Ian Parker sent this eye-witness report from Mindanao on December 21.
Europe solidaire sans frontières (Europe in Solidarity Without Borders)has launched a fundraising appeal in solidarity with the progressive forces in Mindanao. Socialist Resistance is urging our readers to send donations now – our account is Resistance 080228 70186297 or you can send cheques to PO Box 62732 London SW2 9GQ
The floods here in Mindanao, the main southern island of the Philippines, have been disastrous, the suffering immense, and there is no prospect that relief will be given soon by the authorities. A small group of us travelled last Saturday 17 December in the minivan of one of the universities (where we had been teaching) here through Bukidnon province and then through Cagayan de Oro on the north coast. This is one of the worst hit areas, together with Iligan. Typhoon Washi had struck the area in the early hours of the morning, and in Malaybalay inland the water supplies and electricity had already been affected before we left. During the hours of darkness, when mobile and other communication networks were down, people were unable to see the devastation, but could feel the effects. Over 10,000 houses were damaged by the typhoon and flash floods and hundreds of thousands of people in thirteen of the Mindanao provinces are struggling, with more than 40,000 in evacuation centres. We could begin to see as we journeyed along the coast into Surigao del Norte province burst riverbanks and waterlogged fields, but the full scale of the problem only started to become clear through Sunday and Monday. To date over 950 people are reckoned dead and nearly 50 missing according to the national disaster agency, with most of the casualties in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.
The difficulties facing relief agencies and community organisations – this is the context in which the reconstruction work is taking place – have to be taken into account as those outside Mindanao think about what support they can give. First reports in the newspapers in the Philippines under-played the disaster, with small front-page stories eclipsed by the long-running corruption scandals in and around Manila (on the north island of Luzon), and events in Mindanao are treated with suspicion and some fear in other parts of the Philippines, fueled by stories in the national press. This is despite the valiant efforts of journalists here (who have experienced among their colleagues among the greatest number of targeted assassinations in the world). Now, here in Mindanao itself, the images on television of death and destruction are horrific.
There is a very complex political situation here. The Lumad indigenous peoples are sometimes patronised by the authorities (encouraged to sing and dance for their own versions of Christmas celebrations, which start in the Philippines in September) but are mostly badly treated, robbed of their land and then told to respect the rights of the new landowners (this is the current refrain of current President Aquino). These people in Mindanao are caught in land disputes with the Muslim population of the south of the island, which is site of active armed groups, including fundamentalists who, in turn, hate those they call ‘the reds’.
There is widespread Islamophobia outside Mindanao, which the government provokes even while calling for a ‘Christmas ceasefire’ and negotiating with the Islamic groups in recently begun talks in Kuala Lumpur in neighboring Malaysia. But at the same time the fundamentalists here do actually pose a deadly threat to progressive forces. There is also an insurgent maoist group, the New People’s Army’ (NPA) operating as the armed wing of the communist party, active in Mindanao. In the few days before the typhoon arrived there were reports of a new wave of attacks by them in Surigao del Sur province on police stations to seize guns, and of the burning of vehicles belonging to foreign companies (of which Del Monte and Dole are prominent players, running the fruit plantations). The NPA refuse the cynical Christmas ceasefire calls, pointing to continuing harassment of local communities (as well as disappearances of activists, which is something that happens here in the Philippines not only in Mindanao), and they attack members of other left groups, including murdering those deemed enemies in ambushes and during incursions into areas held by their rivals.
Here in Mindanao, in the midst of this, there has emerged (from within the crisis of the old communist movement) a new democratic movement that has taken huge steps to engage with different forms of politics, and to work with the Lumad and with Muslim communities who are beginning to break from fundamentalism in the course of struggles for independence and land rights. Our sister organisation, the Revolutionary Workers Party – Mindanao (RWP-M) has been organising in the interior and in cities like Cagayan de Oro, and is very active now in Iligan. This group has been working around questions of food security – the right of local communities to determine what is grown and how it is distributed for their own good rather than for multinational companies – and declares itself now to be ‘ecosocialist’. It is active around lesbian and gay rights (and LGBT activists are there with these comrades in political debates and also in the practical physical protection of areas of Mindanao (from the NPA and Islamic fundamentalist groups). This pits the RWP-M also against the Catholic Church authorities trying to block the Reproductive Health bill currently proceeding at snail’s pace through parliament. This ecosocialist group informed by and working alongside feminist organisations now faces a very difficult task in balancing the defence of its own communities while engaging with the slow ‘peace process’ (something which brings the wrath of rivals down upon it day by day).
There is a risk now, as with every disaster relief operation, that well-meant expressions of support for the victims of the typhoon from outside the Philippines will be channeled into government controlled operations, and that this will sideline those who are really suffering and who are now mobilising themselves with, for example, the help of the RWP-M. The organisation ‘Europe solidaire sans frontières’ (Europe in Solidarity Without Borders) is acting in solidarity with the progressive forces in Mindanao now. Socialist Resistance is urging its supporters to send donations now – our account is Resistance 080228 70186297 or you can send cheques to PO Box 62732 London SW2 9GQ