PEACETALK: Sleepless in Basilan: A postscript

A life of a monk is not impossible in a place like Basilan where the decision either to stay in your rented room or go out for a night of light moments is not a matter of choice. It is an imposed option. But as I insisted to go strolling in the dimly-lit streets of Isabela, I found it comforting, far apart from what I have heard about the place from media reports.

In fairness, walking through the nearly empty streets of the capital city is as safe as walking in the streets of Davao and Dumaguete.

The same old Isabela greeted me with rustic buildings lining up the streets. Of course, except for Jollibee-Basilan that stood like an anomalous creature in a landscape filled up with squalor. Although I heard that Basilenos take pride of the “happy-Bee” in their backyard despite of noticeably high-priced menu compared to their mainland counterparts.

I guess one has to learn to count one’s blessings when in the island and discover the value of patience while surfing cyberspace at a local internet café with a speed of a bicycle. It seems like years to wait for the website to display its contents. Thanks to some enterprising people like Jamju Rivera, the executive director of the Basilan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a friend who ventured into net-café business.

The grounds beneath the rubber trees were no longer littered with dry leaves as “wintering” was over. Wintering is a period when rubber trees shed off their old leaves to give way to new ones. It is during this time where the harvest of rubber latex is at its lowest.

In my mind, despite of the fast-paced development in other places, I am still returning to the same old Basilan. Very Basilan as I used to say.

Considered as one of the less populated provinces with a multi-ethnic population of around 300,000, Basilan is teeming with natural resources, business and employment opportunities. The island province, in fact, is one case of a company province with most of its population deriving income as employed agricultural workers.

I don’t know though if the change of ownerships of the major agricultural plantations from Menzi in Isabela, Enrile in Tipo-tipo, UP Land Grant in Lamitan, Sime Darby in Tumahubong, and Firestone in Sumisip to the farm-workers who benefited from the implementation of the agrarian reform way back in the 1990s really made wonders to the economic life of the poor. There was a promise of a better life when the farm-workers won their battle in demanding the inclusion for agrarian reform of the plantations owned by capitalists from Manila and multi-national corporations. Judging how things are in the island province, I am afraid that the promise of a better life remains a promise.

What is glaringly obvious, however, is the change in the political landscape of the province. The Tugungs and Salapuddins are no longer in political power. Even the Biels in Isabela City are no longer a political force, at least for the moment. The island province’s politics is practically under one family — the Akbars. Except for Lamitan, Congressman Wahab Akbar and his family are lording it over the local politics. This alone speaks a lot about the province more than any commentaries and reports can do.

Perhaps, a lot have changed over time since my last stay in Basilan more than a decade ago. I was working then for the special agrarian reform desk of the National Federation of Labor as my rite of passage into community organizing work in the exotic yet dangerous places like Sampinit Complex near Sumisip and Tipo-tipo.

The fundamentals, however, remain the same to say the least. Despite government efforts to make Basilan appear to be progressing with few artificial facelifts in the form of limited infrastructure development, the quality of life of most Basilenos is wanting. No need for statistical prints from the government to show how little progress did set in. A walk in the streets of Isabela or Lamitan, and a visual tour of the island will give you the sense that life is not easy for Basilenos.

Ironically, under other circumstances, Basilan could have been one of those idyllic tropical islands with its amiable stretch of coastlines and fine beaches. But this little speck in the Sulu Sea becomes a place of hardship and misery for most of its people. It ranks among the poorest provinces of the country where only one in every four families has access to health facilities and safe drinking water.

This irony is perhaps best exemplified by the peace memorabilia at the entrance of Basilan Prelature's Bishop Querexeta Formation Center. I found it very queer to have as memento for peace, the jeep which the victims, who were all church workers, used on the day they were ambushed on their way to the Formation Center years ago.

Allan, a local peace activist, told me he found it very disturbing to have the cannibalized jeep as a peace memorabilia.

Or maybe as ironic as the permit from the City Hall that allows your group to hold a peace rally but refraining you from using speakers, megaphones, streamers, and other paraphernalia, I quipped. To which Allan laughed in mock resignation, but defiant. Defiant because they still insisted to hold the peace rally at the city plaza with a score of young people in attendance under the watchful eyes of a dozen local police. It was my first time to see a real silent march and rally in the real sense of the word. Well, if you are in Basilan you must learn how to be creative.

My expectations for bangs and booms due to a well-publicized war in Basilan upon my return to this island province were not unfounded at all. As I can see, war still rages in Basilan. Not the kind of war being mounted by the government in pursuit of a handful suspects of the July 10 tragedy. But the kind of war being waged by the ordinary folk like Allan, Rhiedz, Julie, Tahir, and nameless others who continue to wage peace in order to win the war.

One can't help but admire these ordinary people who are resolute in their struggle for peace. They have no other island but Basilan, they said, adding that “we were born here, we live here, and we will die here.”

Anybody could have easily said that. Except that these people who uttered these words were not the kind who are ready with their passports just in case things will go wrong. These are the people whose discontent steeled them to brace for a more honorable and courageous stand of waging peace. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wants to share his/her thought on peace in Mindanao. Antonio M. Manaytay, a research officer of the Davao-based Initiatives for International Dialogue, was the media coordinator of the International Women's Peace and Solidarity Mission to Basilan and Mindanao on August 10 to 14).