KISSA AND DAWAT: Is Sustainable Peace Possible for Sulu?

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 2 July 2019) – Four days ago we were awakened to yet another bad news from beloved Sulu. On Friday, a holy day for the Muslim population, was turned into a twin bombing attack. While military casualties were awarded and received medical attention, the narrative about civilian casualty is surprisingly absent. Among the civilian casualty is a faculty member of the Mindanao State University who was visited by Prof. Sahie Udjah, a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). Another prominent resident, Jean Alfad, who happens to sit in the local military advisory board who lives in the vicinity of the blast, expressed the difficulty of civilians in the area, among which is a longer detour to reach their homes.

Despite this incident, the turnover and assumption to office of newly-elected leaders push through with Governor Sakur Tan back in the provincial capitol, and Mayor Kerkhar Tan leading downtown Jolo for another term. Women are also assuming posts. There are six women in the provincial board – Indah Loong-Karanain, Crisanta Hayudini, Charina Isahac, Raihana Adam, Nadia Alih and Nurwina Sahidulla – out of the 10 seats. In Panglima Tahir, where a tourist resort is being promoted[1], the vice mayor and two of the top five councilors are women. In Maimbung, a first-termer is the town mayor and two of the top five councilors are women. Across at Luuk, another woman leads the town and two of the top five councilors are also women. For more details covering the 18 municipalities and two legislative districts, please follow this link –

What is in store for Sulu under the newly-assumed leaders will unfold in the days to come. What will happen to Sulu with yet another presidential pronouncement to resolve Sulu’s security challenge before the end of the year? In 2016, former Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza opined, “the reason why probably a Duterte presidency can make things happen. You need a strong political-willed president to gamble, risk and maybe squander political capital.”[2] Is this still possible now that we are in the middle of the president’s term, with last week’s incident allegedly a suicide bombing?

How do we even start resolving what has become a lingering nightmare for Sulu residents whose daily situation is exacerbated by frequent power and phone signal outage? The sights and sounds of military helicopters and planes, and the bombing of alleged ASG targets in the hinterlands of Patikul have become to be accepted as new norms. To the point, people wonders if none of these are heard and in sight. Few days before the blast there was “suysuy” (rumour) of impending attacks and lockdown which was dismissed as fake news.

I was born in Jolo, two years before the Jolocaust of 1974. When our family was able to return immediately after, we lost a lot more than the physical materials. We lament the lost of family memorabilias – photos and letters from distant relatives in the Punjab, mementos of Australian, Ashraf and Chinese ancestors.

Australian, Punjabi, Chinese, you may ask? In Jolo? Unbeknownst to many, Jolo was already a thriving international entrepôt that trades directly with Singapore and other neighboring states. Today, the Singapore nation-state has a total land area of 722.5 Sulu has a total land area of 1,600.40 Back then, whenever the Sultan is in Singapore, he gets a gun salute reserved for a head of state. Singapore was his take off point to perform pilgrimage in Mecca, or simply visit London and Paris or his new-found American friends in the United States. Imagine that?

In those days, our elders would remind us, no one gets hungry and everyone can earn. In ‘pag-usaha’ (business) masambu (thriving). Rich merchant families are able to provide employment and support their network of relatives. Few are trooping to government offices to seek employment. Jolo was the Philippines’ barter trading center until the succession of national governments failed to appreciate and killed its entrepreneurial spirit by neglect and ignorance.

Across Sulu, there was a time when the province was a major player in hemp and coconut production, too. As people were engaged in varied livelihood and enterprises, the roads everywhere were safer even late at night. Families are mobile visiting relatives, staying overnight or weekend at Patikul, Indanan and Talipao for family get-together, for picnic on the beautiful beaches or flock to family orchards to harvest seasonal endemic fruits of duyan (durian), marang, wanni, mampallam, bawnu’, manggis (mangosteen) and a lot more.

At night, Jolo comes alive around the plazas, like Plaza Marina near the port, Plaza Rizal at the center of the Walled City and Plaza Tulay at the back of the historic Tulay Mosque. Popular with kids are the hot popcorn. Teens like spicy pastil (pastel), adults enjoy several rounds of native kahawa (coffee) and bang-bang (native sweets). After strolling and posing for the mandatory family picture, ends at several halo-halo joints.

Even in the ’80s, Jolo was still flourishing with about a dozen banks operating locally. Barter trading was still operational, although, its transfer to Zamboanga signalled its demise. By this time Jolo was still a multicultural, multilingual and multireligious town marked by conviviality and tolerance. Inter-marriage was part of the social fabric. Most of the original Jolo families are mixed culturally and religiously.

Aside from the majority Tausug, there are others in the midst. The Christian population are a mix of professionals, like doctors, teachers, bankers and government workers; there are also stereotypical “inday” and “dodong” serving as house helps. The thriving Christian community is served by several churches and a cemetery. There are several religious congregations stationed at Jolo – from the original American OMI fathers to their OND sisters, from Siena sisters to Marist brothers. There is even a convent for Carmelite monks besides the Kandang Maw-ag, the Muslim cemetery. They operated the Notre Dame schools that educated the children of Sulu’s elites and had scholarship for the poor and the marginalized, such as the Bajaws.

The Chinese, locally called Lannang, are mostly entrepreneurs and their hub used to be “Tinda Laud”, literally “store on shore”. Since interest (riba’) is frowned upon in Islam, the multitude of padjak (pawnshops) operating around town were owned and operated by the Lannang. The thriving Chinese community is served by a Chinese temple (called Poon Tao Kong) located in Indanan, Sulu; a Chinese school (Tong Jin School) at Alat, Jolo; and a Chinese cemetery at the back of the Catholic cemetery at Trese Martires (colloquially called Martiris).

A combination of security challenges erupted as we come out of Martial Law, this I think is the modern metamorphosis of the gun culture in the province. Frequent conflicts among political clans, daring acts of criminal gangs targeting businesses and professionals, how Marcos pampered local militias to prep up his martial rule, the secessionist movement and the birth of ASG all converged to create the havoc that is now appearing as an overwhelming or insurmountable challenge. We should also mention a prevailing notion among locals that allege that the conflicts in Sulu are necessary evils to justify promotion of AFP generals and justify corruption in the military. How do then the people of Sulu get out of this mess?

There is a window of hope. Across the channel is Basilan, which up to 2016 was in the same magnitude as Sulu in terms of threats and skirmishes. “But in mid-2016 the various forms of violence that once beset Basilan began to subside, and since then there’s been a relative outbreak of peace”. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) investigated the circumstances leading to Basilan’s stabilization and whether it be can replicated in other parts of the Philippines that are struggling with endemic violence. Those who are now leading Sulu, those are working for the betterment of the people, those who care for Sulu and those who imagine a sustainable “peace time”, better than what our grandparents had experienced, then here’s a study worth reflecting and learning from – “Order amid chaos: tracing the roots of Basilan’s recent outbreak of peace”[3] by HD Jakarta’s manager Alexander Douglas.

As Muslim, we are also required to make du’a (supplication) for the success of our leaders, to support them when they are doing the right things and to alert them when they begin to trek away from the right path. Perhaps, this too is one missing from many of us.

If there is one optimistic person, it can be Jean Alfad who heads the provincial tourism campaign and a volunteer for Gawad Kalinga, trying to sell Sulu as a tourist destination. Skeptics can be forgiven: The views are surreal and great, but is it really safe? I have seen the pictures she had taken of the different tourist sites around Sulu as well as the few brave souls who have taken on the challenge.

Sulu need not just be for the few and the brave. I, too, imagine and continue to be fascinated by the stories of our kamaasan (old folks), of their peace time. But I guess, I do not want a return, I want to move forward, and imagine a better Sulu as ‘Darul Aman’ – an abode of peace, security, tranquility and prosperity, all rolled into one. This is our du’a (supplication), and may Allah SWT grant us this in our lifetime. Ameen.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)

[1] “Risk and relaxation: What it’s like to tour Sulu” –

[2] “Dureza: Duterte can solve Abu Sayyaf problem” –

[3] Order amid chaos: tracing the roots of Basilan’s recent outbreak of peace –