From March 23 to 27, 2002 an International Peace Mission visited Basilan, Zamboanga City and Cotabato City in Southern Philippines. The following article is a compilation of edited extracts from "Basilan: the next Afghanistan?", the report of the peace mission.
Nothing to Hide
LOCAL RESIDENTS OF ISABELA CITY in Basilan said it was the first time it rained in months when the mission members disembarked on the remote island province in the afternoon of March 23.
By this time, the mission had stirred national interest after the country's most widely read newspaper and most influential agenda-setter bannered their visit to Basilan. National Security Adviser Roilo Golez denied any human rights violations were being committed in Basilan and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would later be quoted as saying that such accusations were "an insult to the Filipino soldier."(1) The main propaganda line used by those critical of the mission was a variant of the President's: to criticize the military and the US troops is to be an "Abu Sayyaf lover." Instead of looking into the victims of the military, so the line went, the mission should instead commiserate with the victims of the bandit group.
To this, the mission repeatedly emphasized that it is as appalled by the atrocities committed by the Abu Sayyaf and as concerned about its victims. However, an international peace mission does not have to be formed to go to Mindanao to verify the Abu Sayyaf's atrocities since these are very well publicized already. In contrast, human rights violations are not only denied, the victims have also been abandoned by the government.
Thrown out of jail
Right after their arrival, the mission proceeded to the provincial jail where a number of suspected Abu Sayyaf members or sympathizers reportedly arrested without warrant were being detained. Curiously, despite previously finalized arrangements, jail officials informed the mission members, together with legislators who were there as part of a congressional inquiry, that they were banned from entering the prison.
The jail warden said the order came from Basilan Governor Wahab Akbar. A logbook entry recorded an instruction coming from the office of the governor not to admit the peace mission to the prison. This was highly suspicious and irregular since reporters had previously always found it easy to get access to the jail. Moreover, the legislators who went with the mission protested that the governor's restriction constituted a violation of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of government.
Despite the prohibition, some mission members found a way to talk with some of the detainees while the warden's attention was being distracted by mission members negotiating for entry. What they found out, even if they had been adequately warned, was appalling. Detained at the prison were civilians arrested without warrants, including children and a pregnant woman.
Meeting the governor
That same evening, the mission members held a dialogue with the provincial Governor Akbar, who, contrary to the warden's statement, denied issuing the order preventing the mission from entering the prison. The mission members confronted the Governor about the condition of the detainees, citing in particular the case of the pregnant woman.
To all these, the governor simply said he couldn't care less about the pregnant woman's plight. More surprisingly, he admitted that there are indeed innocent civilians detained at the jail.
The morning after, hastily prepared placards expressing support for the joint war exercises had been posted all over the city, reportedly by men identified with the governor. After a dialogue with Isabela City Mayor Luis Biel II, the mission were ushered by hostile pro-US presence rallyists into a public hearing organized by the House of Representatives' Committee on Human, Civil, and Political Rights. As many as 31 human rights victims were expected to publicly narrate their experiences but they were not able to speak.
The director of the local NGO taking care of the victims said the witnesses were afraid that the military would get back at them later. Other witnesses were prevented from going to the hearing because of ongoing military operations in their areas. A number of others failed to turn up because local officials told them that the venue had been changed. A suspicious power outage occurred around thirty minutes into the hearing and electricity was restored only after the hearing was suspended. Urging the committee to look into their cases instead, alleged victims of the Abu Sayyaf insisted on speaking, crowding out the witness whose narrations the congressmen sought out to hear in the first place.
Thankfully, the committee managed to convince some of the witnesses to speak to them in a closed-door executive session with the congresspeople at first, then with the mission members after. Before this, the mission members went to the village of Tabuk, birthplace of Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajak Janjalani, and the community where scores of civilians had been arrested on suspicion of links with the Abu Sayyaf last year. Here, the mission members had free, off-the-cuff, face-to-face interactions with the residents of the predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
Corruption and eviction
That same afternoon, the team proceeded to the town of Lamitan where the Abu Sayyaf suspiciously slipped through military cordon in June last year. The mission listened to testimonies of local residents accusing the military of being in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf. Witnesses and former kidnap victims lined up to recount the day the military allegedly allowed the Abu Sayyaf to walk away.
In Zamboanga City on the fourth day, the mission hiked through parts of the jungle where the US and Philippine forces are set to play their war games, then listened to the families who will be dislocated as a result. Indigenous people living in the area were furious at the government for leasing their ancestral lands to the military without even consulting them. Their livelihood and their way of life will be seriously affected once the war games begin.
Off to the mainland
Even as the war against the Abu Sayyaf rages on in Basilan, the secessionist struggle launched thirty years ago for the creation of an independent Muslim nation in Southern Philippines simmers on in the Mindanao mainland.
Two members of the international peace mission, Aijaz Ahmad and Marco Mezzera, proceeded to Cotabato City from March 26 to 28 to look into the possible impact of the joint US-RP military exercises on the still unresolved conflict there. Ahmad and Mezzera are two scholars who have both previously travelled around Cotabato to closely study the emergence and dynamics of the MNLF and, subsequently, the MILF.
In Cotabato City, the two members of the peace mission talked with key leaders of the MNLF and the MILF and government officials from the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). A leading official of the MILF voiced his apprehensions about the presence of US troops in the island. The MILF, he said, is afraid that after the Abu Sayyaf, they will be the next target of the US' war against terrorism.
Throughout the course of the mission, the Philippine government seemed intent on giving the impression that something needs concealing. "We have nothing to hide," Presidential spokesperson Rigoberto Tiglao confidently told the mission and assured them of full cooperation from the government. He even offered to accompany the mission members to Basilan even as he subtly attempted to scare them with an admonition not to proceed because of the high possibility of being abducted(2).
At the outset, Tiglao said the government would ensure that the gates of the provincial prison and the military training camps would be open to the mission. However, as the investigation progressed, not only was the mission denied entry to the jail, they were also not properly welcomed by the people they wanted to see at the military camp.
It was later revealed that the lack of cooperation from local military and government officials - so far removed from that promised by the President - was deliberate. In defending her subordinates' refusal to accommodate the mission,(3) President Arroyo eventually betrayed the insincerity of her government's earlier offer. It also cast in doubt the government's assurances of having "nothing to hide."
Moreover, while the mission was busy traveling around Basilan, the highest-ranking security official of the government, National Security Adviser Roilo Golez was also busy attacking the credibility of the mission members and conditioning the public into believing that the findings of the mission would be invalid because [they were] preconceived by the supposed biases of its organizers(4).
Golez described the mission members as "people of doubtful credentials" and "imported military bashers."(5) Decrying the mission as a "shameful act of foreign intervention in our internal affairs," Golez urged the immigration bureau to bar all entering foreigners whose only goal for visiting the country is to "find fault and destroy the image of the country."(6) The director of the joint training exercises with the US, Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, even wanted to have the mission members officially investigated(7).
All the while and even before the mission could release its findings, the national government and the military repeatedly said that no human rights violations have been or are being committed in Basilan. But as evidenced by its insincere offer to cooperate and its unrelenting attacks on the mission, this was not something that the government wanted the mission members to see for themselves.
Summary of Findings
In Basilan, security troops who escorted the mission members claimed to have intercepted reports that the governor's men were actually planning to abduct three of the mission members. The members of the mission had come at considerable risk to their lives, choosing to go around an island where an estimated 500 people, a number of whom were foreigners, had already been held as Abu Sayyaf hostages.
After traveling around and interviewing scores of local residents, the mission arrived at three main conclusions:
1. "GMA defends soldiers, says charges of human rights abuses an insult" by Rolando Fernandez, Vincent Cabreza and Julie Alipala Philippine Daily Inquirer March 24, 2002
2. "Int'l 'peace' mission blocked in Basilan" by Julie S. Alipala, Carlito Pablo, and Donna S. Cueto Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 24, 2002
3. "Peace mission 'raised more questions than answers'" by Donna S. Cueto and Carlito Pablo Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 27, 2002
4. "Int'l peace mission meddling in RP affairs: Golez" by Fe B. Zamora INQ7.net, March 26, 2002
5. "Golez hits foreign intervention" by Carlito Pablo Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 26, 2002.
6. "Gov't asked to probe peace mission in Basilan" by Lira Dalangin, INQ7.net, March 27, 2002