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Visit to the Philippines - July 31 to August 13, 2009

September 15, 2009

At this human rights workshop organized by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), most of the 25 to 30 participants were Moros, or Muslims, from Mindanao as well as young people from Nepal, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. My role was to provide some information about the U.N. human rights system, ways to document human rights violations and what to do with this documentation to assist the victims and to reform systems that perpetuate human rights violations.

However, I learned as much, or more, than I shared. I especially appreciated the presentation about human rights from an Islamic perspective in which the resource person said that human rights are given by Allah, not by any government or legislative authority. He listed various rights from an Islamic perspective, citing verses of the Koran to support his views. I found that most of these rights correspond very closely with those that have been defined by the United Nations.

I also valued the contributions of several resource people about the history of the Moro people and the issues they face today. Interestingly, according to one resource person, Mindanao was never a part of the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era and only became a part of the Philippines in 1946 when the United States terminated the commonwealth status of the country and included Mindanao as part of the Philippines over the objections of the Moros. The people of Mindanao so distrusted the government in Manila that they even asked to become a colony or protectorate of the United States rather than become part of the Philippines.

Over the course of time, the fears of the Moro people have been realized as they feel like second-class citizens in the Philippines today. One of the young Moro women at the workshop told the group how a job offer in Davao was not extended to her because she wanted to continue wearing the hijab, or Muslim headscarf. I heard stories from other participants of similar discriminatory experiences in Manila.

This discrimination and a desire for self-determination have led to an armed conflict over the past four decades between initially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and today by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In late July, the MILF and the government agreed to resume peace negotiations in Malaysia. A year earlier the two sides had initialed a memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain, but the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that the agreement was unconstitutional, leading to renewed fighting in the past year.

This fighting has led to the deaths of civilians as well as combatants and the displacement of thousands people from their homes. We were told that, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), 600,000 people were displaced in the Philippines in 2008—the most in the world.

We visited a camp for some of these internally displaced people, or IDPs, in a Catholic compound in a town near Cotabato City. A sign above the entrance to the compound expressed the sentiments of the IDPs who have lived here for a year or even longer—"Stop the War!"

However, in spite of the recent decision by the two sides to resume peace negotiations, fighting continues every night, according to the IDPs. A mortar attack the night before we arrived, in fact, wounded nine people. We saw seven injured children in the Catholic compound's clinic. The other two were more seriously wounded and were taken to a hospital in Cotabato City. Interestingly, the IDPs said that many of these attacks are now because of personal or family feuds. The attack the previous night, for instance, was allegedly because of a dispute between the mayor of the town, who is supported by the military, and the mayor's nephew, who is a member of the MILF. It was claimed by the IDPs that this fighting was not related to achieving any political or military goals but was because of the personal animosity between these two men.

In General Santos City, I visited the Moro Women Center (MWC). I had met the director, Abina Rombaoa, at the General Assembly of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) about six years ago in Baguio when I represented the UCC and Disciples of Christ at the meeting. Since this was my first visit to Mindanao, I took the opportunity to learn more about MWC's work, which I discovered is devoted to organizing the urban poor, fisher folk and peasants as well as Moro women and youth. Two things made a strong impression on me: an object as ordinary as an outboard motor can help alleviate poverty, and corruption can take root in something as mundane as a community's water system.

Regarding poverty alleviation, Abina explained to me that the fisher folk with whom she works could earn more money if they had one boat with an outboard motor that would allow them to fish further out in the ocean.

As for corruption, we visited the community of Lantong outside the city whose people had been relocated from the center of General Santos City in 1997 to build a five-star hotel. Previously, the 385 families in Lantong had lived across the street from the city's public market where they worked. They were moved though to vacant agricultural land without water, electricity, health clinics, schools, etc. They were given 2,000 pesos (US$42) or less for their homes.

After a number of years, Abina and MWC were able to arrange for a water system to be installed in the community. An association in the community was then formed to manage the system, and each family pays 70 pesos (about US$1.50) per month for its maintenance. When I visited, however, the system had been broken for about two weeks, and people had been without water. The treasurer of the association informed the villagers though that there was not enough money to fix the system. People naturally wondered where the money in the maintenance fund had gone. Some said the treasurer had used it to start his own business and that he'd recently bought a new motorcycle.

Thus, it appears that corruption is not just confined to people in high places. It can also be found in the poorest village as well. The temptation of corruption can influence anyone who holds a position that gives them access to money and some degree of power. In Lantong, it means people in the community will be without water for some time while one man enjoys the proceeds of his business and his new motorcycle.

Bruce Van Voorhis

(Bruce Van Voorhis works in Hong Kong for Interfaith Cooperation Forum [ICF], a regional network of young Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous activists working for justpeace at the grassroots level in South and Southeast Asia. ICF is a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs [APAY] in Hong Kong where Bruce is based and the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA] located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong.  He serves as the Coordinator for Interfaith Programs. 

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