[Viewpoint] Heartbreak in MindanaoOne subjective measure of the distress over the recent killings in Mindanao’s Maguindanao Province (also called the Ampatuan massacre) is how Philippine-based foreigners, including the few Koreans I advise mainly for their thesis completion, seem as traumatized as the Pinoy bourgeoisie, in stark contrast with the rest of the natives. This is not to say that the working-class majority feels unaffected by the tragedy. In fact the oft-noted peculiarity of the local response to crises - marked by the incongruent use of humor, or in this case silence - can be read as a form of fatalistic acceptance of the brutalities of fate, as well as a means by which the individual could refocus her or his attention on the exigencies of personal survival.
I must confess that I encourage my Korean advisees to indulge in something approaching xenophobic paranoia. Most Koreans who visit the Philippines are impressed by the local culture’s excessive libertarianism, a welcome relief from the severe patriarchal hierarchisms that invariably confront most East Asians from birth onward. Yet the country’s seemingly boundless promiscuity misleads foreigners into thinking that its culture is as benevolent as it is tolerant.
More than once some of my Manila-based colleagues had informed me that one or another of my male Korean students had set out, usually alone, for some unannounced interisland itinerary, with the person’s mobile phone occasionally losing its signal due to the underdeveloped condition of some far-flung destination. So far the guys have returned safely, convinced all the more of the kindness of the “other” Filipinos vis-a-vis the relatively cynical and materialistic Manilenos, even as my friends and I wonder how to impress on these wide-eyed innocents the kind of dangers they were lucky to have skirted.
The Maguindanao massacre was not, even in my wildest and weirdest and saddest dreams, the example I had hoped for, but there it is. The widespread response to the event turns on its perpetrators’ bald-faced assumption that they could get away with such an extensive and bloodcurdling criminal operation, directed in open-space broad daylight against a large and influential group comprising mostly women, uninvolved passersby, and (the ultimate indication of contemporary hubris) media professionals. Beyond the jaw-droppingly pathological stupidity of a group of men driven by old-line machismo and power-hunger, one could somehow sense a shock of recognition, even among Koreans who happen to belong to an old-enough generation.
For this is how people with absolute power (with the concomitant absolute corruption) have always tended to behave, down to the knee-jerk assignation of blame to armed seditionists. Just replace the unsophisticated provincial dynasty with more charming, urbane, and eloquent types and one would have the U.S.-sanctioned third-world dictatorships that most middle-aged Southeast Asians (and Koreans and Latin Americans) still remember all too vividly.
Which makes the actuations of the Maguindanao-massacre perpetrators as backward as they are barbaric, locked in a period and setting that ought to have been relegated to a permanently passed past. What provides an underlying unease regarding the response of the current Philippine administration is the fact that both sides of the political fence, the outraged ruling party as well as the infuriated opposition, are calling for immediate and unqualified intervention, thus conjuring up spectacles once more associable with the excesses of the long-deposed Marcos regime: the deployment of Philippine Army troops to predominantly, supposedly autonomous Muslim areas, with hasty arrests of elements perceived as rebellious, and everything conveniently blanketed by the imposition (since lifted) of martial law, possibly as prelude to a transition of power to a bereaved rival who, it must be stressed, mirrors his opponents’ penchant for retaining a militia force.
How the Philippines’ second-largest (and richest, resources-wise) island ever reached such a sorry state of affairs, with the Maguindanao case a culmination of a long and so-far unending series of tragic events, can be best understood via a sufficiently distant geopolitical perspective. From, say, an orbiting satellite’s view, what may be regarded as the Philippines’ Christian majority is actually the Indo-Malayan archipelago’s regional minority, disproportionately empowered by the historical accident of the U.S.’s current undisputed status as global police.
After largely successfully resisting foreign attempts at colonization, the Philippines’ Muslim population found itself at the receiving end of a series of ill-advised political trade-offs initiated by the American reoccupation of the country after World War II. First, the U.S. reneged on its promise of benefits to the local Communist army after contracting it to undertake the bulk of anti-Japanese resistance. The peasant-based insurgency that ensued from this instance of Cold War duplicity suffered severe repression, and the then-fledgling Philippine administration sought to mollify increasing antipathy by providing ex-rebels with settlements in Mindanao, many of which were located in still-undocumented Muslim ancestral properties.
The disgruntlement that percolated under the social surface finally erupted with the Marcos government’s decision to infiltrate, destabilize, and reclaim Sabah in Malaysia using a commando unit (code-named Jabidah) of Filipino Muslims, trained on a ship without being informed of the nature of their mission. Upon learning what they were expected to carry out, the young men attempted a mutiny and were summarily executed (in a scenario reminiscent of then-concurrent events in Korea depicted in Kang Woo-suk’s 2003 blockbuster “Silmido”). Having since been radicalized by the Jabidah massacre, several generations of separatist Muslims experienced some of the most harrowing peace-time assaults by Philippine armed forces, punctuated by a few truce periods.
The U.S.’s so-called war on terror did not ease matters for the severely put-upon Pinoy Islamic populace. In the current millennium, a few individuals attempted to meet half-way the globalist call for entrepreneurship by supplying, to an extremely responsive and grateful nationwide market, affordable copies of otherwise unfairly priced digital content; instead they were continually hounded and accused of more than just video piracy by the Motion Picture Association of America, whose former leader Jack Valenti claimed (but never proved) before the U.S. Senate, as a way to justify harsher measures, that the profits made by “pirates” were donated to terrorist organizations.
Where the recent return of the Philippine army to Muslim areas in Mindanao might lead this time is anyone’s guess, but if history were to serve as indicator, what may appear to be a solution at present might only lead to further heartbreak in future.
*The writer is Associate Professor for Cultural Studies at Inha University and a member of the PRPG.
by Joel David