bombing and the suspects are Muslim, what immediately comes to mind is that the bombing was fueled by religious zealotry. Hindi pa tayo natuto na mas madalas kaysa hindi, hindi relihiyon ang dahilan ng kaguluhan?”

Thus starts one afternoon’s conversation with Amirah Lidasan, secretary-general of the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance (MCPA). It’s not every day that one gets to discuss the practice of faith and the political implications and uses of religion with someone who was raised with different religious beliefs. In many cases – especially in situations when one or both parties are ignorant or subconsciously hostile, discussions sometimes turn into arguments, or worse.

Amirah, however, is very open about sharing her knowledge and views on current events, particularly those on developments in Mindanao and the Islamic community in the Philippines. A former student leader, Amirah is a tireless spokesperson for the marginalized national minorities in Mindanao, a human rights and peace advocate, and a Moro woman activist.

Perhaps it also has to do with her being a journalism graduate from the University of the Philippines-Diliman. But Amirah is always mindful of how Muslims are portrayed in the media and cultural institutions and how they present issues that concern the rights and welfare of Muslims. This, however, does not mean that her views and analyses of issues are guided by her culture and religion.

The starting point of her analysis, in fact, has been most basic issues that affect Muslims and non-Muslims alike: employment, food, safety, health, access to basic social services.

“Because, in truth, whether we can feed our families or not, whether we live in dignity or in constant fear, are what unites us or separates us. This is the root of conflict. But those in positions of power always work to obscure this fact and lump all conflicts (together) as merely rooted in religious differences.”

IDPs from Marawi in 2017. PW File Photo/Sid Natividad

Marawi evacuees

When the lockdown happened, Amirah was in Cotabato, and she has been there since then. She has taken it upon herself to monitor the release of humanitarian aid including the funds of the national government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP) for evacuees from Marawi City who have since been living in states of uncertainty since the bombing of their city in 2017. “

As can be expected from a human rights advocate, Amirah’s appeals and explanations always begin from the standpoint and viewpoint of affected civilians. During the last three years, the former crown city of Islam in the Philippines has been practically buried under rubble. The war the Duterte government launched against what it labelled as terrorists left around 17,000 Marawi residents displaced and homeless — either staying in temporary shelters or in relatives’ houses. Over 1,100 people were killed.

As per data from the national government, a total of ?19.94 Billion has been released for the rehabilitation of Marawi. According to the House Committee on Disaster Resilience, the amount includes a ?3.8-B augmentation fund in 2017, ?10-B in 2018, and ?3.5-B each for 2019 and 2020. There’s an unreleased balance of ?150.84 Million, while the remaining ?717.63-M from 2018 was returned to the Treasury after it was not used within the prescribed period.

“So much money, but the evacuees are still left floating, their economic status very insecure and uncertain. After the war, (they have been doing) their best on their own given the negligible support they’ve received from the government agencies. But when the Covid-19 (coronavirus disease-2019) pandemic struck, the difficulties again mounted. Many evacuees are not included in the list of beneficiaries for the SAP, but the local authorities are not explaining why,” she said.

“The suffering of the Marawi evacuees (has been) endless. They were rendered homeless in 2017, forced to disperse and to rebuild their lives with practically no help from government. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, they began to face the same hardships encountered by non-Muslims: no work, no health support, no means of tiding themselves over the entire period the quarantine was in place. Don’t they have rights? Why are the evacuees being forgotten, why is their plight being mostly ignored? “

Sulu bombing

Earlier this month, Jolo, Sulu was again the focus of news when a bomb exploded in a downtown commercial area. Predictably, the issue of Muslim extremism was again brought up. Amirah expressed exasperation over some media institutions’ reportage that failed to dig deeper into the issue.

At least 14 people were killed and several others wounded after two explosions, including one reportedly carried out by a female suicide bomber.

“When military officials and the media focus on their own interpretations or understanding of Islam and the allegation that suicide bombers are rewarded with 77 virgins as motivation, they do nothing to explain the situation or address the real issues behind the bombing. It’s most unfortunate that even now, there are still members of the media who ask questions that insinuate an angle of Muslim-Christian conflict. This is discrimination, and it foments Islamophobia. Worse, exploring this angle hides the truth and stops the real issues for such events from being discussed,” she said.

Amirah’s exasperation and outrage is understandable. Almost immediately after the bombing, militarists in the Duterte cabinet quickly floated the suggestion that the Sulu province should be placed under martial law because there might be “more acts of terror” from religious extremists.

“This is like punishing the whole population for the crimes committed by ‘suicide bombers’ whose motives are as yet unclear. The people of Sulu and Bangsamoro areas in general have been fighting decades of repression due to historical injustice and violations of their civil and political rights as a result of the government’s anti-terror campaign, and violence has become a constant part of their lives because of this,” she said. “Kahirapan ang isyu sa Mindanao. Kawalan ng lupa ng mga magsasakang Moro. Kakulangan ng trabaho. The power brokers are using twisted interpretations of Islam as a weapon both to justify their violence and to cover their real motives. Ito ang kailangang ma-expose.”

Among those killed was 23-year old student Karelyn Nobleza who attended the Zamboanga City State Polytechnic College. She was in Jolo working, trying to earn enough money to buy a laptop for herself and her siblings because they need it for their online education efforts. According to a report by journalist Julie S. Alipala, Karelyn came from a poor family. Her mother is a laundrywoman, her father a security guard. In a year, Karelyn would be up for graduation. She was a consistent scholar, and a diligent working student.

Also killed in the blast was Karelyn’s uncle Espaldon Jumhali, a street vendor in Jolo.

Usual suspects, usual reasons

Amirah says that ordinary Moros condemn this recent bombing because it endangered the lives of civilians, and actually killed a few.

“And who will be turn to for justice? We shouldn’t just point fingers or paint the usual suspects. It’s important to understand the context (of) why bombings such as this happen. (I)n this specific case, why soldiers were targeted. There’s an ongoing war in Sulu. The military operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have resulted in more violations against the rights of civilians – including accidental deaths where the AFP just pass off the killings as ‘collateral damage’. There have also been instances when those killed were slapped with the label of being Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) supporters even when the victims were ordinary farmers or vendors,” she said.

Amirah said that President Duterte’s automatic condemnation of the bombings and siding with the AFP in the issue without even a word about the civilian casualties add salt to the wound of civilians.

“The AFP and Malacanang have been quick to announce that Muslim extremists are behind the bombing in Sulu, but other possibilities should be explored. Why? Because the ASG or ISIS-influenced groups have not admitted responsibility for the bombing. The people of Sulu see many possible reasons for the bombing. Some say that it was part of the rivalry between AFP and PNP elements in the area; that it could (have been) an act of revenge for relatives who were killed military operations. It could also be connected to the drug war,” she said.

Amirah also pointed out how the bombing took place while army officials appointed by President Duterte were being confirmed in the Senate, and while a movement was launched calling for a revolutionary government, an ASG leader and some members were submitting themselves to Prof. Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The timing, she said, is very suspect.

“There is also the truth that many are outraged over how the Duterte administration is largely allowing acts of massive corruption go unaddressed and unpunished, while the rising number of Covid-19 cases continues to go unchecked. This isn’t the first time that a bombing happened in Sulu or in any other part of the Bangsamoro region or in Mindanao whenever a big political debate happens or that the government’s weakness unravels. And it is also not new that violence is used to justify the implementation of anti-people measures like the Anti-Terrorism Law and imposition of martial law,” she said.

Amirah is a long-time mass leader for Moro progressive organizations throughout the years. From Amirah Lidasan’s FB account

August 29 massacre 

Amirah’s point about acts of violence baing used to justify further legal restrictions in Mindanao and Moro areas is very valid when one considers what has been happening after the Jolo bombing. Five days after the bombing, August 29, nine farmers were shot and killed in broad daylight in the town of Kabacan, North Cotabato. The farmers were strafed while standing by the roadside along Aringay Road inside the state-run University of Southern Mindanao campus. Eight of them died instantly while the ninth one, Nasher Guiman, a minor, died in the hospital.

The victims were identified as Nasurdin Kalilangan, 41, of  Brgy. Aringay in Kabacan; Sandigan Zailon, 46, of Brgy. Osias; Benladin Dimanalao, 19, of Brgy. Pedtad; Zaiden Musaed, 21, of Brgy. Basagen, Aleosan; Romeo Balatamay Pioto, 38, of Brgy. Aringay, also in Kabacan; Esmael Pagayon, 17, of Brgy. Buluan; Datu Fahad Dimanalao Mandigan, 24, of Sitio Abpa, Kayaga, in Kabacan; Budsal Lipusan, of Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao; and Nasher from Brgy. Buluan.

The police initially explained that the killings were a result of the shootout between feuding Moro clans. But the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of Region 12 has since tagged the case as an “extra-judicial killing” (EJK). It has since been discovered that no firefight took place, and that the victims bore no firearms. The were simply gunned down after they were stopped by unidentified gunmen. Based on the empty shells found in the crime scene, the killers used high powered firearms.

CHR Region 12 director and lawyer Erlan Deluvio said that the agency will look into the possibility of law enforcers’ involvement in the incident. He explained that this does not mean that law enforcers were directly involved in the massacre, but their inaction could be considered a participation.

As he was dying in the hospital, Nasher said to relatives that policemen shot at them. The family relayed this to CHR-12 investigators. North Cotabato Provincial Police Director Henry Villard responded that they had not yet established any motive on the part of the killers.

“(Those kinds of incidents are used) to justify martial law. While the source of the conflict, the perpetrators (have never been) ordinary civilians, (they) always (bear) the consequences,” she said. “Instead of thoroughly investigating these incidents, the authorities are quick to respond with threats of further curtailment of civil rights. Formula na ito ‘pag may nangyayari sa Moro areas. What adds (insult to) injury is the allegation that Moro people are intrinsically violent and that Islam is a religion of violence. Sobrang mali nito. Mga sibilyan ang pinapatay, but they’re also the ones being accused of violence,” she said.

Amirah shares that her reasons for wearing a hijab – or headscarf – is connected to such unjust misconceptions about Moros and their religion. She started wearing a hijab only in high school, and the first time she went to class wearing one, she already felt a level of animosity or fear from classmates.

“Naramdaman ko iyon. I’ve always been Muslim, pero I didn’t wear the hijab which Moro women wear. When I started wearing the hijab, it was not only for religious reasons, but also as a political stand. The hijab helps me identify more with being a Moro. I also wear it because I speak about Moro rights, and what the Moro people think and feel about issues that affect them. We have to be the ones to describe ourselves, our believes, our circumstances from the standpoint and viewpoint that will serves the interest of poorest or most exploited among us.”

This, she emphasizes, is why it is important the voice of Moro civilians, people’s organizations, and advocacy groups should be heard when it comes to national issues in general, and issues affecting Moros in particular. “Hindi ‘yung mga militar o mga pulis ang laging nagsasalita o pinakikinggan.”

As with non-Muslims, Moro civilians – especially the Marawi internally displaced persons (IDPs) – face an uncertain future as the Covid-19 quarantine enters its sixth month, Amirah said.

“Wala pa ring mass testing, wala pa ring ayuda, at marami na ang hirap na hirap makahanap ng kabuhayan. The government is also threatening to build a military camp in Marawi! President Duterte may think that his stunt of kneeling and kissing the ground where the bomb went off in Jolo helps pacify things, but the opposite the true. It did not solve anything, and the Moro people see it as an empty, even insulting gesture.”

At the end of the day, Amirah says that the Moro people are also looking for solutions to the health crisis, and an end to the conflict in Mindanao that prevents them from living in peace and dignity. They also want an end to the unjust stereotyping of Moros that have led to discrimination. This stereotyping have also been used as twisted justification for attacks launched by extremists, many of whom are suspected of being trained or financed by government military and intelligent forces themselves.

“Tragically, it is precisely these concerns that the Duterte government are ignoring. In the cases when they are noticed, the responses are the opposite of what is needed to remedy problems. Ang tugon lagi ng gobyerno sa mga problema, militarisasyon. The Moro people, of all people in this country, know that this is never the answer,”she said.