“Take a seat,” the soft-spoken and charming Maj. Gen. Benjamin Muhammed Dolorfino says as he offers us a cup of what’s called “warrior’s coffee”. The strong local brew is grown in the hinterlands of troubled Mindanao – the Muslim heartland in the south of the predominantly Christian Philippines.
“This has been the longest week of my life,” he confides, sitting down to finally eat a late lunch. He’s only been in command of Western Mindanao for two months, but already in that time, the area he’s responsible for has suffered some of the bloodiest encounters in the military’s pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) – a notorious group responsible for bombings, kidnappings, extortion, murder, and a variety of other attacks on civilians, including what’s been labelled as the world’s “deadliest terror attack at sea” that left over 100 people dead.
Western Mindanao is the most “active” frontier in the Philippines: here, the military confront the 3 largest threats to national security – the communist insurgents, Muslim separatists, and the Abu Sayyaf bandits. Just weeks after he assumed the position, 23 Marines were killed in an ambush – the largest single loss for the armed forces in recent years. Gen. Dolorfino says to prevent further loss of life and ensure the safety of civilians, he must act swiftly and decisively – pre-empting any possible attacks. “They are the bad guys. They claim to be Muslims, but they are destroying the image of Islam.”
During the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, there were at least 2 ASG attacks on government troops – so the military was on high alert. While on patrol on the dawn of Eid, government soldiers stumbled upon the largest congregation of ASG bandits in Jolo, reputedly an Abu Sayyaf stronghold. It led to the largest bombardment anyone on the island can remember. The military dropped almost twenty 200-lbs bombs on a suspected ASG camp in the mountains – and it reverberated as far as 4 kilometres away, downtown.
Gen. Dolorfino says it was necessary. A pre-emptive move. Military intelligence said there were 200 bandits in the gathering, including some of the group’s top leadership, and suspected Jemaah Islamiyah fighters as well. Some of the “most wanted men” on so-called international terror lists. The Abu Sayyaf was believed to have splintered, but it seems to have consolidated again lately after several high-profile kidnappings by different ASG units. It’s almost as if they have reacquainted themselves with their once solid, and terrifying, identity.
These fighters, originally a Muslim separatist group with a spiritual crusade, had over the years deteriorated and transformed themselves into bandits – criminals out to make a quick buck through kidnapping, murder, and extortion. They’re not the most popular bunch amongst the nation’s Muslims, but an attack during Eid was an attack during Eid. It inflamed passions and sparked religious tensions. The military had “disrespected Islam” and the faithful across the nation were up in metaphorical arms. The military offensive was an attack against Islam itself, the height of disrespect, they said. But the new commanding general begs to disagree. He knows all about all about Islam, he said, he’s been a devout Muslim for 25 years.
“It is a religion of peace,” he says. And pity those who would disrespect it. Like the ASG.
Gen. Dolorfino has not had the usual route to the top. In his youth, he was an activist with strong leftist sympathies. “Back then, I guess you could’ve called me a terrorist … we made bombs and everything … I was even wanted by the military.” But the young warrior soon grew disillusioned with the movement and its methods. That’s when he decided to find answers in the establishment, answers from within the system he was fighting. So he joined the military academy and found himself on his way.
He was first posted to Jolo in 1982. “It was very different then – we had a scorch-earth policy – everything that moved was our enemy.” He is admittedly a curious man, so he studied Islam in the hopes of understanding his enemies’ sentiments. In the process, he became “a believer”. He met and fell in love with a Muslim woman, and converted to her religion. That’s when Benjamin became “Muhammed”. And back then, it quickly became obvious that the “scorch-earth policy” didn’t work.
He returns to Jolo now – 25 years on – with a whole new, more “enlightened” approach, believing he understands it from the inside.
Gen. Dolorfino says he knows there is “no military solution” to what’s been called the “Muslim problem”. Twenty percent of the battle does need to be fought using weapons, he says, but the “greater work” doesn’t involve guns. It’s about fighting poverty, putting civic projects in place, and encouraging dialogue. His wife has close family ties to the Moro National Liberation Front – the only separatist group to have achieved a peace pact with the government. Perhaps a testament to civilised conversation.
The good-humoured, sober General says he will take to task the untangling of knots that comprise Mindanao. But further than that, he intends to pull the disparate, diverse strings together into a cohesive whole. It’s a tall order, but one he is willing to undertake, feeling his own biography will equip him.
So he has embarked on what he calls “surgical operations” – as if removing a social tumour. If the cauterisation is not precise, the “same time as you are shooting at the enemy, you are recruiting for them.”
Despite the increase in “enemy engagements”, Gen. Dolorfino hasn’t asked for additional troops. Instead, he activated what’s called a Civic Emergency Force – putting at the forefront fellow Muslims from the same tribe as the enemy, trusting that “a brother” wouldn’t really be able to turn against “brother”.
The people of Jolo are counting on the same concept. There is still anger, and frustration, but there is also a wary, weary, spark of hope. “The new general is Muslim,” people are whispering. Maybe, just maybe, he can bridge the gap, and bring about lasting peace.
Inside the military base, the new commanding general sips from yet another cup of warrior’s brew – hoping for exactly the same thing.