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.
All Quiet on the 'Second Front'
BASILAN, like many other places in the Philippines, is a province of paradox. It is at once rich and poor and at once violent and serene. Basilan is so endowed with natural resources that no less than four colonial powers - the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and the Americans - set their desiring eyes on it over the course of four centuries. The climate is benign, the land lush, the forests thick, and the surrounding seas teeming with marine life.
Yet, despite this, Basilan is also among a poor country's poorest provinces, where all indicators of living standards fall below the national average. In this island, vast uninterrupted swathes of tall, swaying trees mask the violence of warfare and poverty beneath. A pervasive silence mutes the gunfire and the hunger pangs.
Basilan is located on the western part of Mindanao, one of three major island groupings in the Philippine archipelago. It is about 880 kilometers south of Manila, almost two hours by airplane from the capital and another hour by ferry from Zamboanga City on the southwestern tip of the Mindanao mainland. With a land area of 1,279 sq km or 494 sq miles, Basilan is just the size of Los Angeles City. The population, as of the year 2000, was 332,828.
The Yakans, originally from Papua New Guinea, were the island's first inhabitants followed by the Muslim Tausugs from the Sulu province, the Zamboangueños from the Mindanao mainland, the Samal-Bajau sea gypsies, the Cebuano-speaking and mostly Christian Visayans, then the Tagalogs from faraway Luzon.
In the 14th century, sultans from neighboring Borneo invaded the island and converted the natives to Islam. In 1637, during the earliest phase of their 300-year colonization of the Philippines, the Spaniards already attempted to exploit Basilan's resources by driving away the legendary Sultan Kudarat. The following century, the Dutch tried to possess the island but were repelled by the locals.
A century after, it was the turn of the French to be enchanted. A French admiral became enamored with Basilan, calling it his "Bosphorus," and did everything he could to annex the island. The French Cabinet already ruled in favor of the admiral's proposition but unfortunately for him, the King of France decided against it. When the Americans came, they set out to establish vast rubber plantations and agricultural estates. Among these was what will later become the American multinational tire giant Sime-Darby Corporation.
The wonder of it is that despite Basilan's natural wealth, the province is the fourth poorest among the 77 provinces of the Philippines. Its human development index, a composite measure of its income, life expectancy, and literacy rates, is the 5th worst in the Philippines, better only compared to four other neighboring Muslim provinces.(1) While the average literacy rate for the entire Philippines is a relatively impressive 93.5%, Basilan's is one-third below that at 66%. Out of every four families in Basilan, three do not have access to health facilities and to potable water. Out of ten families, six live below the poverty threshold.(2) Of these families, most are likely to be the Muslims. In Basilan, while 71% of the population are Muslims, Christians own 75% of the land and the ethnic Chinese control 75% of the trade.(3)
The ownership of land here has continued to be a most fractious point of contention. The agrarian reform program may have wrested control of land away from the multinational corporations only to put it into the hands of the Visayan settlers instead of into the Muslims who have stayed here longer. But while the disputes between Muslims and Christians are real, usually for reasons more economic than religious, these outer more evident conflicts tend to obscure inter-tribal and inter-family feuds among Muslims themselves.
Because Basilan has been the theater of various wars and battles, Glenda Gloria and Marites Dañguilan-Vitug, journalists who have long covered the island, have referred to it as "Mindanao's best war laboratory." It is a place where "local rulers compete for legitimacy with armed rebel groups, bandits, Muslim preachers, Catholic volunteers, loggers legal and illegal, the Marines, the Army." In the 1970s, the island became one of the flashpoints of the Muslim secessionist war. In the 1990's it became the headquarters and preferred hideout of the Abu Sayyaf group.
Basilan, as a historian described it, is "a netherworld intermittently lit by the fires of war between families, between tribes, between natives and colonialists, and between people and government."
1. "Philippine Human Development Report 2000" in http://www.hdn.org.ph/phdr20tab411.htm
2. National Statistics Office, Selected Poverty Indicators of the Bottom 40% (Ranking of Provinces) based on the 1998 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey (APIS)
3. Jose Torres, Jr. Into the Mountain: hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 2001), 169.