MANILA — It so happened that I arrived at Manila airport just one day after a bomb explosion there that, fortunately, created more worries than victims and was quickly characterized as “an oversize pyrotechnic.” Still, it doesn’t take long for a visitor to the Philippines to realize that this “pearl of the Orient seas” is unusually tense. The airport bomb was not a one-time incident. It and several similar incidents recently cannot be taken lightly: History shows that Muslim grievances in the south spawned bloody retaliations against Spaniards in the north during the 18th century. That is why the issue of Mindanao — and the struggle to establish an autonomous Muslim state there — dominates life in the Philippines today.

Ordinary Filipinos refer to Mindanao with sadness and anxiety, although not, interestingly enough, with irritation. Everyone seems conscious of the devastating effect of the conflict on tourism in particular and the national economy in general, and everyone condemns the illegitimacy of hostage takings. There are no calls for revenge, however. Some Christians even acknowledge the need of a restless south to generate greater interest in its problems.

Failure to acknowledge this need goes back a long way in the Philippines, as historian Teodoro Agoncillo points out in his “History of the Filipino People”: “The various governments of the Philippines, from the Spanish period down to recent time, had already neglected the Muslim . . .”; to the extent that the latter “becomes antagonistic to any attempt to bring him to the Christian society’s fold, for he believes that the attempt is made not because he is loved, but because his conversion to the Christian way of life is necessary. . . .” Compare that with the remark made by an unnamed U.S. senator in 1926: “The Moros are essentially a different race from the Filipinos, (and) for hundreds of years there has existed bitter racial and religious hatred between the two.”

In the media, not surprisingly, the troubles in contemporary Mindanao have triggered diametrically opposed views.

Some commentators appear to blame the present administration for its tough military line, which, they believe, will lead to further suffering but no solution, unless full independence is considered. Fighting, it is argued, will only cause further alienation in Mindanao, erosion of trust and a deepening of poverty. The region, we are reminded, comprises 14 of the 20 poorest provinces in the country — a genuine paradox, since Mindanao is blessed with rich resources and the largest river system in the archipelago.

“Demonizing the Muslims will lead nowhere,” argues Teodoro Benigno, in support of the proponents of restraint. He adds that there are “two Islams,” the secular and the fundamentalist, and that the threat is only from the latter. Furthermore, writes Luis Teodor, “besides economic losses, the war in Mindanao is also widening, perhaps irreparably, the divisions that have plagued Muslims and Christians in this region for 300 years.”

On the other hand — and sometimes in the same newspaper — there are dissenting voices like that of Max Soliven. History proves, says Soliven, that attempts to forge peace in the south have always failed. He utterly rejects the usual counterargument — “You can’t win” — as defeatist and paralyzing at a time when “Catholic churches have been bombed (and) worshippers killed or wounded. . . .” Others stress the support given to the administration’s military strategy by various segments of the public who are tired of the apparently permanent cycle of violence.

Perhaps the best conclusion I have seen in the course of my visit comes from Carmen Pedrosa, who views the conflict from the double perspective of a woman and a Philippine citizen. Maybe the whole tragedy started, she argues, when Filipino freedom fighters “retained the bias of the colonialists against the recalcitrant Muslims.” So “it is a job for Filipino intellectuals to recapture that history when we were all natives of this land. In precolonial times we were all Malays who became Filipinos.”

These words stand in sharp contrast to the “different race” theory of the American senator mentioned earlier. Maybe, in the end, the roots of this whole tragedy can be found in this single issue of perception.

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