The Mindanao Odyssey

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Uncategorized





By Joel Pablo Salud

Mindanao, being what it was, and still is—a home for Muslims in the Philippines—is a continuing odyssey of sorts. It has remained strife-torn through five centuries of its history, running second in the world compared to the death and destruction that had stained much of North and South Sudan since the 10th-century or earlier. This was the 2005 statement made by a World Bank study entitled The Mindanao Conflict in the Philippines: Roots, Costs and Potential Peace Dividends. It was authored by Salvatore Schiavo-Campo and Mary Judd.

Young MILF rebel (AP)

Joachim Von Amsberg, then Country Director (Philippines), East Asia and Pacific Region of the World Bank, said, “This paper… briefly examines the social costs, estimates the direct economic costs, lists the indirect costs and the dynamic advantages from cessation of the conflicts, and suggests certain key criteria for lasting resolution of the conflict. The overriding conclusion is that such a resolution carries the potential for vast economic and social advantages not only for the conflict-affected areas, but forMindanaoas a whole.”

In war, real cost is always difficult to quantify. Statistical data do not even come remotely close to the overall psychological, emotional and physical suffering and loss experienced by those directly and indirectly struck by conflict. Even while it may be possible for such a conflict to be quantified in and by numbers, it can only do so narrowly. It fails to offer a clear picture of the whole consequence of war.

A generation tainted by war (Photo: JP Salud)

The study was quick to admit such narrowness of scope, yet proceeds to identify nonetheless a ballpark figure of the cost of war inMindanaothrough the years, barring initially the psychological and emotional detriment of such a war.

“On average, the annual economic cost of the war in 1975–1982 was around one percent of Gross Domestic Product for Central and Southwestern Mindanao, and one half of one percent for thePhilippines—or a total of about $200 million. The absolute cost estimate is about the same for 1997–2001. The severe limits of the methodology and of the available data allow only a broad range of cost estimates. Assuming a much lower direct economic conflict cost during the ‘low-intensity’ conflict years 1983–1996, and using a discount rate of 7.5%, the direct output loss from theMindanaoconflict during 1970–2001 can be roughly estimated at between $2 and $3 billion.”

Some pegged higher estimates. Reportedly, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process pegged losses from 1975 to 2002 to have reached five to ten billion pesos annually, reaching a maximum figure of nearly P300 billion for close to three decades.

However, the direct economic cost is a mere trifle when set against the indirect economic and human and social costs that had plagued the region since the 1970s. The study states, and I quote:

  • An estimated 120,000 deaths, and uncounted numbers of wounded and disabled;
  • Displacement of more than two million people, of whom almost half in 2000 alone, during President Estrada’s “all-out-war”;
  • The emergence of “Muslim ghettos” in various cities in Mindanao and elsewhere in the country made up of displaced persons and individuals forced out of their areas of residence owing to the disappearance of employment opportunities caused by the conflict;
  • The exodus of illegal Muslim migrants to the neighboring state ofSabah,Malaysia. The recent crackdown by the Malaysian authorities as part of their anti-terrorist campaign resulted in en-masse deportation, and ensuing social and economic problems in their communities of origin;
  • Increased incidence of poverty—already the highest in the country—from 56% in 1991 to 62.5% in 1997 and 71.3% in 2000.  (Fourteen of the 20 poorest provinces in thePhilippinesare found inMindanao);
  • Rampant kidnap-for-ransom activities and other crimes against persons and property, as a result of the bad security situation directly related to the conflict;
  • And, for the same reason trafficking of illegal drugs and the criminal activities spawned by substance abuse have become a major law and order problem in the area—historically free of these problems.

Clearly another six years had passed since the drafting of this study. More lives have been lost from both the military and rebel sides. Prior to this, the country had stood witness to the all-out-war declared by former President Joseph Estrada in April 2000 against the late Hashim Salamat’s Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). History has taught us that such an all-out-war does not really put the need for peace in its list of priorities—just political pogi-points, which didn’t give Estrada the needed boost in the end on account that it failed to stop the rebellion.

When will peace arrive to the Moro homeland? (Photo: JP Salud)

The recent armed encounter that cost the lives of several young and inexperienced Rangers and rebels had sparked heated debates on whether another all-out-war is needed to quell the rising tension in the region. Apparently, neither the Armed Forces of thePhilippines, the Philippine government nor the MILF can see the so-called “peace dividends” if and when a cessation of conflict inMindanaodoes happen.

To list some: (1) better impact on foreign equity inflows due to stability; (2) prospects toward innovation in the region; (3) better fiscal potential and increased consumer activity and investment confidence; (4) realization of Mindanao’s “comparative advantage” in the export industry; (5) growth on Mindanao in hydropower potential; (6) improved management of ancestral lands; (7) tourism potential; (8) removal of extra costs on corporations for security reasons; (9) improved social services and access to legal assistance; and (10) less threats from terrorists, splinter gangs and warlordism could offer improved exercise of law and order in the region, to name a few.

These are hardly the assurances some people consider them to be, however. Even if complete and total cessation of conflict is achieved, it could take decades to resurrect the hopes of a people inured in memories of death and loss. Sporadic clashes could still go on from splinter groups who find war a more acceptable alternative to peace. And where will all the battle-scarred soldiers and rebels go? Become entrepreneurs? Suffice it to say the work of peace could cost more in time, manpower and resources, but it is nevertheless one that’s worth spending.

This Monday's issue of the Philippines Graphic

Having said all this, must the government therefore declare an all-out war against the Moro rebels? Needless to say, death and devastation is not a game one can easily reboot. The finality of such a decision—on the life of both soldier, rebel and civilian—is not the kind any leader of a nation calls without attendant wounds and scars and grief. The question we must ask is: can we—including President Aquino—live with the consequences of an all-out-war?

Novelist and Archbishop of Cambrai in 1651, François de Salignac de la Motte-Fénelon, who wrote the novel Les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d’Ulysse (The Adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulysses), once said that all wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers. If we must fight and die—and die we must in the end, anyway—then let us die working toward peace.


JOEL PABLO SALUD is the editor-in-chief  of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications (sister publication to the BusinessMirror).  He is a member of the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle. He regularly writes reviews for the Philippines Graphic Review of Literature.


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