Bombings in the Land of Promise

“We ask the evacuees to leave the classrooms during the day and for them to find refuge in the nearby fields, while we let the children, our students to get into the classroom so that we then hold our classes during the day. When classes are over in the afternoon, the evacuees again can come in and use the classrooms for their shelter at night.” This has been reported by Aida Mangagsakan, Principal of one elementary school in Pikit, North Cotabato last August 2013. At least 436 families from five villages have been displaced due to fighting between the government forces and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the remote villages of this town.

Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of the Roman Catholic Church, had just read his Sunday’s homily in July of 2009, when an explosion set off a pandemonium of the jam-packed cathedral of Immaculate Concepcion in Cotabato leaving 5 dead and several others severely wounded. The bombing occurred only 14 hours after an explosion rocked another town hall in the province of Maguindanao nearby, wounding three civilians. Bombing incidents in the province of No. Cotabato are not an unusual occurrence. Two other bombing incidents took place in the Province of No. Cotabato in 2013. One on Sept. 12 in Pikit Town and another in Kabacan Town, in Kidapawan on October 21. In 2014 more bombing incidents were reported on January 13 in Arakan and on Feb. 26 in Kabacan Town.

On October 7, 2014 as a Wednesday Prayer Meeting was ending at a local United Church of Christ church, a grenade exploded inside the church, immediately killing 2 church members and wounding several others. After a few days, another church member died in the hospital, leaving a total of 3 local members dead from the blast. According to the local church pastor, the Rev. Jerry Sanchez, ”We condemn this act. I have no idea why our church was attacked.” In a recent interview with the South East Mindanao Jurisdiction, United Church of Christ – Philippines (UCCP), Bishop Hameul Tequis, he reported that according to the local police, “they are still investigating on all the possible angles.” He added that the community has strong interfaith organizations that are working for peace in the community. Their Muslim partners have condemned the bomb attack saying that “It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.”

So far a sketchy military report said that the explosive used by the unidentified attackers may have been fired from an improvised 40 mm rocket-propelling pipe. There were 2 motorcycles seen leaving the area immediately after the bombing, with 2 men riding in tandem on one and 3 men on the other. There are theories and speculations but no concrete proof as of yet as to the reasons for the bombings, according to UCCP Bishop Reuel Marigza who headed to the location of the incident right away and was in consultation with the local authorities. He has then urged, for all those working for justice and peace in the area, that as the church is condemning this attack in the strongest possible term, he is calling for ecumenical and inter-faith partners to continue to rally for unity and justice and peace in the land. He also encouraged the authorities to speed up the process of their investigation and to leave no stone unturned to bring the perpetrators to account for their crimes.

The bombing of a UCCP church in Pikit, No. Cotabato is not an isolated case in the so-called “Land of Promise,” which is Mindanao. In order to understand the context it is important to go back to its historical context (which we do not have time here). The situation in Mindanao is not only complex and complicated but it is replete with players on many levels. There are native indigenous communities here who mostly have been pushed deeper and deeper into the mountains. Then there is the Muslim population who arrived before the Spaniards came to colonize The Islands and who are now vying for independence and/or autonomy.  There is also the Christian population who are mostly more recent settlers who were encouraged by the government to “go and till the empty vastness of Mindanao” and who now mostly run the local governments and have titles to their land. This is a land very rich in natural resources, in fact No. Cotabato is called the “Food Basket” of Mindanao. But the most important players in the field right now are the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the New People’s Army (NPA), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and the Philippine military. In addition, there is the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic separatist group involved in criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking. For years there have been armed conflicts between the Philippine government and various Muslim separatist groups. MNLF wants total independence. MILF agrees to work with the government as long as they are given the opportunity for self-determination. Finally after 15 years of hard work, the Bangsamoro Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed on March 27, 2014 between the MILF and the Philippine Government. Herein lies the mixed feelings and reactions of many peoples in Mindanao. That is why the story does not end here.

The U.S. government is complicit with what is happening in this part of the world. In the war against so-called global terrorism, the U.S sends millions of dollars as military aid to the Philippines in order to fight these wars, not withstanding that thousands of innocent civilians are deemed collateral damage. U.S. forces are also present in some parts of Mindanao because of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries which was signed into force on May 27, 1999.

Another significant piece to the context in this particular area of Mindanao is the Liguasan Marsh, which spans 543,631 acres and lies along the provinces of No. Cotabato and Maguindanao. The Moro people have been claiming this as part of their ancestral domain. Being the country’s largest wetland, it holds a huge reservoir of natural gas that once explored will amount to $580 billion business profit. The Marsh is connected to Rio Grande de Mindanao, the 2nd largest river system in the Philippines. As the river emerges onto the Cotabato plains, it deposits fertile mountain silts into Cotabato River Basin finally emptying into the Moro Gulf, with Cotabato City at its mouth. There are speculations that the current fear and terror sowed in these parts of Mindanao is very much part of the struggle to achieve “peace” in the Moroland so that eventually the resources in the Liguasan Marsh can be explored. But for whom? That is the question.

… from Josephine A. Fernandez, Member, Global Partnerships Team