Philippines: Casualties Of War In Mindanao


Professor Mark Turner

While hostage negotiations between government and Abu Sayyaf drag on in Basilan and Sulu and the military continues its offensive against the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) in Maguindanao, business and economic leaders in Mindanao are trying to gain investor confidence. Representatives of 42 chambers of commerce and corporations in Mindanao chose the Sabah International Expo, 12-15 May, as the venue to explain that fighting in Mindanao was restricted to particular areas and that many excellent business opportunities were still available.

But the message is difficult to sell as the armed conflicts between Muslim guerilla forces and government in Mindanao continues to exact a rising economic and human toll. The fighting has abated in some areas such as in the province of Lanao del Norte where hostilities between MILF and government first broke out in March. But in May, bombs started to explode in urban centres reminiscent of diversionary tactics used in the 1970s. The latest bombings in Jolo and Zamboanga City on 18 May resulted in five dead and 50 wounded. A new force of 300 alleged MILF guerillas also attacked government troops in Lantawan in Basilan to distract them from pursuit of hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf.

During this year's conflicts in Mindanao over 300,000 persons have been displaced. Although the number of evacuees had declined by mid-May they still numbered 230,000. Despite government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) spending 23.2 million pesos on evacuation centres, shortages of food, water and medicine remained. It was estimated that over 36,000 children and adults were suffering from ailments such as respiratory infections and diarrhoea. Psychological problems also continue to mount as the displaced try to come to terms with their situation and combatants experience the shock of seeing their comrades die or get injured.

Agricultural production is also under threat. The agriculture department is worried about shortfalls in food production. The area affected by MILF-government hostilities is the 'rice and corn bowl of Mindanao' and 12,500 hectares of productive land have been affected. Losses on corn production could amount to 60,000 metric tons, and up to 30 per cent of the national output might be lost. Rice planting commences in May but if farmers are fearful of returning to their land then there will be no replanting. As usual it will be the poor who suffer most. It is their livelihoods that are most disrupted. They suffer the losses of crops and property. They are being forced to sell their livestock at low prices to make ends meet. It is their children who miss schooling.

Even in the cities fear of bombing keeps people off the street thus reducing the incomes of small stallholders. Although 81 government soldiers have been killed and 468 wounded in the latest outburst of hostilities in Mindanao it is the civilians who are the major casualties. Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato City summed it up when he noted that because of 'broken agreements' between Muslim and government forces it is the civilians who 'suffer the anguish of displacement, the insecurity of food, the trauma of man-made fear, the terrible anxiety of the future. And all because every group seeks a military solution to the problem'.

WATCHPOINT: Short of a military solution, how can worse suffering be avoided for the poor in the Southern Philippines?


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