Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Off and on I've been following the news about the latest Muslim separatist issues as best as I can; it’s a topic on the TV news nearly every night, which of course is in Tagalog. I’ve been struggling to learn the local language of Bisaya and ignore what’s said on the TV news, since it’s from Manila where they only know the “National” language of Tagalog or English. It’s always a bit bizarre when the news broadcast from Manila has an interview with someone from this part of their nation, the island of Mindanao, and an interpreter has to be provided.
  All of the latest problems are always on the island of Mindanao, where I am, which is about the size of Indiana and shaped something like an outlandish prehistoric animal; a lot can happen out to the West and South where the long head and neck are compared to the main body/central highlands where I am. There is a sizeable Muslim population in the city nearest to me, Cagayan de Oro, but unrest is never heard of anywhere here in “Northern Mindanao.

The next large city to the West, Iligan, however, is where stories of international attention were just a couple of years ago. For over ten years there’s been a concerted effort in some of that “head, neck and breast” region for the Muslim population to have at least some autonomy, where their much higher density, history and culture are very entrenched. Right after I moved here, well known TV news reporter Ces Drilon from Manila went into that Muslim region to get some background on a story she was doing and was promptly kidnapped by “members of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group.” In 2001 a missionary American couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, were kidnapped and held for about a year in the same region by the same group. In that incident, the government finally stormed in for a precision extraction; the husband, another hostage and many other military personnel were killed during the firefight that ensued. Drilon was released unharmed after about a week; at first there were denials about any ransom having been paid but there was considerable scandal when it was later discovered that there had been a large payment to the captors. Since I’ve been here, in Iligan and another area further to the south, renegade military elements of the Moro Islamic separatist groups have been on killing, bus-burning and hostage-taking sprees. Iligan is where all of the gasoline tanker ships with fuel for the northern part of the island dock and discharge their shipments to be distributed by truck to the rest of this region, including our area. Because of the lockdown in Iligan, trying to capture the renegade dudes, our one local gas station ran out of gasoline and couldn’t get another fill for many days.

Edna has always told me that this part of the island has forever been peaceful and safe, even though there is all this unrest which seems a small distance away. Here, what I might think of as a small distance can take days to actually travel, the roads and geography being what it is. The National Highway is often cut down to one-lane by apartment refrigerator sized holes. Some holes have been present and growing since the first time I visited. What I’ve discovered about how everyone conceives of “peaceful and safe” isn’t necessarily the same thing as I’m accustomed to thinking of. In the province that we’re in, very rarely have I seen a police officer, and I have never observed any military personnel.
There are the ubiquitous uniformed private security guards for every commercial establishment of any consequence, but as imposing as these might at first seem (since they’ll often have heavy guns and a belt full of ammo) they turn out to be about as harmless and mellow as a Wal-Mart greeter, anxious to be helpful and have something to break up the monotony of their endless days without any real criminals to subdue. 

I have heard quite a few people tell Edna not to ever let me go anywhere that she doesn’t also accompany me, as if the presence of this five foot two inch female makes all the real rebel kidnappers think twice about grabbing me. Much of her family’s farm acreage that she manages, as well as her own share, are up the road two kilometers from where we live; like over a mile from here. So I’m not supposed to work there by myself, and I’m certainly not allowed to ever walk there by myself! With only one vehicle, we have yet to work out how I can get in enough hours at the fields to really make a difference. All in all, it’s not what I would consider “safe and peaceful” as I know it from my former life in the US, but on an abstract, existential level, this is also the most peaceful life I’ve ever had. It’s as if all of the local people now know that an Amerikano is in their midst, and this is so rare that surely those terrible and lawless rebels, who of course look like all the rest of the population, must also know this and are certain to be lurking in the shadows now to kidnap such a valuable prize. 
Camp Phillips is the pleasant and perhaps most Westernized community in the whole Philippines. It’s one of the many “Camps” hereabouts, a company town really, owned and run by Del Monte Philippines since about 1935, when expansion of the American fruit canning corporation decided this area of Central Mindanao was ideal for their pineapple plantation. Camp Phillips was designed as their agricultural center of what has become a 720 square mile patchwork of pineapple fields. The usual sprawl and squalidness of most towns and villages here is missing. Wide tree-lined streets and banks of bright lights on the lush soccer field with its well-painted goal posts immediately mark this place as something very unusual for this poor “developing world” country. Shortly after I moved here we got news that the private security patrol guards of Del Monte, who’re the closest thing to a police force around here, questioned two men who were seen lurking around the plaza. Since in this small community where nearly everyone knows everyone else, two unknown guys right away seem suspicious, so they were spotted and apprehended. They admitted to being “deep penetration operatives” of some Moro Liberation group, and after their questioning here they were whisked away to the central municipal jail facilities some kilometers away. No further hard news seems to be available, since there wasn’t anything really crazy to draw the attention of the news media. The reaction of the government was to send a large bus marked “Philippine National Police” to Camp Philips and park it in the main square for a week. Each day, as it was parked in the same exact spot, it collected more and more drawings in the inviting dusty side panels from passersby. So, in no time at all it was obvious that this was only a “show” of police presence, as good as it gets here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please Comment, Adventurer