Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Philippines: "Waging Peace" in Sulu

Big development effort seen as crucial to winning hearts and minds on lawless, militant island.
By Vincent Sawabi

I know the government sometimes forgets us, but Malacanang (the presidential palace) cannot give up Sulu easily because we are an asset to them,” said Jolo mayor Hussin Amin, referring to his island’s bountiful fishing grounds and supplies of exotic fruits.

He was speaking in late May as the United Tausug Citizens for the Sultanate of Sulu organised a their latest rally through the town demanding a return to the past when the island was part of an independent Muslim state.

The marchers carried colourful pro-independence flags as well as banners calling for both the Philippine army and their American military advisers to leave.

“We are asking for total independence for the people of Sulu,” said Asari Jurani, a leading spokesman for the group, which rejects any association with the Philippines. “We are tired of waiting for the government to address our problems.”

“I appreciate their sentiments,” said the mayor. “But first we have to know the consequences of this [independence] idea before deciding what to do. Most people here in Sulu don’t agree with them. I don’t want to be a traitor to the government. We already have a peace agreement which granted us autonomy – we just have to implement it.”

The mayor says the group is only 100 strong while the protesters argue they have many more supporters. Whatever the truth, they marched peacefully through Jolo as soldiers from the third marine brigade watched on quietly from their flatbed trucks.

“We have come here to call for our sovereignty and be recognised as Tausug and not Filipino citizens. But we are also here to show we are anti-war and anti-terror,” said Jurani.

The town has only just been declared a “peace zone” by the mayor as part of what appears to be something of a coordinated effort to reverse the island’s fortunes.

To most Filipinos – journalists included – the island of Sulu conjures up images of conflict, terrorism and general lawlessness, understandable perhaps given the provincial government here itself lists gunshot wounds as the leading cause of death.

There are an estimated 100,000 guns in circulation in Sulu, according to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based monitoring group working on the island. Two local laws have just been passed outlawing the carrying or possession of unlicensed weapons.

The gun culture of the ethnic Tausug Muslims, comprising 97 per cent of the local population, dates back generations but is now being challenged by a range of initiatives aimed at helping to rid the island of its dangerous reputation, delivering peace and economic development in its place.

The island’s reputation may have been determined in part by its geographical location. Though part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, ARMM, Sulu is as far by boat to Zamboanga City, the most westerly tip of Mindanao, as it is to Malaysia – a fact that might go some way to help explain the local political and military situation.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP, are here as are the Moro National Liberation Front, MNLF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf Group, the terrorist organisation linked to both the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah and the wider al-Qaeda network.

So too are an estimated 500 US special advisers who first arrived on the island after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom to work alongside local marines in taking on Abu Sayyaf whose strength is widely believed to be severely depleted but who remain prime suspects in a spate of recent bombings in Zamboanga – the latest of which killed two and injured 18 outside a military airbase on May 29.

One of the targets in Zamboanga was the Catholic Church and yet religious leaders of both the Muslim majority and tiny Christian community here insist relations between the two are very good.

Father Romeo Villanueva, director of Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation Network and a Sulu resident for almost nine years, believes Muslims and Christians live together “in friendship and harmony”.

Jakaria Rajik, a 38-year-old Islamic teacher, agrees, pointing out that the majority of students attending the local Notre Dame school, which is run by a priest, are Muslims. Both communities, he says, are beneficiaries of Church-led projects such as housing, education, social development and health programming.

He instead criticises the tradition of local politicians who champion and fund pet projects which are often abandoned when they fail to get re-elected. The priority, he says, should be key programmes which focus on important livelihood issues, around jobs in farming and fishing.

Investment in Sulu from overseas focuses mostly on infrastructure and is being led by the US which is funding the upgrade of Jolo’s airport to allow in bigger planes. Costing an estimated three million US dollars, the work is to be finished later this year. Meanwhile, according to Luzviminda Alih of the Sulu Bureau of Customs, extra effort is being made to attract investment and trade via the sea.

“The fact that four foreign ships are now coming here to buy and transport copra is a sign that the economy here is getting better,” she said.

Father Villanueva too believes things are slowly changing. Local government officials, he says, “are more concerned with the needs and interests of the people’’. Moreover, he says, life in Sulu is “now improving” because of collaboration between the provincial government and civil society.

Much attention appears focused on education. The US-based non-governmental organisation Asia America Initiative, which has “Waging Peace” as its motto, has been working alongside the Sulu Department of Education to adopt, help equip and renovate schools on the island for the past four years. The group also provides scholarships to local children and helps to supply Sulu’s provincial hospital.

The Philippine Union Bank, meanwhile, sends in trainers to help improve the skills of local teachers. Trainer Mards Baro works with the teachers in the municipality of Patikul – home to 30 barangays (villages) and thousands of children.

“It is the gift of the bank to try and promote peace through education,” she said. “We are working in partnership with the Philippine marines and the Sulu government, hoping we can make some difference to the lives of the children here.”

The involvement of the military may unnerve and surprise some, but marine brigade commander Colonel Natalio Ecarma is unapologetic and spoke strongly in favour of his men’s work in local education at a seminar with Patikul teachers and later during a radio interview broadcast across the island.

“Our job is not simply focusing on maintaining peace and in running after the lawless elements,” he said, “but also to help the people of Sulu through community development programming.

“The way to achieve peace in Sulu is not through war, but by means of development and facilitating teacher training to deliver quality education, so children will focus all their effort on learning and becoming the future of Sulu.”

On May 20, the third marine brigade delivered more than 2,000 text books under the Asia Foundation’s “Books for Asia” programme to the Patikul National High School.

Alongside education, the soldiers are also working on housing projects in both Patikul and Luuk municipalities.

Yet many local people remain suspicious and fearful of the army – not least because of what happened on February 4 in the town of Maimbung. The incident which saw eight local residents shot dead during a nighttime raid by the military has been described as a “massacre” by eyewitnesses and as a “legitimate military encounter” by army special forces.

Whatever the real truth, seven civilians including a pregnant woman and a four-year-old girl were among the victims together with an off-duty soldier visiting his family.

Despite shouting out his identity, the soldier, Ibnon Wahid, was reportedly tied up and summarily executed by the troops. Other victims were reportedly fleeing the gunfire in a boat when they were killed.

Attorney Jose Manuel Mamauag of the Commission on Human Rights told a Zamboanga round-table discussion co-organised by the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project in late April that it has filed charges of “murder, looting, damage to property and arbitrary detention” against the soldiers concerned.

Vincent Sawabi reports on developments in Sulu, Zamboanga, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.

This articles was first published by IWPR's Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project (, which designs and conducts training to develop and strengthen journalists' human rights reporting and monitoring skills.


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