Thursday, November 9, 2006

Tabang Mindanaw study on Sulu

“The security situation in Sulu is COMPLEX and has to be understood in all its facets if a lasting solution is to be found.”

This sums up the results of a recent survey that Tabang Mindanaw did on behalf of Pagtabangan BaSulTa. The Assisi Foundation was behind the endeavor.

The report entitled “Developing a Culture of Peace for Sulu” is a review of the peace and order situation in Sulu based on a survey conducted in 18 towns of the province. The respondents were composed of religious leaders, traditional leaders, women, the youth and the economic sector.

But what is this “culture of peace” that the report is invoking? The report uses the United Nations definition which is “a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiations among individuals, groups and nations.”

The research team, headed by Victor M. Taylor and Abraham Idjirani, ran the survey that focused on the people’s views on their personal situation, the province, security, factors that contribute to the present situation and factors needed to improve the situation.

“Complex” is the key word used to summarize the survey findings. Civil servants, development agencies and the myriad stakeholders in the province are advised to take heed. Anyone aspiring to work in Sulu is advised to read the report in order to appreciate Sulu’s complex landscape especially the historical and cultural context in which this complexity is being played out.

Why is the situation the way it is, and what can be done about it?

The report first gives a brief account of Sulu’s “glorious and troubled history”. It goes back to the time when Sulu was at the crossroads of trade between China and Europe up until the mid-19th century, then the entry of Spain, the US and the attacks on the predominantly Muslim Moro homeland that went on for a long time.

The report also reminds that Sulu was the nerve center of the Moro secessionist fighting that broke out in the 1970s. Brief peaceful interludes were experienced in the 1950s and 1960s then things changed when martial law was imposed in the 1970s. Today, conflict is very much a part of the Sulu scene.

The survey results show that 82 percent of all respondents feel that things are more difficult for them today, with 74 percent citing the economic situation as the reason. Seventy two percent feel the situation in the province is chaotic. Among the reasons are security (35%), governance (30%), economic (28%) and religion (4%).

While 62 percent of the respondents feel that their respective communities are peaceful, a much greater majority (83.3%) believes that the province of Sulu as a whole is in turmoil.

Security factors cited are the unstable peace and order situation, frequent killings, clan conflicts, armed conflicts (among them the conflict between the military and the Moro National Liberation Front) and other armed groups like the Abu Sayyaf.

One of the issues the report addresses is terrorism. Not all acts of violence could be labeled terrorism or should be linked to terrorist groups, the report explains. They become acts of terrorism only when it is clear that the intent is to achieve a political or ideological objective. Making sweeping labels only aggravates the problem and it often wrongly justifies illegal courses of action on the part of the authorities.

One of the interesting portions of the report tackles the role of civil society in communities in Sulu. It points out the “seeming passiveness of civil society in doing its share to proactively address the issue of peace in Sulu and bridge the gap between the populace and the authorities.” It is as if the people are resigned to their fate and have become mainly passive spectators of events swirling around them. And when civil society does move, it is often in a confrontational manner that results in the deepening of animosities between concerned sectors.

This is not to say that nothing has been done by civil society. In the past months civil society in Sulu has broadened to include the business sector which used to be a separate category. There are venues for coming together. One of them is the Task Force on Peace and Unity which is a gathering of individuals and groups from the academe, Muslim and Christian groups, NGOs, business and government.

Last March civil society groups, government agencies, the military and police and the MNLF held a ground-breaking workshop in Jolo to discuss the future of the province. One of the results was the formation of a core group that focuses on peace and order.

But more needs to be done. Civil society must realize that the work for peace is not theirs alone. Ordinary citizens must know that they have a role to play. Civil society must therefore be a channel of information on issues and events that affect the people’s lives. It should provide venues for discussions and airing of different points of view. It should be able to bridge the gap between the people and government authorities (officials, military, police).

Of course, the religious sector’s role is one of the most important in this predominantly Muslim province. The Sulu Ulama Council for Peace and Development has done a lot through its radio program Ulanig sin Kasajahitraan or Echoes of Peace.

(I love the sound of the first three syllables—Kasaja. It sounds like the Visayan kasadya which means merry or festive. I hope I can use the name someday.)

If you want a copy of the Tabang Mindanaw report, send email to