Gordon’s insights should enlighten our war mongers
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2007-08-26
Senator Dick Gordon is an action man who chooses to be in the front lines. Thus, it comes as no surprise that while blabber mouths in Malacañang Palace, Congress and the Senate pontificate from a safe distance — Dick Gordon was in the heart of the conflict in Mindanao.

Leading the Red Cross in ministering to the needs of civilians in the strife-affected areas, Gordon gets that rare opportunity to know the deepest emotions and thoughts of the people there.

Anyone who has a say in the furtherance of that conflict should seriously consider Dick Gordon’s report and set of recommendations that were submitted to Senate President Manny Villar.

Here are the highlights of Dick Gordon’s August 20, 2007 five-point summary:

“From what we saw and heard first-hand, we believe that the situation in the two islands (Basilan and Sulu) can considerably be improved if peacekeeping efforts are matched by vigorous action to enhance basic governance — i.e. the projection of government authority and the provision of basic public and social services. Specifically, we noted the following:

1. Despite the recent hostilities in Basilan and Sulu, which have claimed many lives and injured others, the area is by no means a war zone. The situation is under control. This is not to minimize the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the high toll of lives of recent incidents there. But the fighting has occurred mainly in a few pockets of the two islands where the campaign against terrorist bands, particularly the Abu Sayyaf, is being prosecuted.

The focus of complaint and worry of the local people is not peace and order but the poor provision of basic services (such as schools, water service and roads), the payment of salaries to teachers, and support for economic activities and livelihood.

2. The education situation is disturbing. Many teachers and government employees in Basilan and Sulu are complaining of not having received their salaries for as long as six months and more.

On the bright side, we witnessed some cheering scenes in the schools we visited. In one school, we joined Tausug grade school students in singing the national anthem and reciting the oath of allegiance to the Republic. In another school we saw grade school students gather and listen to a debate among students running for election to their student council. Noteworthy also is the fact that in these schools, the teachers and students go to school in uniform.

It would be good if government can move fast to build and repair more schools, provide water facilities in the region and shore up support for the teachers. There is no lack of desire among the teachers; they have the passion and willingness to educate, as exemplified by their continued work despite not receiving their salaries.

3. In our visit to the Jolo Integrated Provincial Hospital, we found much to cheer about. Health care services were available. The place was spotless and very orderly.

In Basilan, health services and livelihood are inadequate. They do not lack dedicated and caring people there. But they do need more support and provisions for their services.

4. On the economic front, business and commerce go on as usual in both islands. In the campus of the Jolo Agricultural School, we visited a site that used to be a dumping ground for bodies. It is now being used for poultry raising. We found high school and college students bottling sardines, mangosteen and durian. Everywhere we went, we were being offered bananas, lanzones and other fruits.

Another move that could really help the regional economy is for the government to finish the circumferential road in Isabela City in Basilan and other road projects. This will pave the way for local prosperity because of the increase in the number of rubber trees and the abundant production of lanzones.

What I am suggesting here is that we should consider a change in perspective and approach to the area.

5. After taking everything into account therefore, we believe that the campaign against terrorism will yield more lasting results if the military effort is matched by a comprehensive effort to build up the physical, social and legal infrastructure in Basilan and Sulu, as well as in ARMM in general. The autonomous region is quite simply the poorest in the country.

Mindanao, including Sulu and Basilan, is not a war zone. What we face there is a battle for hearts and minds.”

* * *

Gordon provides a holistic approach that is backed by a thorough understanding of the problem. Gordon even sees the potential of Basilan and Sulu as tourist destinations — an idea the regime quickly grabbed and mouthed without as much as crediting Gordon for conceiving it.

The Mindanao problem is made worse by the emotional hysteria and military adventurism of people who do not understand the scope and seriousness of the issues surrounding the Muslim secessionist movement.

Many Filipinos delude themselves into thinking that the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) — poorly equipped, greatly divided and deeply demoralized — has what it takes to quell the Muslim rebellion. They forget that even the US and Spain had failed miserably in crushing Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.

A similar scenario plays out in Iraq today. A high-tech, military savvy America is waging an un-winnable war despite the advantage of fighting in an open desert terrain.

Our AFP is far from being high-tech and Mindanao is not an open desert. Its jungles and mountainous terrain provide ideal cover for insurgents who can so easily draw sympathy from fellow Muslims who had long suffered from neglect.

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