The Philippines’ silent frontier

It’s an area of this predominantly Christian country that has long felt ignored and misunderstood, and now, no matter what might be going on in Mindanao, it seems to barely make a dent in the national consciousness.

Because of a series of natural calamities, the national (and international) spotlight has been on Manila and the northern Philippine provinces more than usual the past few weeks. The problems of the continuously restive Muslim south have been relegated even further back in the pages of the local dailies than they already were ordinarily.

It’s an area of this predominantly Christian country that has long felt ignored and misunderstood and now, no matter what might be going on in Mindanao, it seems to barely make a dent on the national consciousness.  Thing is – many of its residents feel like their region is on the verge of imploding – and everyone else is too busy to notice… or care.

While the “northerners” are dealing with tens of thousands left homeless by epic flooding, record-breaking rains, and now the fear of rapidly spreading plague-like diseases, residents in the southern-most islands have been contending with an increase of attacks from armed groups, near daily explosions, abductions for money, and tens of thousands left homeless by the on-going conflict between government forces and both Muslim separatists and the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group.

This has been the case for decades, but many “southerners” feel it’s become worse in the past few weeks, particularly since the military attacked a suspected ASG camp on the southern island of Jolo on the Muslim holy festival of Eid. It incensed the devout – regardless of political affiliation, and gave the various and disjointed Muslim tribes something to stand against — together. The unceasing, and numerous, retaliatory attacks have killed Philippine troops, as well as 2 U.S. servicemen. Bridges have been blown up – and attempts have been made to destroy communications towers, block main thoroughfares… and isolate communities.

And yet, all this has only barely made the local news. “Why is it the national capital region suffers a sudden calamity and everything stops for them?” many in the South are asking, despite feeling for their affected compatriots. “We’ve been suffering for years – and no one’s stopped for us.”

North-South divide

It’s a division not often discussed or confronted in the Philippines. For many, such an “unpleasant” reality – if unacknowledged – can be swept under the proverbial carpet and, well, ignored. But exist it does – the division between north and south.

On  a recent plane journey back north to Manila from Mindanao, a chatty passenger shared that it was her first trip “down there”. She was terrified, she said. Afraid for her life, and of what she might find in what to her had always been a “black hole”, a “no man’s land”. But she wasn’t even in the most embattled areas of the south. “Oh, really?” she pondered.“I didn’t know that,” she giggled. “I always thought, you know, all of Mindanao is ‘Min-da-nao‘ after all, isn’t it?”

But that’s the point – it isn’t.  And many in the north don’t see that. How can they, when any news that might come to them of their southern countrymen is always bad, and relegated to the sidebar columns in the back of local papers? 

“It’s a different country up there,” a Jolo resident now living in hiding once said to us. Members of her Christian family had been kidnapped for ransom and she was in constant fear for her life. But, she says, she wouldn’t move away because life in conflict-ridden Jolo was all she knew, and she elected to remain in the familiar, rather than move to where she said she was made to feel “un-familiar”.  As a “natural-born southerner”, she said she wasn’t welcome “up north”.

“I truly feel like I need a passport just to be let in,” she confided.  Numerous others from Mindanao have said the same. Many of those that have moved north to the capital to escape the war and the poverty of Mindanao say they are distrusted for being “Muslim”, and often feel like lesser citizens. Some, who may indeed be Muslim, said they even resorted to “pretending to be Christian” just to get a job. This wasn’t always the case, but again, that’s a subject for a whole other blog post.

The bottom line: The “north-south” divide is yet another gap that needs to be bridged in an already cacophonous nation of 7,000 plus islands – with over 300 dialects, and just as many tribal and familial affiliations. It is very difficult, both sides admit separately, to stand together as one country when identity is still boiled down to which island you were born on, into which family, and under what religion. Aside from varying degrees of pain, the only thing north and south share right now is a seemingly silent agreement to ignore their frontier.

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