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Mindanao: poverty on the frontlines

Mark Dearn
4 June 2009

The Filipina economist Solita Collas-Monsod delivered a grim warning last month when she revealed that the number of people living in poverty in the Philippines is growing, despite sustained economic growth and a rising GDP. Growing economic inequality looks all the starker in the midst of the world's second longest running internal conflict, the ongoing violence in the south of the country. The seemingly intractable internecine war, centred on the southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, stems from a variety of historical grievances and modern injustices. It is anchored in centuries old religious conflict and yet hampered by the government's total failure to improve the lives of those most likely to be driven into the embrace of insurgency.

In the past fifty years, more than 100,000 people have lost their lives and more than two million have been displaced as separatist Muslim moros ("moors") of the southern Philippines waged a war of attrition - in their various organisational guises - against the post-colonial Philippines government. The roots of the conflict are deep. Islam gained a foothold in the southern Philippines long before proselytising Spanish Jesuits arrived in the 16th century, yet where the Spanish failed to subdue the troublesome southern islands, American imperialists of the late 19th century succeeded, sowing the seeds of a conflict as destructive as those in Northern Ireland and the middle east, yet one that has seldom made it into the spotlight of international scrutiny. Also on Mindanao in openDemocracy:

Ron May
"The quest for peace"
22 August 2007

Abhoud Syed M. Linga
"Determining factors"
13 July 2007

The "next Afghanistan"

It was during the turbulent years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship when peaceful demands for independence snowballed into a fully fledged, bloody separatist war. The infamous summary execution of 28 Muslim military trainees in 1968 was the first catalyst, followed by the regime's declaration of martial law in 1972. The Tripoli Agreement, signed in 1976 between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the government, was meant to build a satisfactory peace, but splinter groups soon emerged, first the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), then in 1991 the Abu Sayyaf group, founded by a former Afghan-Soviet war mujahideen and officially condemned by both MNLF and MILF. Its bloody campaign began in the early 1990s, with numerous attacks against Christian targets, including a cathedral in Davao in 1993. 

After the second "people power" revolution in fifteen years ousted Joseph Estrada in 2001, Gloria Macagapal Arroyo became the latest dynastic "trapos" (traditional politician) to head southeast Asia's oligarchic system sans pareil. Her government maintains a "search and destroy" policy against Abu Sayyaf while officially seeking peace with MILF.

It is backed by renewed US interest in the Philippines, historically an important piece for Washington on the Pacific's geopolitical chessboard. Post 9/11, that interest has taken on whole new dimensions. In 2002, it was revealed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - the suspected mastermind of 9/11, with links to numerous other high profile attacks - had lived, and according to Philippine police, planned attacks in Manila. Economic and military assistance focused on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu as the wider region became part of the second front in the "war on terror"; links between the MNLF, MILF, Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesian-founded Jemaah Islamayiah and al-Qaeda were probed; the United States Institute of Peace was drafted in to facilitate the peace process; and, in 2005, the region was labelled the "next Afghanistan" by a US embassy official in Manila. 

The years since 2003 have been peppered by on-off fighting and stalling peace talks, in limbo at present with little hope of a meaningful resolution before Arroyo's term expires in 2011. Chief among many sticking points is the contentious Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on ancestral domain, a treaty which would cede territory, governance, distinction as a separate community and international recognition to the Bangsamoro (Moro homeland), yet has been ruled unconstitutional by a 2008 supreme court ruling. On top of that lie continual disagreements over the shifting composition of the "peace panel", allegations from the Philippine government of an overly sympathetic stance towards the Moros from international mediator Malaysia, continuing fighting between government and renegade MILF forces in central Mindanao, and the return to prominence of Abu Sayyaf with their capture of three Red Cross workers in January this year.  

Material considerations

Amidst the manifold problems that dog the peace process - from primordial claims of ethno-religious difference, to suppressed Moro identity and sovereignty, and continual wrangling over the MoA - one potent mixer, a recognized catalyst of conflict, is relatively sidelined: chronic poverty. 

In the 1950s, the Philippines was the most "advanced" capitalist country in southeast Asia. On its accession to the newly-formed ASEAN in 1967, its strong economy and industrial sector led many to see the country as a model for fellow members; by the 1980s, fifty percent of total income was in the hands of the top five percent. Gross inequality had grown engrained in the country, and little has changed since.

More than thirty percent of Filipinos currently live below the poverty threshold at which they cannot afford food combined with the essentials for life, with international estimates suggesting 44 percent earn less than $2 a day. Notably, last year's Social Protection Index produced by the Asian Development Bank saw the Philippines lag behind many of its neighbours, the bank stating that it had done "little in the way of major pro-poor targeted programs". Mark Dearn has written and researched for the Independent, Chunichi Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun.

He focuses on southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, with particular interest in separatist conflicts, minority rights issues and Islamist groups.

Bottom of the pile

At the bottom of the poverty pile lies Minadano, known as the country's "food basket", though wracked with hunger and want: it has been the poorest of the Philippines' three major island groups for almost a decade, with fifty per cent below the poverty line; all five regions of the island are in the ten poorest regions in the entire country; and within the island itself, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM - the area created by the MoA) ranks as one of the two poorest regions.  

The Philippine Development Forum describes the rise in poverty in the ARMM between 1988 and 2006 as "alarming", going on to argue that "while income poverty alone does not automatically result in social unrest, international experiences have shown that an explosive political situation is created when poverty is combined with deprivation and injustice". Visiting head of the Delegation of the European Commission to the Philippines, Alistair MacDonald, told the Philippines National Enquirer last year that poverty, above religion and secessionism, is the root of the conflict: "When you look at some of the human development indicators for parts of Mindanao, things like health, nutrition, education, the Philippines should be ashamed to have such low levels of basic social indicators".

No peace without development?

Yet he, along with Arroyo, has taken the stance of "no development without peace": talking to the country in her 2008 State of the Nation Address, Arroyo laid blame for the failure to eradicate poverty in Mindanao on the conflict itself. MacDonald, while recommending the implementation of more government-led projects in Mindanao, argued that "without peace, development can't happen."  

None the less, with conflict and concomitant humanitarian disaster currently unfolding in central Mindanao, the US Agency for International Development's nobley-named "Growth with Equity in Mindanao" project has earmarked a $190 million aid budget, administered by the World Bank, for the five years to 2012. The EU has coughed up 10.5 million euros on Mindanao since October 2008 and 110 million euros in the past decade, while International Crisis Group reports that 40 aid projects focusing on conflict-affected communities are underway, backed by a wide array of funders, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan.  

The possibility of development in conflict zones may be doubted by some in power, but a government spokesman did acknowledge in 2007 that poverty in Mindanao provides fertile recruiting grounds. Little wonder then at the success of the MILF's targeting of the unemployed with an instant payment of P20,000 (about $420) and the promise - whether kept or not - of further monthly remuneration. Nor the ability of Abu Sayyaf to continue to survive and recruit disillusioned young teenagers trapped in the cycle of poverty. 

While a record GDP growth of more than 7 percent in 2007 should have raised hope for the prospect of lifting millions out of poverty, impoverishment has only increased. And last month's pronouncements by Monsod, an economist with intimate knowledge of the Philippines' economic prospects, offer little hope within the current financial climate of a record 41 per cent year-on-year drop in merchandise export earnings, increasing food prices and projected rises in unemployment for the next three years. 

The Philippines government maintains that peace in Mindanao remains a priority for Arroyo, but others - from NGO workers to scholars - have expressed grave doubts, pointing to an ostensible lack of political will and Arroyo's own crumbling credibility after allegations of corruption and the outrageous "Hello Garci" electoral fraud scandal of 2005. If there really is a lack of political will, the portents are ominous. No development without peace, claims Arroyo, yet she lacks the political will to bring about peace, and thus no political will to alleviate the endemic, chronic poverty that besets Mindanao.. 

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