Monday, April 12, 2021

Jolo on my mind

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A soldier views the site inside a Roman Catholic cathedral in Jolo,  after two bombs exploded.  (WESMINCOM Armed Forces of the Philippines Via AP)

 

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The first filtered photographs that did the rounds of social media came to me as a shock.

The explosion ripped the old wooden pews like these were matchsticks, leaving long shards of wood and the occasional metal from God-knows-what scattered across the tiled floor.

What seemed like blood emerges from the ruins like some bad attempt at surrealism. No words could describe the carnage.

Sulu, torn by war and poverty through years of conflict, once again reeked with the smell of blood.

The images left no chance at conjecture. The bomb was meant to kill.

It was only a matter of time when the second explosion rocked the outer perimeter of the Mount Carmel Cathedral, injuring fleeing churchgoers and bystanders.

The second explosion was expected, part of the strategy of bombers to stop all efforts by first responders to save those that can be saved.

That this happened at a time when we’re quick to offer our opinions as someone totally outside the culture and religious nuances dictating the lives of Mindanaoans can be disturbing.

For starters, clashes south of Luzon and the Visayas are not as black and white as what was previously peddled: animosity between Christians and Muslims.

A valuable source living in Mindanao had told me that such an analysis is only meant to trigger violence between the two groups. Ergo, all issues surounding Mindanao should be handled with utmost care.

“So while it may or may not be significant that the location targeted was a Christian place of worship, I wouldn’t focus any analysis on that fact. I would zero in on the local political players (including armed groups and local politicians, as well as private armies) and what each of them has to gain or lose from the recent developments. Targeting a cathedral may also be precisely a tactic to trigger religious divisiveness and spoil the outcome for the whole region. Let’s just please be careful not to feed it through any angles in our reportage, as this is what I’m worried about. I am also frustrated and angered at the utter ignorance and prejudice of a lot of people in Manila and Luzon towards the Bangsamoro. It’s not even just anti-Muslim bigotry, but plain discrimination against people from Mindanao. I am a resident of Mindanao, and the racist, ethnocentric reactions from imperial Manila towards the plebiscite and the local issues here has been extremely offensive lately. I hope friends in the media can do something to correct that, and help educate those who speak out of blind hatred without any knowledge or understanding behind their statements.”

Critical to any accurate assessment of the incident in Jolo is the recognition of the clear solidarity between Christians and Muslims in the region, my source said. Hence, other issues may play a role.

“The experience with the ARMM already nuanced the Moro revolutionary leaders’ understanding of the basis for solidarity. The call now has been for an inclusive Bangsamoro government that would represent Muslims, Christians, and Lumad. It’s the extremist groups who twist religious doctrine to justify terrorist acts.”

There is more to the violence in Sulu than meets the untrained eye. The actions and activities of the political players, for one, might give us a clue as to what might be the reason for the bombing.

As of this writing, the whole Philippines is placed under heightened alert following the incident in Sulu which left 27 dead and 77 injured.

Morning of the following day, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

I’m no stranger to Jolo, Sulu. Even prior to my being a full-time journalist, I have had a particular liking of the place.

Those livid years following the presidential elections of 1998 saw a friendship grow between the Sulu rebel-prince Kimar Tulawie and my father, Oscar.

I first met Kimar Tulawie during the 1998 presidential campaign of former executive secretary Renato S. de Villa.

Kimar Tulawie was a man as regal as they come, one whose eyes never winced at the sight of intense conflict.

There was no mistaking him for a fraud. Kimar Tulawie carried with him the aura and temper of a warrior, but one predisposed to empathy towards fellow warriors.

Makes no difference if you belong to the other side of the foxhole.

I was there when, during a rare meeting with his archenemy, an army general of the Marcos regime (who also bore the title of Mr. Universe after winning a body-building contest whose name now escapes me), the two warriors exchanged heated words right in my own home.

Years of fierce fighting between Marcos’ martial law forces and Kimar Tulawie’s men pegs him as larger than life. He was Tau’sug and the other was a bemedalled general. That was enough.

At the tail end of the said meeting, the two leaders of armies, commanding hundreds if not thousands of their best soldiers, shook hands. It was a momentous event, but one witnessed solely by me and my late father .

Stories like this often don’t get told for obvious reasons: one, they happen behind  closed doors.

Nowhere in my reminiscences of this country’s history that this mad junction we call peace will ever be possible with the exception of this one memorable night.

Who knows? Perhaps powerful people in Imperial Manila are hellbent on fueling conflict in Mindanao.

Peace accords rose and fell through the years with very little to go on from both sides.

With the bombing of Mount Carmel Cathedral, the country is once more in the throes of an uncertain tomorrow.

Is it really ISIS or just another ruse to derail looming elections? The extremist group, hungry for media mileage, claims responsibility for everything short of the execution of Jose Rizal. Not too reliable a claim, if you ask me.

Besides, the elections come May this year might hold back all attempts by this administration to push for Federalism.

Further extension of martial law, perhaps? Maybe this time for the whole country? These fears are not unfounded.

This circumspection that a change in the style of government is good for the country may be the driving force behind the violence we are seeing of late.

Or maybe not. It could be a million and one other things, like an excuse for fascism and the final stages before launching a police state.

What better way to do this than to spring a string of attacks during a highly publicized–and criticized–election year.

When even places of worship are targeted as a battlefield, as though on cue, Filipinos are reminded by this incident of how thin the bridges we have built for ourselves truly are.

We are also reminded that we are living on borrowed time. Stunned by the ease with which we form conclusions as to the violence in our  midst, I fear change has arrived, and that for the worse. G

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