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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 15. Pirate Infested Waters

I have a picture of nets being hauled on a Philippine vessel under armed guard, taken in 1982 by the Head of the Fisheries Training College and Centre in Zamboanga, Mindanoa. From 1978 to 1980, I had been involved in the design and establishment of a University, seven Colleges and seven Training Centres, throughout the Philippines, which were financed by a loan from the World Bank. The Zamboanga College and Centre were part of the Project. The University, UP Visayas, was constructed at Miagao, close to Iloilo on Panay Island. The other colleges and centres were scattered around the country from Aparri in the north of Luzon, to Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island to the south-west. Each of the colleges was allocated a training vessel, but only in Zamboanga was an armed guard needed when the boat went to sea.

There were six AK-47’s used to protect the sea training activities and students. The reason was that south Minandano was plagued by the activities of the MILF, the Mindoro Islamic Liberation Front, and the nearby Sulu islands, particularly Jolo, was a base of operations for the Abu Sayyaf faction of the MNLF, having split away from it in 1991. The region of Moslem populations with secessionist aspirations stretches in an arc from south Mindanoa and Moro, through the Sulu islands, to northern Indonesia, Kalimantan and Malaysian north Borneo. Our daughter’s mercy ship came through a typhoon in November 2000, on its way from China to Borneo. As eager as they were to make port in East Borneo, they were advised to continue further west as there were reports of a possible MNLF faction insurgency attack. That whole region suffers from threats of attacks or intimidation by the separatist groups.

Our youngest daughter joined a mercy ship in the Philippines, just a few years after the same vessel was attacked in Zamboanga, and some of the volunteers were later injured in a bomb blast in the same city. At least one young female volunteer died from the attack. During the three years our daughter was on the ship, they encountered some storms and typhoons, but no hostile attacks, though they visited many countries from Japan to West Africa. In some ports where the ship anticipated problems, like in China, Vietnam, and Myanmar, they were well received and given official protection. However, they did cancel a visit to a port in Sabah following a warning of possible attack by an Islamic group.

But not to discourage visitors to the Philippines or Malaysia, I should emphasize that Christian and Moslem communities live near each other in harmony and good relations most of the time. Even the Christian residents of Mindanao say that their Moslem neighbours do have many legitimate complaints about poor government services and harassment or worse by the Philippine military. So it is not a one-sided story, and many Mindanao Christians sympathise with the feelings of injustice and neglect felt by the Moslem community. Attempts by successive governments to achieve a military solution without counter-balancing this by genuine efforts to address economic and social problems, are doomed to failure, and succeed only in exacerbating the problem. President Ramos developed fairly good relations with the Mindanao Moslems during his tenure, but this good work was undone by his successors. As Jose Rizal often observed, the Filipinos are sometimes their own worst enemies, and the fiercest opponents of their own true patriots.

To give an example of how things really are in the interface between Moslem and Christian communities, let me relate an account of a school near Zamboanga, run by a group of Carmelite nuns. The school has both Moslem and Catholic pupils. Occasionally the MILF exercises in the area, but they are always careful to inform the nuns, - not that they would be hurt in any way by MILF forces, but they might get caught in crossfire if national troops attacked the rebels as was likely. This happened on a particular occasion. One of the nuns, sister Filomena, was respectfully warned to get to a safe place. An MILF soldier was to guide her. Imagine her surprise to discover that the young soldier was one of her own students. She was taken to a safe resort till the hostilities were over, then escorted back to her school and convent.

This kind of story I have heard recounted in a number of forms. All the Filipinos I know who have direct dealings with the Moslem community speak of them with sympathy and respect. That is not to ignore the atrocities that have taken place, but to explain that the Mindanao Moslem issue needs to be looked at in a wider context. Behind every government in the Philippines lies the power of a handful of wealthy families. They are extraordinarily rich, and control the major corporations in the country, like San Miguel, Mercury Drug, and the Supermarket companies, as well as the sugar plantations, logging businesses, and mining companies. Outside of the country there is the interest of its former colonial ruler, the U.S.A. which regards the land largely as it does the South American states – part of its own ‘backyard’ and of strategic military importance. Sadly the combination of these forces too often results in the formation of governments that serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and leave the population trapped in a stagnant economy with little hope of improvement.

The wealthy oligarchy of islands like Negros, the once great sugar producer, have a sinister record of exploitation and domination of the rural poor, aided and abetted by the military which often is a law unto itself. Frustrated in their attempts to defeat the NPLA, the communist new people’s liberation army, the Philippine armed forces have often taken their spite out on innocent civilians whose sole crime may have been membership of the left-leaning Catholic BCC, basic Christian community movement, which was led by priests with a social conscience. Murders of peasants by Philippine army soldiers, or by the goons employed by plantation bosses to keep the workers in order, are reported as the work of the NPA, or if the military’s role was clear, the victims were ‘working for the NPA’. The plantation owners and the military enjoyed special protection during Marcos’ time, but in truth, no President has been able to control them. Most Philippine Presidents, in fact, come from large land-owning families themselves.

All of that is background to the operation of Philippine fishing fleets in pirate-ridden waters. Our training vessels, like hundreds of local fishing boats, had to be armed for the protection of the students. The Moslem separatist communities have large fast banca boats with huge out-riggers and powerful propulsion motors. These boats can outrun even naval corvettes and patrol boats, so the average fishing boat is no match for them. However, for the most part the MLF leaves the fishermen in peace and concentrates on other prey. Our training boats, being government owned and operated would be viewed as legitimate targets by the pirates.

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