"Minda-where?" That was the least surprising response I got when I told folks about my trip to Mindanao this summer. Most surprising were the responses I received from those who knew that Mindanao is the largest and southernmost of the 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippines. When I went to get a visa at the Philippine consulate, just across from the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue, an older Filipino gentleman waiting in line behind me asked rather straightforwardly, "Are you afraid for your safety?" I would have easily dismissed his grave concern if the official behind the counter hadn't nodded his head in agreement, adding, "There are a lot of nice tourist sites in Manila. Why don't you go there instead?"
But I wasn't going to Manila, except to spend eight hours waiting for a connecting flight to Mindanao. Visiting tourist sites wasn't my purpose of travel--I was going to Mindanao for the very reasons that the U.S. State Department discourages Americans, "kidnappings, bombings, violence, and insurgent activity make travel hazardous in many areas." Making deadly human conflict sound like a severe weather alert, this travel warning, the highest the State Department can give, does little to tell Americans why there is conflict in Mindanao and what, if anything, is being done to end it.
That was why I was going. The U.S. Institute for Peace had given the Interfaith Youth Core, where I am the director of education and training, a field research grant to study how our interfaith approach to conflict resolution might be adapted for use in some of the world's conflict areas. My four-week trip to Mindanao last July and August gave me an utterly astonishing view of the paradoxical relationship between Mindanao and the United States. More significantly, it revealed an extraordinary group of young people who, with little support from their national government in Manila and little visibility outside the Philippines, are working hard to fulfill the promise of peace.
Throughout the Philippines, the mountainous tropical island of Mindanao is known as "The Land of Promise." Vegetarians who go there will think they've gone to heaven. Mindanaoans eat an unimaginable variety of fruits, some like the jackfruit, larger than a watermelon, others small and spiky like the rambutan. The island's rich volcanic soil has caused successive Philippine governments in Manila, as well as colonial occupiers, to encourage large numbers of migrants from the other islands to settle and farm the land. But despite the generous gifts of geography and climate, the promise of the good life so enthusiastically offered in Manila has gone largely unfulfilled. For Mindanao's natural diversity is surpassed only by its ethnic and religious diversity.
When Muslim missionaries came from what is today Malaysia and Indonesia in the 14th and 15th centuries, they encountered an indigenous population, known as "Lumad" and organized into tribes governed through extended family networks with headman or "datus" at the top. Reflecting the genius of Islam's adaptability, these missionaries established two sultanates within this existing social structure. The Spaniards were surely surprised to be facing yet another Muslim foe when they arrived about 100 years later. Expecting to repeat their dubious achievement of removing the Moors from Spain, they christened the local Muslim population "Moro." History, however, did not repeat itself. Successful Moro resistance forced the Spaniards to largely bypass Mindanao as they occupied the rest of the Philippines, converting the vast majority of the population to Catholicism.
Mindanao remained an isolated outpost of the declining Spanish Empire until the end of the 19th century, with both the Lumad and Moro increasingly marginalized by the Catholic settler majority. This changed abruptly in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. After a rapid victory, the United States refused to honor its promise of independence for the Philippines. Mindanao, along with the rest of the Philippines, suddenly became the focus of U.S. imperial ambitions. The period that followed demonstrated the extreme difficulties in suppressing a local armed movement of national liberation. The Philippine Insurrection, lasting until 1902, left a legacy that for the most part remains forgotten in the United States today. Echoing Vietnam 60 years later, it left more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers, 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 Filipino civilians dead.
The U.S. Army, fresh from its Indian Wars in the American West, fought a scorched earth campaign in Mindanao, still remembered locally as the Moro Wars. But U.S. policy was a paradoxical mix of brutality and benevolence. Army commanders such as John J. Pershing, who later in WWI would be lionized as Blackjack Pershing, built roads, hospitals and schools. Mindanao's double-edged experience of this period colors its special relationship with the United States today. During my first days in Zamboanga City, in the southwest of Mindanao, I discussed this relationship with two local university professors as we sat sipping coffee just off Plaza Pershing. One referred to the scene from Monty Python's The Life of Brian, where the People's Front of Judea compiles a list of its grievances against the Romans, except for good roads, safe streets and the aqueducts.
Despite eventual Philippine independence in 1946, Mindanaoans continue to acknowledge this special relationship with the United States. Each year, the many who are denied U.S. visas remain hopeful that one day they will immigrate. Those who actually make it here to study at colleges and universities or work in health care and other professions have become part of the second largest and fastest growing Asian immigrant community in the United States. Their success as new Americans produces even closer social and economic ties between this country and Mindanao.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most Americans remain ignorant of our ties to Mindanao. This would be merely unfortunate if it weren't for the fact that Mindanao is now one of the fronts in the U.S. war on terror. Indeed, since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has given considerable military and diplomatic support to the Philippine government in its counter-insurgency war against two local Islamist groups--the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, and Abu Sayyaf, one of al Qaeda's most aggressive affiliates in Southeast Asia. The relationship between these two organizations is murky and controversial. Nonetheless, most Mindanaoans with whom I spoke agreed that both organizations are outgrowths of the more secular Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, which first appeared in the early 1970s to fight for Mindanao independence from the Philippines. Today, it is one of the few Islamic national liberation movements to have successfully laid down its arms to peacefully govern the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, with grudging support from the Philippine government.
What is not murky is the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the south and west of the island, where the Philippine army is fighting both the MILF and Abu Sayyaf. And like U.S. counter-insurgency polices 100 years before, American support is perceived locally as a paradox. U.S. Special Forces units have operated in MILF territory since the summer of 2002. While training the Philippine army has been their official mission, there seems to be little doubt locally that they are conducting the military operations themselves. In Marawi City, known as the only Muslim city in Mindanao, I met with one of the founders of the MNLF, the unofficial minister for propaganda for the ARMM. He not only reiterated this position, but also forcefully added that the CIA was responsible for both creating and arming the MILF and Abu Sayyaf to defeat the MNLF.
These and other conspiracy theories abound throughout the island, despite the generally successful efforts of U.S. public diplomacy. In addition to the roads and clinics built by U.S. Special Forces and USAID, the State Department has reached out to local and regional peace groups working to sustain "Zones of Peace," where the Philippine army and the MILF have negotiated cease-fire agreements. For the last three years, it has funded a project at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb that brings groups of Christian, Muslim and Lumad university students and their adult advisors to the Midwest every April to develop their skills in interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution and community service. Upon returning they implement action plans to create and sustain the promise of peace in their own communities.
The opportunity to observe these young people in action in their own communities after working with them here in Chicago dispelled any of my notions concerning the intractability of Mindanao's conflict. These people are impressive in that they combine an infectious enthusiasm with a hard-won realism. They come from communities caught directly in the crossfire. Many have been evacuated from their neighborhoods and villages or, worse, have lost family members. Clearly, they are the best and brightest of Mindanao's emerging generation of leaders. Their work is one important way Mindanao can truly become the Land of Promise.
Published: October 01, 2005
Issue: November 2005