For this mayor, pink is the color of peace
First of a series
DATU SAUDI AMPATUAN, Maguindanao—If he had his way, Mayor Samsudin “Sam” Dimaukom would paint this town a shocking pink.
The imposing mosque he had built out of his own pocket, along with the municipal hall building and the pennants fluttering on its fence, sports his favorite color, providing a stark contrast to the tan backdrop of this dusty town of rice and corn farmers.
Dimaukom wears pink shirts and drives around in a pink Hummer.
“Pink is the color of love and peace,” he said. “That’s what’s needed in a region wracked by a decades-long Moro insurgency.”
Dimaukom spoke behind a desk adorned with his nameplate on a canister of 76-mm ammunition fired from a Scorpion tank—a memento from Col. Edgar Gonzales of the campaign a year ago against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) at Shariff Saydona Mustapha.
Gonzales, commander of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade, was back on the front line against the BIFF as the Armed Forces of the Philippines mounted a new drive against the so-called “renegade” faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the aftermath of the massacre of 44 police commandos in the cornfields of nearby Mamasapano on Jan. 25.
The Special Action Force (SAF) troops were out to take Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” and his Filipino aide, Basit Usman, but ran into combined forces of the BIFF and the MILF and were routed. Marwan, with a $6-million bounty on his head put up by the US government, was reportedly killed, but Usman escaped and is believed to be under the protection of the BIFF.
The Mamasapano bloodbath, which also claimed the lives of 17 MILF fighters and three civilians, threatens to derail a peace agreement the government and the MILF signed last year. The accord would pave the way for the creation of a Bangsamoro substate that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) before President Aquino’s term ends next year. Discussions on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that Aquino had certified for urgent approval by Congress have stalled.
Three weeks into the Army offensive, some 60,000 people—from a peak of 75,000—occupy evacuation centers in appalling conditions, according to a report from the office of the ARMM governor in Cotabato City.
Zone of peace
Dimaukom doesn’t sound terribly alarmed that the situation in the encampments would deteriorate. He said that in one barangay (village) he had visited, the Army battalion commander had told him that the displaced could go home.
In fact, he said, the local peace and order council had prepared a resolution declaring each barangay cleared by the army of the BIFF as a “zone of peace.” Armed men except those who are authorized to carry weapons, would be banned from these villages, he said. The MILF would enforce the ban, according to the plan. Troops should be deployed and development assistance should follow.
“If we do not do anything like that we will not know what will become of us,” said the 53-year-old, self-made millionaire. “There will be progress, but it will be a long process.”
As a boy, Dimaukom sold water spinach and firewood scavenged from the forest. A turning point in his life came when a massive earthquake and tidal wave hit the region in 1976 and forced him to try his luck in Cotabato City. There, he parlayed savings from a sari-sari store and carinderia, and rose to become a real estate development financier.
His foray into politics came when he was appointed vice governor of Maguindanao by Gov. Toto Mangudadatu, who won the gubernatorial race in the province on a sympathy vote after the slaughter of 58 people, including his wife and 32 journalists, during the 2009 election campaign. It was the worst political massacre in the country.
These days, Dimaukom goes around distributing relief aid to the displaced, talking to military officers about conditions in their barangays about the possibility of returns.
“We need to win back the trust of the people,” said the mayor. “We need to make them feel they are not isolated.”
Breath of fresh air
Following decades of violence and corruption that have kept the region impoverished, a new crop of leaders has emerged, like a breath of fresh air, with visions of peace and progress, according to workers of Community and Family Services International (CFSI).
“These leaders have earned respect in their communities,” said Steven Muncy, executive director of CFSI, a humanitarian agency that in the past decade has been implementing programs of the World Bank and UN agencies in conflict zones in Mindanao.
Dimaukom is one of them.
In Pagalungan, there’s Mayor Salik P. Mamasabulod, who knew exactly what to do when villages in the municipality were emptied last month as a result of a rido—clan fighting that is one major cause of intermittent mass displacements in Mindanao.
A land dispute had erupted into a full-blown conflict between local commanders of the BIFF and the MILF that required the Army’s intervention. More than 15,000 people were forced to flee their homes.
The displaced stayed for nearly a month in the encampments, receiving aid and returning home after hearing a report from Mamasabulod, who had gone to their barangays with the military and saw for himself that the villages were safe.
A farmer with only an elementary education, the 55-year-old Mamasabulod had seen it all. He had served as barangay captain for 15 years before he was elected vice mayor. He became mayor when the incumbent died in 2013. He had learned the rudiments of providing emergency humanitarian aid at the grass roots from international agencies.
Genuine road map
Pagalungan had been one of the major evacuation centers in the periodic mass displacements that had marred a general ceasefire the Fidel Ramos administration signed with the MILF in 1997.
Three years later, more than a million people abandoned their homes when former President Joseph Estrada waged an “all-out war” against the MILF that saw the Army overran the rebel headquarters at Camp Abubakar in July 2000.
Under the pretext of going after the “Pentagon group” of kidnappers that the MILF was allegedly coddling, the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration went on the offensive in 2003. Pagalungan, site of the MILF headquarters at the Buliok complex, was overrun, forcing 400,000 to flee their homes.
Violence again broke out in October 2008 after the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), the culmination of 11 years of negotiations in Kuala Lumpur under the auspices of the Malaysian government.
The extraordinary document outlining the setting up of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity was envisioned to be the comprehensive compact, or final peace treaty, on the Moro rebellion that had claimed more than 120,000 lives and wrecked the homes of millions.
Angry at the court’s rejection of the MOA-AD, MILF commanders Ameril Umbra Kato and Abdullah Macapaar, alias Bravo, went on the warpath. This went on for months, embarrassing the MILF leadership and forcing the displacement of 500,000 people.
Mamasabulod sees hope in the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro that President Aquino signed last year with the MILF and the draft BBL pending in Congress that will serve as the charter of the proposed substate in Mindanao.
“That is the genuine road map to peace,” the mayor of Pagalungan said of the BBL, echoing the sentiment of Mayor Sam Dimaukom and the displaced at a roadside encampment shaded by coconut trees at Barangay Timbangan in Shariff Aguak.
Out of harm’s way
Around 50 families were under plastic sheets on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, some of them given out by aid agencies to those who had fled the Kato and Bravo rampage in 2008. It was sweltering hot and women and children were sweating in their tents.
Rhea Mangulamas, 26, heavy with her fifth child, was fanning a toddler sleeping on her lap. She was waiting for her husband, a part-time carpenter and driver of a “Skylab”—a motorcycle with an extra wooden seat—to bring lunch to the family. She had never gone past high school and said her only ambition in life was to see to it that her kids get a proper education.
Tata Sulaiman, 21, a mother of three, said she had not seen her husband, a farmer and part-time MILF fighter, since he and his comrade in arms were dispatched to an MILF camp before the current military offensive began.
Mayor Dimaukom said that the military had requested four dump trucks to evacuate MILF men to get them out of harm’s way in the army offensive against the BIFF.
Baital Sulba, who was clueless about her age, was, like others in the camp, anxious to go home to her thatched hut. “I have evacuated so many times,” she said, first as a teenager during World War II. “I am used to it.” But she said it was a lot hotter this time under the tent.
Get on with it
The displaced didn’t take with them their possessions when they scampered for safety. The military offensive began in the midst of the harvest season and by last count had covered 11 municipalities in Maguindanao. Along the roads, palay was drying under the sun. Women in the camps were allowed to go back to their farms during the day and bring food to their families.
“Please let the government know that if a military solution is needed, let them get on with it, then let the people go home,” said Emadia Upam, 39.
Talib A. Benito, one of the 15 members of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), isn’t too hopeful that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law will be passed any time soon with the demands by lawmakers that the MILF surrender its fighters involved in the Mamasapano massacre of the police commandos and stand trial.
The Shariah lawyer and former dean of the King Faisal Center for Islamic, Arabic, and Asian Studies at Mindanao State University in Marawi City said the MILF planned to submit the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Benito said he expected opponents of the Bangsamoro to question this move that could result in a deadlock. He mentioned the position taken by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima that the MILF is not a belligerent, contrary to the MILF stand that it is a revolutionary movement that has been given international status with the participation of third-country mediators in the peace process.
Benito also shrugged off claims by lawmakers that certain provisions in the Bangsamoro Basic Law are unconstitutional, saying that his commission, which drafted the charter of the proposed substate, conformed to the spirit of the Philippine Constitution.
Tired of war
Eighteen members of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the Philippine Constitution following the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the installation of President Corazon Aquino have suggested as much in paid advertisements that were published recently in Manila’s newspapers.
“Yes,” he replied when asked if the ads conformed to the MILF view—never mind a common principle in judicial interpretation that what is clear in the letter of the law does not require further analysis.
“It actually supports our stand and the stand of Malacañang that the drafted basic law can be accommodated by the spirit of the Constitution,” he said from his modest two-story concrete house near the university in Marawi.
“I for one believe that the Constitution as a social contract must be subservient to the national interest,” he said. “The basic interest of the commission is to achieve peace, not only in Mindanao but throughout the country,” he said.
“We are tired of war. For us to achieve peace, everyone is determined to go the extra mile,” he said. “I am confident.”
That is what Mayor Sam Dimaukom is determined to do in proposing a zone of peace in his municipality, sending a strong signal by attempting to paint everything in his path with his and his wife’s favorite shocking pink.
(Tomorrow: Muslim doctors try to heal “gunpowder” mindset)
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