FEATURE-Philippine Muslim Mindanao left hungry for self-rule - Reuters
- FEATURE-Philippine Muslim Mindanao left hungry for
14 Oct 2004 01:35:46 GMT
By Stuart Grudgings
COTABATO CITY, Philippines, Oct 14 (Reuters) - For 15
years, Hadja Bainon Karon fought in the southern
Philippine jungle for a Muslim homeland, losing five
brothers and a husband in the conflict.
Now she sits at a desk under a portrait of a smiling
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and wonders if she
should have ever come out.
"I really cried," said Bainon Karon, now the social
welfare secretary for the Autonomous Region in Muslim
Mindanao (ARMM), recalling her decision to give up the
"I knew that when you are in politics, your image will
be destroyed, will be very negative."
Her tears proved prophetic for the ARMM, born out of a
1996 peace agreement with the government that failed
to stop the fighting or produce real autonomy for
Mindanao island's 5 million Muslims.
Eight years after it was created, covering four
provinces, ARMM's credibility has been shattered by
its inability to change the region's status as the
country's poorest place despite millions of dollars
poured in by foreign aid donors.
Poverty incidence is twice as high as in the rest of
the Philippines; people's lives on average 10 years
ARMM officials, most of them former fighters with the
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), blame Manila
for not fully implementing the peace deal and starving
it of funds. Corruption in its ranks, especially in
its first few years, is also to blame.
AUTONOMY A DIRTY WORD
Whoever's fault it is, "autonomy" has become a dirty
word in the region's mosques.
"They are not Muslims," said Cotabato City resident
Yusuf Pajiji after Friday prayers, gesturing towards
nearby ARMM buildings.
"If you are corrupt, you are not a Muslim."
That kind of anger has helped sustain the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF), whose 12,000 fighters kept up
the fight after 1996.
Their suspected links with foreign militants are
shrugged off by Pajiji and others gathered outside the
mosque as just another example of the Philippine
government and military trying to stir up trouble.
But with a 15-month-old ceasefire holding and the MILF
set to resume formal peace talks with the government
after a three-year break, Muslims are daring to think
of a better future.
"The MILF has been studying everything that went wrong
with the MNLF -- they were never actually ready for
government," said one local development official.
Still, finding a new solution that does not upset
Mindanao's delicate ethnic, religious and tribal
balance won't be easy.
No one is quite sure how strictly the MILF, some of
whose members fought side-by-side with radical Arab
fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, would seek to
impose Islamic laws and customs.
Jamael Romampat, the mosque's imam, said he thought
about 20 percent of Cotabato City's Christian
population would leave if it came under the control of
a new Muslim authority.
The city, about evenly split between Muslims and
Christians, was left out of the ARMM but is seen by
the MILF as an integral part of a Muslim homeland in
the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines.
That does not go down well with some Christians, who
have been settling in Mindanao since Spanish colonial
times several centuries ago and see the island as
"I grew up here and could see even when young that
there is no development in any Muslim area," said
Luis, a Christian who works as a driver.
"It would be a problem. We are going to arm
Others see little chance of religious tension in a
city where the sound of church bells mingles easily
with muezzins' calls to prayer.
"I wouldn't say it's going to be strict but it's going
to be correct," said Abas Candao, head of the
Bangsamoro Development Agency, set up by the MILF to
work on development projects.
"It's going to be something that even Christians will
be comfortable living in."
The MILF also needs to tread carefully to ensure the
MNLF does not feel left out in the cold by a new peace
The MNLF may have joined politics, but it kept its
Listening to an increasingly passionate Bainon Karon
reel off a list of ARMM problems -- underfunding,
double-dealing by donors and national ministries, lack
of decision-making ability -- it is not hard to
imagine her returning to war.
The slightly-built woman, 52, once took a bullet in
the leg during a battle with the military.
For now, though, she remains patient.
"They say the ARMM is created to fail," she said. "But
for us, we are hoping that later on the national
government would fulfil their promises, because we are
not happy with what is going on now."
More about Muslims and Islam in Philippines at:
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