Farm­ers plough in fear of vi­o­lent MILF at­tacks in Philip­pine killing fields

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY JOEL GUINTO

Farmer Lot Pan­gaoilan gazes to­wards a vast corn­field in the Philip­pines’ rebel-in­fested south, hop­ing that one day he will be able to farm his land with­out fear of be­ing killed.

For two decades, he has been plough­ing his three- hectare (7.4-acre) land by hand and with the help of a wa­ter buf­falo, wor­ried that if he uses a heavy mo­tor trac­tor he might det­o­nate an ex­plo­sive.

“If I’m not care­ful, I might hit a bomb ... it could ex­plode and I might die,” Pan­gaoilan, whose leath­ery skin, cloudy eyes and thin frame make him look much older than his 50 years, told AFP.

Two months ago, the farmer’s marsh­land vil­lage of Tukanali­pao was the site of a day-long battle be­tween Mus­lim mil­i­tants and po­lice that left more than 60 peo­ple dead as se­cu­rity forces hunted down al­leged top ter­ror­ists.

The lat­est car­nage has se­ri­ously jeop­ar­dized ef­forts to end a four­decade Mus­lim sep­a­ratist re­bel­lion that has claimed 120,000 lives, dim­ming hopes again that peo­ple such as Pan­gaoilan will be able to pros­per in peace.

The na­tion’s big­gest rebel group, the Moro Is­lamic Lib­er­a­tion Front (MILF), signed a pact last year agree­ing to give up its strug­gle in re­turn for an au­ton­o­mous home­land in the im­pov­er­ished south­ern re­gion of Min­danao.

But the Jan. 25 battle in Pan­gaoilan’s vil­lage — in which 44 po­lice com­man­does, 17 rebels and at least three civil­ians died — trig­gered a huge po­lit­i­cal back­lash that threat­ens the pas­sage of a pro­posed na­tional law en­dors­ing the au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Deep Poverty

The new re­gion would take in large parts of Min­danao, which the na­tion’s Mus­lim mi­nor­ity of roughly 5 mil­lion peo­ple re­gard as their an­ces­tral home­land, in­clud­ing Pan­gaoilan’s vil­lage.

De­spite fer­tile farm­ing lands, vast min­eral re­sources and idyl­lic beaches ripe for tourism, the re­gion is the poor­est in the coun­try with nearly half of the pop­u­la­tion living in poverty, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment data.

Tukanali­pao, with no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter, is a typ­i­cally im­pov­er­ished Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Min­danao.

Its 1,600 res­i­dents live in palm thatch houses on wooden stilts, with corn and rice farm­ing their only source of regular in­come.

Pan­gaoilan has six chil­dren but he was not able to af­ford to send them to school.

Mil­i­tary chiefs say vil­lages like his make good re­cruit­ing grounds for the MILF, which has about 10,000 fighters, and other rebel groups.

In a typ­i­cal cy­cle of vi­o­lence and poverty that builds re­sent­ment, a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive launched af­ter the Jan­uary battle against a small break­away rebel group op­posed to the peace process dis­placed 120,000 peo­ple.

Two dis­place­ment camps with tar­pau­lin tents lie on a road close to Tukanali­pao, although the mil­i­tary last week de­clared the of­fen­sive over and hopes the dis­placed peo­ple will soon re­turn home.

Corn farmer Haji Maul said he had been in an out of evac­u­a­tion shel­ters three times dur­ing the of­fen­sive to es­cape bursts of fight­ing near Tukanali­pao, but this was not un­usual.

“It has been a very dif­fi­cult life for me and my fam­ily,” Maul, 60, told AFP, as troops wear­ing hel­mets and with their ri­fles pointed to the ground pa­trolled the parched earth, along­side wa­ter buf­faloes, chick­ens and dogs.

Build­ing Peace

As part of its ef­forts to pro­mote the peace process, Pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­creased an­nual in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing on the re­gion from 8 bil­lion pe­sos (US$179 mil­lion) in 2010 to 24 bil­lion pe­sos this year.

In Tukanali­pao, a sore lack of in­fra­struc­ture is sym­bol­ized by a rick­ety patch­work of logs that its res­i­dents use to cross a stream and get to their farm­lands.

When the stream over­flows dur­ing the rainy sea­son, work stops as farm­ers can not get their an­i­mals across be­cause the im­pro­vised bridge might fall apart, ac­cord­ing to Pan­gaoilan.

This week the gov­ern­ment broke ground on a con­crete and steel bridge to re­place the wooden struc­ture.

Tukanali­pao and the sur­round­ing town­ship of Ma­mas­apano has be­come a “rep­re­sen­ta­tion” of the Mus­lim re­gion, Bud­get Sec­re­tary Floren­cio Abad told AFP as he guided jour­nal­ists through the area to wit­ness the in­au­gu­ra­tion.

“Our pres­ence here to­day and th­ese sym­bolic projects are meant to de­liver a mes­sage that poverty is the root cause of con­flict and that we are sin­cere in pur­su­ing peace,” Abad said as he stood along­side sup­port­ive MILF lead­ers.

The sym­bolic im­pact was deep­ened by build­ing the new bridge in the same area as the deadly battle two months ago, show­ing the gov­ern­ment and the MILF re­mained part­ners in peace even in the most volatile of ar­eas.

“One of the re­quire­ments

of build­ing peace is devel­op­ment, we need devel­op­ment,” MILF army spokesman Von Al Haq said in a speech at the in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony.

But with­out a fi­nal peace pact, in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing ap­pears des­tined to of­fer only small band aid so­lu­tions.

AFP

This photo taken on Tues­day, March 31 shows peo­ple eat­ing their lunch in­side a school turned into a tem­po­rary evac­u­a­tion cen­ter in Shar­iff Say­dona Mustapha, Maguin­danao Prov­ince, South­ern Philip­pines.

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