Thursday, 11 May 2000

What the cameras failed to catch
in the midst of a 'nonsense war'

By Gina Mission

Members of the business community in Mindanao have once again come to Manila to remind the public that there are things other than conflict that deserve a closer look in the country's second largest island. These are its economic growth over the last six years, its potential for peace, and the increasing support it is getting from both local and international communities.

.....Speaking at the Fernandina Forum Wednesday, Mindanao Business Council Chairwoman Joji Ilagan Bian commented: "What you normally find in newspapers, what are normally captured in cameras are anti-Muslim sentiments." If only media will "also interview people like us, and people in other parts of Mindanao, we would say that the Muslims and we are living together in harmony," she said.

'We live side by side with Muslims'

....."It is unfortunate that TV cameras are not catching these [other] reflections," she pointed out. "They're just catching what is otherwise probably a reflection of a few. We say this because we are from Mindanao… we live side by side with the Muslim communities."

.....The forum was organized by Growth for Equity in Mindanao, or GEM, a donor-assisted program that seeks to hasten the economic growth of Mindanao through the promotion of investments throughout the island.

.....Businessman Ibrahim Pendatun Paglas III told PNI that members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) "work side by side with Christian workers" in his firm. He heads Paglas Corp., one of the lead investors in La Frutera, a multinational company exporting banana, based in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, The company employs more than 2,000 workers.

A global outlook

.....GEM calls the Mindanao economy an "island economy with a global outlook." For good reason. Some 16 million people of various ethnic and cultural origins inhabit Mindanao. It holds about 80 per cent of the country's iron reserves and all of the country's nickel deposits. It also has an abundant supply of copper, silver, gold, zinc, manganese, coal and limestone. In agriculture, Mindanao leads the country in producing and exporting banana, pineapple, corn, coffee, copra, cocoa, abaca, raw rubber, durian, palm oil, cotton, cutflowers, seaweed and high-value tuna. It is also a major producer of livestock, mango and crabs.

.....Most of Mindanao's rich natural resources, however, have remained untapped, and some of those that have been tapped have damaged environmentally.

.....Until recently, its economy suffered from both government neglect and disruptions of peace and order. Tourism and business establishments were slowed down by lack of basic infrastructure in some places, and by high security risks in others.

Positive changes

.....Still, things have changed for the better, though slowly in some areas. Over the last six years, the number of telephone lines have increased by an annual average of 60 per cent. Investment has grown by an annual average of 31 per cent; energy consumption, 31 per cent; construction, 28 per cent; gross regional domestic product, 3.9 per cent; family income, 3.6 per cent; exports, 18.4 per cent; and bank deposits, 22.6 per cent.

.....Foreign-assisted development projects also abound and are slowly turning Mindanao from a backwater into a booming island. Either completed or on the way to completion are infrastructure programs that would upgrade and expand telecommunications, and projects aimed at the physical integration of the whole island: road networks and primary airports and seaports.

.....Livelihood programs designed to help former Moro combatants get back to mainstream economy are also ongoing. Two of the more popular ones are the Emergency Livelihood Assistance Program, a joint project of the Philippines and the United States, and the Household Enhancement and Livelihood Program for Muslim Communities, undertaken by the Department of Agriculture.

'Gateway to opportunity'

.....Mindanao's membership in the newly established trade alliance, Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), boosts the island's regional potential as a food supplier, major transshipment point, important production center and leisure destination. As is often heard in business circles, Mindanao is becoming a "gateway to opportunity."

With its immense resources, it may very well be.

.....The gains, however, are in danger of being lost in light of the present skirmishes in some parts of Maguindanao province, happening at a time when the rest of the world is fuming at the hostage-taking of 16 people of different nationalities allegedly by the Abu Sayaff group.

.....Roberto Lastimoso, former director general of the Philippine National Police, remarked that government resources were being used in war instead of carrying out badly needed infrastructure and livelihood projects in Mindanao

....."I don't know if the clearing of the Narciso Ramos Highway, which started the war with the MILF, is a tactic to divert the world's attention from the hostage-taking, but it is
definitely not effective," he observed.

.....But as authors Marites Da˝guilan Vitug and Glenda Gloria wrote in their book Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao: "In war and in peace, and especially in Mindanao, perception is more powerful than reality."

.....Because of the hostilities triggered by the military offensive on the Narciso Ramos Highway, the MILF suspended its peace negotiations with the government.

.....Lanang Ali, legal counsel of the MILF, told PNI in a separate interview that they were willing to go back to the negotiating table. "This is a nonsense war. Why would the government force to clear this highway when, before, traffic in the area was normal? The only people who were not allowed to pass through were members of the Philippine Army because we don't trust them. They have no word of honor. And this blockade [was] agreed upon by both parties."

Common sentiment among Muslims

....."We condemn the kidnappings done by the Abu Sayaff group, but the Moro people will not turn its back from military hostilities when pushed to the wall"-this was the common sentiment aired by Muslim leaders at the Kapihan sa Sulo last weekend.

.....Former Maguindanao congressman Michael Mastura asked: "Why would the Moros begin war? Because we love war? Because we love to die? No. We want to live as peacfully as the non-Muslims do."

.....Bian said: "I don't think war is the solution [to achieve] peace in Mindanao."

.....Dr. Pablito Pamplona, head of the Central Mindanao Agriculture and Resources Research and Develoment Consortium which had initiated a fruit-tree development project inside the MILF's Camp Abu Bakre, agreed. Given Mindanao's rich potential, he said, the war is indeed "a waste of resources."