Mindanao Muslims attacked during the Christians' season of peace and goodwill

By Robert M. Alonto in Cotabato City, Mindanao.

Representatives of the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Islamic movement waging jihad for independence in Mindanao, the Muslim area of the Philippines, resumed peace talks on January 19 even though the previous few weeks had seen intense fighting after government troops broke a ceasefire agreement. The talks are expected to last some months. Both sides have pledged to reach an agreement by the end of June, but Ustadz Hashim Salamat, leader of the MILF, has said repeatedly that the Muslims will expect nothing short of complete independence.

In the Philippines, which Filipinos boast is the only Christian nation in Asia, the celebration of Christmas is always the biggest event of the year. Devotional acts are interspersed with bacchanalian revelry and other practices that have nothing to do with Christ. But if one is amazed at the incongruity of such practices, one is even more horrified by the hypocrisy of state policy towards non-Christians, specifically the Bangsamoro Muslims in Mindanao. Christian churches in the Philippines are in unanimity with the Philippine government - which boasts of being Christian, democratic and secular - that the message of Christmas is "peace and goodwill to all men on earth".

But, this "spirit of peace" ends here. It does not apply to the country's 7 million Muslims. Last year's Christmas - which also ushered in the so-called new millennium - coincided with Ramadan. So while the Christians in the Philippines feasted with gusto, the Muslims fasted and prayed in keeping with one of Islam's most important pillars. In their own ways, the Christian and Muslim communities could have observed peace in keeping with their respective religious observances. But this was not to be.

On December 16, 1999 - the day when the "spirit of peace" was supposed to descend upon Christendom - the Philippine government, in gross violation of a standing bilateral ceasefire agreement, as well as the Muslims' refraining from fighting during Ramadan, launched military offensives against Muslims of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Muslim communities fasting in the towns of Keterman, Upper Sawmill, Bagan, and Talayan, all in the province of Maguindanao. One mujahid was martyred and many Muslim civilians had to flee their homes. This was followed by a similar aggression in the neighboring Muslim community of Legendang, Isulan, in neighboring Sultan Kudarat province. There, the military destroyed the crops and homes of Muslim farmers, and cut down all banana and paper trees owned by Muslims. The Muslims of the region are now dispersed in squalid evacuation areas.

The military offensive continued even on Christmas day, December 25. Filipino troops continuously pounded MILF positions, as well as Muslim communities in the Shariff Aguak area, with M-79 grenade launchers, .50 caliber machine guns and mortar fire. While Filipino soldiers listened to radios playing the Christmas song 'Silent Night, Holy Night', and Christmas messages from President Joseph Estrada and the Church, all proclaiming "peace, love and goodwill to men", their firing continued without a break. The MILF, meanwhile, tried to fight merely defensive actions, keeping in mind the sanctity of Ramadan. The offensive ceased briefly on December 30, a national holiday.

But the Philippine government's contempt for Islam and the Muslims, and its hypocritical adherence to "peace", were demonstrated at the end of Ramadan. Early on the morning of Saturday, January 8, as the Muslims celebrated Eid ul-Fitr, government forces launched massive military offensives against the Muslims in Central Mindanao, particularly in Maguindanao province and North Cotabato Province. Several Muslim communities in the affected areas were prevented from holding the Eid prayers, such as those in the municipalities of Shariff Aguak and Kabuntalan, Maguindanao province, and the municipality of Carmen in North Cotabato province. This time, with the end of Ramadan, the MILF did not take things sitting down.

In the afternoon of Shawwal 1 (January 8), while the Eid was being celebrated in other Muslim communities still untouched by the offensive, the Bangsamoro mujahideen engaged two infantry battalions of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Shariff Aguak municipality. The troops' objective was to capture the MILF's main camp in the area, Camp Omar. After several hours of fighting, 2 mujahideen were martyred and 3 were wounded; the Filipino troops suffered scores of dead and wounded. At 10:00pm on the same day, the mujahideen ambushed an enemy reinforcement, destroying an army truck, killing 7 soldiers and seriously wounding scores of others. There was no casualty on the MILF side. Meanwhile, as fighting was going on, AFP troops were being widely deployed en masse in strategic areas covering the provinces of North Cotabato and Lanao del Sur, prompting the mujahideen forces in these areas to launch counter-measures.

At 5:00am of January 9, the mujahideen launched actions against military detachments in Shariff Aguak, Datu Piang, Talayan and Ampatuan towns, all in Maguindanao province. A platoon-size unit of mujahideen also captured a portion of the 200 kilometre national highway that serves as a vital road artery connecting Cotabato City in Central Mindanao to General Santos City in Southern Mindanao. This cut off the AFP's supply route from the south to its embattled forces in the north. A mujahideen assault was also launched against advancing Filipino ground troops threatening Camp Omar, covering the villages of Limpongo and Shatan, and the military detachments Maitumaig in Shariff Aguak, and Kabingi and Upper Salbo in Datu Piang as well as those in Macasampen and Pansol in Talayan. The mujahideen captured the military detachments in Maitumaig and Kabingi.

Meantime, 100km further north, troops supported by police forces (PNP) and government militias (CAFGU) advanced towards Camp Uthman Bin Affan, the MILF's camp in the area and one of the camps recognized as MILF territory by the Philippine government in its initial agreement with the mujahideen as precondition for the holding of the peace negotiation. They bombarded the camp until sunset. The MILF took up defensive positions to protect the camp, and fierce skirmishes and sniping occured.

By January 10, full-scale warfare had developed in the war-torn areas of Maguindanao Province. The mujahideen engaged four infantry battalions (IB), as well as police forces and militias who were not trained for heavy combat but were thrown into the fray nevertheless. These ground troops were supported by Simba tanks, howitzers, mortars, OV-10 warplanes and three gunship helicopters. Casualties on both sides are still undetermined at this time, but mujahideen sources say they are massive.

Also in Maguinadanao province, heavy fighting began on January 10 between the mujahideen and government forces in the villages of Macasampen, Matalam, Pansol and Bagan in Talayan municipality which lasted until January 12. On the first day, some 40 mujahideen captured and occupied the government town hall of Talayan, which was being utilized by government forces as their field headquarters in their military offensive against the MILF's Camp Badr and Camp Omar and surrounding areas.

It was now that the mujahideen stopped a convoy of journalists and a UN vehicle in the Cotabato City-General Santos highway. They were trying to visit the warfront and take photos of the mujahideen, which the mujahideen refused to permit for security reasons. It is not unusual for government intelligence agents to pose as journalists or UN workers. So the mujahideen forcibly confiscated their cameras and video equipment and sent them safely back to Cotabato City. The confiscated equipment was later returned, but that did not prevent the national press from accusing the mujahideen of holding the journalists and UN personnel hostage.

This incident also provided an opportunity for Filipino president Joseph Estrada - a former actor - to appear on television to play on the patriotic and Christian sentiment of the Filipinos by threatening the MILF and the Muslims with extinction if they do not stop their "secessionist" attempt to destroy the unity and national sovereignty of the country.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued and was now affecting the three provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. By this stage, the government was bringing large numbers of new troops into the area, including areas such as the Malabang-Marawi City Highway in the Province of Lanao del Sur, where there are Muslim communities. This strategy threatened to extend the war to these unaffected areas as the MILF and the Muslims prepared for the possibility of attacks on the Muslim communities.

One short but bloody gun battle between the mujahideen and government troops occurred in the village of Dinguan, M'lang municipality, North Cotabato. Three government soldiers were killed and three were wounded. The eruption of hostilities in this area, however, threatened to spill over to the Davao provinces in the southeastern regions of Mindanao, previously unaffected by the war. This the government did not want to happen as it ran contrary to their calculated policy of containing the war in designated areas well within the Muslim regions of central and south-western Mindanao.

With this apprehension, the government hastened the emplacement of yet another ceasefire between the MILF and the Philippine government. The Peace Panels were reactivated and set to work. On January 12 representatives of both the MILF and the government sat down for talks. A truce was hammered out, and both protagonists agreed to effect a ceasefire in all fronts at 6:00pm of the same day. A twelve hour allowance, however, was given for this information to reach the combatants on both sides, and the ceasefire came into effect at 6:00am the following day.

Having totally ignored the last ceasefire - which had been due to last until the end of 1999 - Estrada now gave the MILF until June 2000 to "make them feel, make them realize that there is only one government and one Armed Forces of the Philippines". He also warned the mujahideen that they would face the same fate as the Chechens if they did not surrender. Asked whether the government is prepared to wage an all-out war should the ultimatum expire on June, Estrada went sober for a moment and cautiously said "If the need arises".

President Estrada's tough-talking ultimatum was echoed by his Armed Forces Chief, General Angelo Reyes, who specifically said that no repetition of the January 10 occupation of the Talayan town hall by the mujahideen would be permitted. This was widely seen as intended to save face after the Philippine military's defeat in that incident.

Ustadz Salamat Hashim, leader of the Bangsamoro Islamic movement, retorted that the Muslims are more than eager than Estrada and his cohorts to forge a peace agreement as soon as possible. The mujahideen reminded the Estrada regime that in the prolongation of the war it is the Bangsamoro people that suffer the most, and not the Filipino president and his generals who are safe and secure in their airconditioned rooms a thousand kilometres away from the nearest war zone in Mindanao.

The latest round of fighting in Mindanao has displaced about seven thousand Muslim families, and the destruction in terms of both lives and properties is incalculable. But, the mujahideen emphasized, any peace agreement on Mindanao has to be forged on the basis of justice, and justice dictates that the Bangsamoro people's demand for freedom, independence and Islamic State has to be respected, recognized and accepted by any Filipino regime in Manila and the international community. Anything short of this makes any peace agreement an impossibility. This sets the tone for the official resumption of peace talks between the MILF and the government on January 17.

Meanwhile, the tension caused by the latest round of fighting remains as an uneasy peace sets in. In Christian homes, the vestiges of Christmas are sadly tucked away or consigned to the garbage can. For the ordinary Christian Filipino, it is back to the harsh reality of life after the brief period of make-believe "joy and peace" that the yuletide season brings. Once again, the back-breaking ritual of making ends meet in a dog-eat-dog society begins while one dreams of another 'white Christmas'.

But for Muslims, what are being tucked away are the remnants of a family heirloom saved burnt out home, or perhaps the charred photos of a relative incinerated in an bomb or shell. And the dream? To live in peace and the freedom to worship Allah properly in a land that has never known such things since the Europeans came with their rampaging armies four hundred years ago.

Muslimedia: February 1-15, 2000