Published: March 13th 2006March 2nd 2006
You and whose army?
The escort, Basilan
With the ship still anchored in the harbor I settle into my bunk overlooking the Sulu Sea with a book, and wait... My lethargic spell is broken by the abrupt arrival of five busloads of men, women and children. They clamber off the bus two-by-two. A heavily armed immigration officer unlocks their handcuffs; before they shimmy self-consciously up the gangplank and disappear into the bowels of the ship to be transported like cattle, out of sight of paying passengers, back to their homeland. They are illegal immigrants, caught in search of greater economic opportunities, treated like criminals for attempting to enter a land not of their birth.
I'm told an unskilled worker in The Philippines can expect to earn $100 a month, in Malaysia they can command almost three times that amount. The Filipino economy is fueled by money sent from abroad, with more than half the population directly dependent on remittance from migrant workers. 20- and 30-something Filipino women form the majority of the seven million Filipino foreign workers currently scattered around the world, supporting their families back home by cleaning houses, performing in nightclubs, or caring for children, the sick or elderly. A number of course are forced
into less noble professions like prostitution.
Though this trend keeps the country economically buoyant, it’s also eroding the very fabric of Filipino society. Many children develop behavioral problems and grow up undisciplined and disrespectful due to the lack of family support networks, and the physical and emotional distance from their parents.
I ask someone what will happen to them when they arrive in The Philippines “Nothing! Most will try to return to Malaysia as soon as they can, it's a matter of family survival, and they have no choice!”
It seems everyone on the boat is eager to speak to me, to find out why I am here, where I will go and to offer their opinions: An ex-Filipino who’d lived in Malaysia for over twenty years proudly boasted about his Malaysian citizenship. "The Philippines is a mess, they've inherited the American gun culture and so it’s like the Wild West…They’ve made big mistakes over there because the Americans had no experience at colonization… Malaysia is not like that, Malaysia is civilized because it was a British Colony…British colonies are always more peaceful and civilized” This is clearly meant to tickle my supposed patriotism. "But you know
that America was once a British Colony itself?" I offer.
In another conversation: “You should go to Dipolog, they have a resort, many people like you, and sexy women in bikinis” “Oh, have you been?” I ask “No but I have heard stories” “what about Basilan”? He flashes me a worried look, his gaze falls to his feet and he begins playing footsie with himself. “There‘s nothing for you in Basilan, it is boring for you, Dipolog is much better” “Boring” I said, a little confused “Yes sir” he looks up, and down at his feet again “…and there are Muslims… No good” “Have you been”? … He hadn’t, but this time he failed to mention he’d ‘heard stories’.
I'm on my way to Zamboanga in Mindanao. Tourists rarely travel this route since a group of Islamic thugs named Abu Sayyaf were able to hog the international headlines, after some massively inopportune timing, when they kidnapped and killed some tourists a few weeks after 9/11. Mindanao became the "second front" in the US’ war against terrorism…well atleast until it was ‘discovered’ Saddam Husein tried to buy uranium…from Africa!!!
Later that night, as I watch the white foam
ready for Christmas
Town Hall, Zamboanga
of the ships wake disappearing into the darkness, an older man joins me. “You cannot sleep” he says “no” I look at my watch it’s 1am. We exchange niceties, before arriving on the inevitable question. “Where will you go in The Philippines?” “I don’t know yet…what do you know about Basilan?” He immediately brightens to this topic; his wife is from Basilan he tells me, though neither he nor his wife have been there for 20 years, he proceeds to tell me all about the two main towns Isabela and Lamitan…and it’s true - they have PINK sandy beaches on Santa Cruz! Finally, I thought; some firsthand information not based on hearsay.
“I think will go to Lamitan,” I say. “No, no…” he says, “…It is very dangerous!” “Why?” “Muslims!” “Ok… so I will go to Isabela” “No” he says, “Muslims!” “Muslims?” I laugh at the sudden unexpected turn the conversation has taken since I’d assumed he WAS Muslim. He laughs also, though more out of insecurity and politeness.
The sounds of the sea suddenly manifest, as a momentary silence descends upon our conversation. We are both motionless aside from a gold crucifix that sways glistening from his
neck in tune to the oceans whims. He must have noticed its eminence as I did, because almost on impulse, he moved his hand instinctively to the crucifix and tucked it inside the neck of his T-shirt.
I’ve thought about this incident many times since, pondering the reasons for his action. But I’ll stick with my initial feeling: It was as if he were somehow ashamed at what he’d said, and he didn’t want to be judged by Him who’d died on the cross without prejudice for the sins of mankind.
I pottered around Zamboanga for a few days, visiting sights and learning as much about Mindanao as I could. Most people called me ‘Joe’ which I later discovered was a generic term for foreign white males, stemming from the American occupation and ‘GI Joe’. Some even thought I was a missionary, after all, I was too hairy to be in the military and tourists just don’t come to Zamboanga.
One day I hailed a tuk-tuk for a logistics mission, visiting bus stations, banks, pharmacies and shipping offices… after three hours I had developed a rapport with the driver, and on completion of our mission I asked him
what the damage would be. He seemed shy, and told me that he’d never had such a long fare before, or a tourist passenger. Looking rather embarrassed he asked me for $3US - and yep I did it - wonders will never cease - I gave a taxi driver more than he asked for! His face beamed with delight; had I set a bad example? Who cares, he won’t be seeing another tourist any time soon, at least whilst this irrational fear has a stranglehold over people’s minds the world over. Then I asked him to pick me up bright and early the next morning as planned, for my trip to Basilan.
“Please don’t go sir…” he said coyly, and then paused almost as if he were about to let me into one of his darkest secrets “…There are Muslims” - And that, without doubt, was the sweetest racist comment I have ever heard! - Prompting me to immediately try and reassure him as best I could; “It is in my nature to go, I have to, if it is my time, then it is my time”. He smiled and then trumped me in broken English, with this nugget
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”
That night I felt genuinely excited; Basilan seemed like the most exciting destination in the world, with every negative comment having fanned the flames of my excitement. My choice of travel day was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and day of prayer, adding further dread to peoples dissuasion. My Soul positively tingled with expectation…we make a good team he and I, pushing each other to the nether regions of the earth - though if the truth be known, he makes me do it - I just buy the tickets;-) …In return he lets me know what it feels to be alive. The same feeling that doubtless drives the moth to the flame.
When the Spanish turned up in Mindanao and discovered Muslims here just a few years after they’d pushed the Moors out of Spain, they got stuck straight into their historical tradition of eliminating non-Christians and converting people to "the true religion". During three hundred years of Spanish rule, however, dominance over the Muslims on Mindanao and Sulu was never fully achieved. In 1898 The Philippines
declared independence from Spain, who then decided to sell the place to the US for $20million; Enter Uncle Sam, and his justifications for colonizing; to Christianize and democratize.
"We have bought some islands from a party who did not own them. We went back on an honored guest of the Stars and Stripes when we had no further use for him and chased him into the mountains. We have pacified some thousands of islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out of doors; subjugated the remaining tens of millions by benevolent assimilation…"
In 3 years the Americans killed 600,000 Filipinos. Many in the states were understandably horrified and Anti-war movements sprung up protesting the war, though it continued to be justified: “Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals”
During American rule in the first half of this century the Muslims were never totally pacified in the so-called "Moro Wars." The 1903 Moro Act gave land to Christians; marginalizing Muslims and indigenous groups in their homeland, with virtually the entire island of Mindanao handed over to the US companies Dole and Firestone for economic exploitation.
Since independence, there has been resistance by large segments of the Muslim population to national integration. Many feel, with just cause, that integration amounts to cultural and psychological genocide. The current uprising has been raging for the past 25 years killing more than 120,000 people. In 1987, the government granted certain levels of autonomy. Though The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, (MILF) to this
day has refused to accept the accord.
Basilan is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), home to Abu Sayyaf and isolated more than ever from the rest of the country.
As I stepped off the boat at Isabela a man approaches me wearing army boots, trousers and a civilian shirt. “You must come with me,” he said “where?” I enquired, “Come, come!” he motions with his palm toward the floor.
I follow him up into the main street past a Mosque with a Humvee parked menacingly outside it, past crowds of inquisitive onlookers into a highly militarized compound where I am introduced to the Mayor of Isabela. He was delighted to see me… and showered me with food, drinks and gifts… What was my mission…Tourism??? Well then, he would provide me with a Jeep and a military escort to wherever I wanted to go! “You must visit the Mayor of Lamitan” he said, “I’ll call him and say you are coming, you can spend the night there or with me?”
I reluctantly declined, I had planned to visit for just the day since I still had no idea of what I would find, I wasn’t entirely
sure if there were hotels and the weekly ship to my next destination Davao was leaving the following morning. I took the offer of a free ride and a military escort though;-)
My driver asks, “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know, where IS there to go?” he shrugs his shoulders and then asks the rest of the armed escort crew… “How about the rubber plantation?” (That’ll be Firestone) “Err…well… Let’s just drive around eh, and if we see something nice I’ll jump out and take a look” So that is what we did. When I jumped out of the jeep four of them would escort me, and pretty soon a group of kids would be attracted to the spectacle of ‘Joe’ and his troops wandering aimlessly about town taking pictures (So if any of the people in my photos look a little confused, just remember there are umpteen kids and an armed guard hovering behind me at all times!).
The Yakan are the native tribe of Basilan, though the most exotic people I saw in Basilan without doubt were the Badjao, or Sea Nomads, who prefer to live in houseboats.
The atmosphere was electric and everywhere
I looked my eyes were met with beaming smiles. I met many wonderful people who seemed delighted to see and talk with a foreigner who wasn’t dressed in military garb. Many of the people here speak Chavacano - which is approximately 70% Spanish, meaning in theory I could speak about 1.5% of the local lingo! My humble presence bought the whole town of Isabela to life that day, and I still kick myself I hadn’t planned to stay a few days.
The following day I took an overnight boat to Davao, and was introduced to the two cornerstones of Filipino culture, Karaoke and Tanduay Rum! Getting stuck into both, I still have a recurring flashback of me trying to explain to a group of equally inebriated Filipinos the meaning of ‘Champagne Supernova’!
Traveling through Mindanao, two things kept cropping up … ‘Iglesia ni Cristo’ churches - Carbon copies; small ones, medium ones and big ones…they are literally everywhere, identical in everyway but size (If Stalin were a Christian he would have built churches like this)…And orchards; Dole and Del Monte control half of Mindanao’s arable land, resulting in huge mind-boggling orchards, with soul-destroying rows it would take literally
hours to walk down!
For the next week, I wandered around in the hills of Mindanao in search of some of the remaining indigenous tribes. Riding on the roofs of buses, and the back of motorbikes, I weaved my way through the green mountains, talking to people who were eager to learn and to tell, whilst regularly trying to convince them I wasn’t a missionary. It was heartening to see these diminishing tribes clinging precariously to their ancient ways against the onslaught of outside religions, ideologies, loggers, miners and global industrialists in the background of what is affectively a war-zone. With nations waging war to gain access to resources and economic markets, or to spread the right kind of ideology, the only reason these people still exist is because they are so benign and insignificant that they pose no threat. I always feel so honored to be able to see such people before their verdant cultural pockets of variety are consumed by the encroachment of contemporary desertification.
After talking to so many different tribal people and chasing terrified kids around villages with a camera, I was reminded so much of southern Sudan, where Christianity and Islam are so
intermingled with the local indigenous religions, and where members of the same tribe and even family can profess to be of a different religion and nobody sees the harm in it.
Mindanao is a curious place; at times it felt like it’s close neighbor Indonesia across the sea, and yet the Latino/Catholic influence gave it a definite Central American feel and at times I felt like I wasn’t in Asia at all. Divide-and-rule has been played out down here for over a century. The government could easily defeat the radical elements that remain, if it so desired. But their very existence allows the government to hype the power of the Muslim insurgency and inflame the issue whenever they want to deflect the publics’ opinion away from other domestic issues. Besides which, the war attracts a large sum of Military Aid from The US, who in turn are able to prolong their presence in The Philippines under the flag of ‘War on Terror’.
I knew I had exited the ‘danger zone’ when I was mistaken for a surfer rather than a missionary by a tuk-tuk driver, and as I jumped out to buy my ticket for Siargao Island, I
saw my first fellow tourists for over two weeks. Seven it turned out…one of whom ran towards me in delirious delight, asking If I’d like to share a private charter boat to the island since the scheduled boat had already left. I agreed, the price seemed fair, but once we were ready to board the boat, the price began increasing. “Aren’t we supposed to be haggling the price down?” I offered passively, since it wasn’t my deal. “Don’t worry” the guy replied, “This is normal in Asia…I’ll take care of it...” he said brashly “...I’ve been to more than fifty countries!” … “Can I have one of those smokes mate” I replied. And that was the very moment I began smoking again - who says smoking kills? At that moment I believe it may have saved someone’s life;-) They continued haggling, the price continued to rise and we never did charter that boat…my mind drifted away from the unfolding debacle with the help of the Lonely Planet I borrowed from my new friend the travel expert. I was curious to read all about the places I had just been to and it seemed the guidebook wasn’t too keen on Mindanao
‘…Warning…absolutely suicidal …Warning…imperative that you do not go…’ and Basilan of course was ‘strictly off limits’. Though my favorite entry by far was the reference to the T’boli tribe ‘Don't expect to see anyone wearing his or her traditional costumes’. I sat there puffing away like the Marlboro Man with a big smile on my face ‘who writes this stuff?’ I thought, I wanna buy them a drink!
There are more photos below