Don’t Go To Jolo – Part Three
Lt Col Paolo ‘Tiny’ Perez, commanding officer of the 18th Infantry Battalion in the rebel-dominated municipality of Tipo Tipo, Basilan, strolls his headquarters after a morning hip-hop dance workout. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
This is the third instalment of Matthew Thompson’s account of his 2014 journey into the Sulu Archipelago, a violent, beautiful and contested region of the southern Philippines, where US colonial troops first faced Islamic warriors and suicide attackers more than a hundred years ago. In the aftermath of September 11, which like the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was largely planned in the Philippines, American forces were sent back into the Sulu for a dozen years, the mission ending only months before Dr Thompson’s recent visit. Nevertheless, violence and lawlessness continue in this declared theatre of the ‘War on Terror’, where instability and stability can be different words for the same thing.
Read the first instalment of Don’t Go To Jolo here and the second here.
18th Infantry Battalion HQ, Tipo-Tipo, Basilan
‘I look at them as a criminal group posturing as Islamic radicals,’ says Cristobal Julian Paolo ‘Tiny’ Perez, the battalion’s big, muscular and stretch sports-wear clad commanding officer, as we have chocolate wafers and coffee in an open hilltop hut. The sumptuous view of jungled ranges and out to the sea is soothing, especially now that the rain has stopped and little birds flit about, calling and singing to each other. It is relatively cool up here, comfortable after the humidity of the lower regions. Gazing a mile and a bit down to the valley below I see rooftops scattered amidst the palm forest of al Barka, a rebel dominated municipality where hundreds of government troops have been killed, scores of them beheaded. When the guerrillas look up here to the infantry base, it probably appears much the same – ramshackle wooden huts and walkways in lush forest where black volcanic rocks jut and bulge from the soil – just with a more commanding position and heavy weapons.
Stilt houses of the Badjau people cluster around Lamitan Port on the island of Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago, southern Philippines. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
The Abu Sayyaf, of which Tiny is speaking, is not the only rebel crew in al Barka, but this is one of its strongholds. ‘Most of their fighters are very young,’ says Tiny, a dad in his mid-forties who hails from Basilan. ‘Fifteen, fourteen. They start out as drug addicts.’ Methamphetamine, known in the Philippines as shabu, is their drug, he says. ‘From addiction they move to thievery, robbery. Then after that they move on to being paid to kill people. Or sometimes car-napping or motorbike-napping: killing the occupant and running away with the motorcycles.’
‘That’s a bit extreme,’ I say. ‘Rather than telling you to get off your bike.’
‘Yeah, they even hit a lady in the head with a baseball bat just to get her motorcycle: because they are under drugs. From there they become wanted people; then they join; they become part of the Abu Sayyaf UTG, the Urban Terrorist Group, or some come here to the mountains.’
The idea of heavily armed, head-lopping, teenage meth-freaks gives me pause. ‘What happens to the drug use when they’re in the Abu Sayyaf?’
‘Most of them are high when we fight. That’s why they’re really fearless and when you’re fearless you are effective,’ says Tiny, stretching his arms behind his back. ‘But when we hit them and they get wounded, that’s the time you learn that they’re children. Because they cry to their mothers. It’s like an instant transformation,’ he says, clicking his fingers, ‘from a terrorist to a child.’ Tiny says that in a couple of recent battles he and his men have listened to the distressed cries of shot-up kids, but now abruptly changes tack. ‘I’ve lost six men,’ he says, meaning since assuming command about seventeen months ago. ‘And more or less 27 wounded.’
‘What’s that like?’ I ask. ‘To have six men die.’
‘They didn’t die all at the same time,’ says Tiny.
‘Does it affect you personally?’
‘It affects us – the entire unit.’ He clears his throat. ‘But because we have been in combat since we were in the service you take it in and move on. We try to help the families; our objective is to help, but of course it’s also for our conscience.’
‘What happens to the wounded on the enemy side?’
‘Some of them die.’
‘Because they’re not at hospital?’
‘Loss of blood, something like that. But we just recently learned that they have a doctor.’
‘Down there?’ I point at al Barka.
He nods, saying that the Abu Sayyaf used to threaten Lamitan doctors into coming to treat their wounded but now a foreign doctor – a Malaysian, Dan said earlier – has come to stay with the rebels.
Tiny and his men raid al Barka’s camps from time to time, and I ask him how the attacks generally play out.
Sneaking in with all the gear takes about an hour, Tiny says, which is a lot shorter than the time it can take getting out. ‘The last combat we had there was eleven hours and we were outnumbered.’ He finishes off another wafer, describing as he eats how the armed opposition swelled as an influx of supporters, men hoping to collect guns from the battlefield, bandits and ‘rogue’ MILF, swarmed to the aid of the Abu Sayyaf in a classic case of the pintakasi phenomenon that Dan mentioned. When the initial raiding party decided to withdraw with its wounded, the task of Tiny and his 80 or so men was to block the now advancing enemy forces, which meant that ‘all the attention was on us,’ he says, laughing and folding an empty wafer packet. ‘From a group of 30 people they swarmed up to a group of 180 to 200 people. We were attacked from three sides.’
‘Did you have the option of withdrawing?’
Tiny nods but says he declined to pull back because, firstly, it would boost the rebels’ confidence. ‘And number two, we came for a fight and we have a fight, so why withdraw? Number three is to show we don’t back down.’ His long combat experience in Basilan has taught him how to withstand pintakasi, he says. ‘I told my men to dig in, and to minimise ammo consumption. I would shift some of my squads to reinforce some of my sides that were being heavily attacked; a couple of times we broke their assaults.’ The dense forest cover meant that all that the soldiers saw of most of their foes were hints of movement between trees. ‘I told my men, “Just calm down; choose your targets; everybody does not need to fire.”’ He told them not to lose hope and to remember that, unlike the rebels, they can expect artillery and air support. ‘I love when they swarm on me,’ says Tiny, sitting up straighter. ‘When there are a lot of targets and you send in artillery and mortars and close air support it’s going to do a lot of damage on them.’ After calling in the hammers during an April pintakasi, at least thirteen rebels lay dead, Tiny says, nine of them Abu Sayyaf and four from the MILF.
Filipino infantrymen prepare to escort a civilian through an Abu Sayyaf Group ambush route in Basilan. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
These communities that are not hugely populated to start with. There has been a steady death toll for decades but there’s always more, right, I ask.
‘Yeah, they keep getting replenished,’ says Tiny, who started fighting the Abu Sayyaf here in 1996.
Being in the thick of jungle-fights against largely unseen and more numerous enemies puts an immense strain on one’s nerves, the colonel says, especially with the violence crashing on for eleven hours. But a big reason his troops can hold it together, he says, is that so many of them are old-timers, the 18IB previously having been tasked with handling Basilan’s paramilitaries (known as Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units, or CAFGUs), a tricky job that Tiny says best suits ‘mature’ soldiers. When he took on the 18IB last year and it was converted to an active fighting force, ‘I had the oldest battalion in the entire Philippine army,’ he says, with an average age of 46 to 50.
‘Inspiring for us older guys,’ I say.
‘As a commander you don’t just look at the weaknesses of your men; you look at the strengths, also. And our strength was I had mature people.’ One prized quality of the mature soldiers is their self-control on the battlefield. ‘When abuses happen it is usually young soldiers lashing out because they are afraid and angry. Older soldiers are more calm. I make sure every unit has one or two old guys in it to stop the others from panicking under fire, to keep telling them to stay calm, to stay focused. It works. The old guys cannot manoeuvre so well but they steady the force. I am lucky to have them,’ he says. ‘One of my best men is ex-MNLF. He was trained in Libya and Malaysia and has been fighting for 30 years or more, first against the government and now with the government. When a pintakasi happens and my young men start to panic he moves around to reassure them. Older soldiers are also much better at building community relations, which is at the heart of counter-insurgency operations. Much of our work is directed at that and you can see that we do not separate ourselves from the population – in fact, we run many programs here; this morning we had Football For Peace, which local kids took part in. You see some,’ Tiny says, nodding towards some boys wandering around.
‘Couldn’t some of them be spying?’ I ask, glancing at some lads of about ten heading towards the barracks.
Tiny nods. ‘They sent a kid to observe us. Unfortunately, he saw people of his age playing football and enjoying their time and he thought, “Why am I fighting when my age group is enjoying?” so he decides to join Football For Peace. Of course, the children are concerned because they know he’s Abu Sayyaf. Then later he comes up to us and says, “Sir I’m an Abu Sayyaf; I don’t want to go back to the ASG camp.” Then we asked him why he became an Abu Sayyaf. He told us that his mom remarried another guy so he had a stepfather. When he was six, seven years old, he was maltreated by the stepfather; he was pushed out of the house and he broke his arm and he was never brought to the hospital. It didn’t heal properly. That’s why when the Abu Sayyaf came and invited him to join, gave him food, gave him money, they were able to convince him to come. He was with the Abu Sayyaf for one year and a half,’ says Tiny, casting a glance at al Barka, where the kid lived. ‘He would carry ammunition during encounters.’
‘How old was he when he started with them?’
‘He joined the Abu Sayyaf at eight,’ says Tiny. ‘When he came to us he was nine and a half. We turned him over to the mayor because the municipality has a social welfare department, but I told the mayor not to return him to the abusive environment, not to return him to the mother. After two months with the mayor, he went to live with his grandfather.’
‘No, here in Tipo Tipo. And his grandfather was in the fish business, so he was helping out selling fish. And his grandfather sent him to a madrassa, an Arabic school, so he would unlearn what the Abu Sayyaf taught him and learn what Islamic teaching is really about: not the radical one but the proper Islamic teaching. February last year, four months after he went to us, he was shot three times in the chest coming out of the madrassa.’
‘How old was he then?’
‘Nine and a half. They killed a 9-year old. That’s why I went to the ustadz, the ulama council, and I said, “If you cannot condemn this act then I don’t think you have the right to teach about religion because this act is barbaric.” Under the law of Islam, under the law of Allah, I told them a kid 12 years old and below does not have any sin.’ Tiny looks up from the wafer packet, saying he told the Islamic clerics that failing to condemn the murder would demonstrate that they could not distinguish between right and wrong. ‘I insulted them but something positive came out of it,’ he says, describing a sermon subsequently ordered by the ulama council and delivered in mosques across Basilan that, while not identifying the ASG, condemned murder, kidnapping, extortion, rape and other predatory, parasitical habits beloved by the group. ‘If you are mujahideen you are supposed to protect the people; you are not supposed to take advantage of the people. And they said that if what you eat does not come from your sweat then it is not in accordance with the Koran and with Islam,’ says Tiny. He chuckles, adding that he only heard about the sermon when a barangay captain telephoned him twenty minutes in, asking for soldiers to be sent to his mosque to protect the cleric. The change in mindset suggested that the army’s efforts to peel the communities away from sympathy and support for the terrorists were working, Tiny says. ‘The ASG cannot move as freely as before, and if people see strange men implanting something by the road they will call us.’
The ASG doing anything about it, I ask. Not shrinking away, are they?
Tiny flicks grit from the table and shakes his head, saying that they have adapted. ‘They’re marrying into other areas. They kidnap a girl, rape her, then marry her.’
‘But, but –’
‘Then when they become part of the family–’
‘But don’t the families want nothing to do with them?’
‘Once they’re raped there’s dowry, and it’s either they accept or the ASG will become their rido,’ he says, rido being the traditional clan-based vendetta system in Muslim communities of the Sulu and Mindanao regions. Getting into a blood feud with a criminal army is, of course, quite a commitment; when the ASG in Jolo shot up a jeepney a few weeks ago, killing 23 people including children, it was apparently tied into rido. ‘That’s one of our problems right now. They’re trying to marry into other barangays. That’s how they’re trying to counter our winning of the barangays. To marry into some prominent families so they’ll have influence in the barangays, because once they become family, then families protect each other. That’s the culture.’
‘But they kidnap and rape the women in the first place?’ I say, more than a little taken aback. ‘That’s pretty hard core.’
‘Ah,’ says Tiny, squirming. ‘The rights of women are not that … That’s why we also into strengthening gender sensitivity here, reminding women that this is the Philippines and they have rights.’
Rains move across the valley again; they’re not yet up here but al Barka’s rooftops wash into the white. What is it actually like in there, I ask the colonel. ‘Looks like any other place, does it?’
‘No, it’s really a camp. There are no women there except when some of their wives come to visit. There are children, but they are child combatants – 11-year olds – I think they have a 12-year old combatant,’ Tiny says. The executed nine-year-old had been their youngest.
‘How many people are in the camp?’
‘Thirty to 40,’ he says, looking at the call coming in on his phone but not answering.
‘There’s another group of around fifteen two to three kilometres away from that camp, and there’s another group of eight to twelve in another baranguy. Then there’s another group of 35 people east of us.’ Tiny thinks for a moment. ‘And there’s a group there,’ he says, pointing along the valley. ‘Around ten people. Under an MILF commander, but he’s a dual citizen.’ That unit is an outpost of a nearby municipality’s camp of around 40 fighters, says Tiny, with the banditos Islamicos doing mutually reinforcing jungle-commutes as needed.
Volcanic rocks dot the lush and contested hills of Tipo-Tipo, Basilan. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
Perhaps the steadily growing map of guerrilla meth-ghettoes has me smiling oddly, because the colonel quickly jumps to talk progress, including how his men grievously wounded the ASG’s spiritual leader, Isnilon Hapilon, a man with a $5 million bounty on his head for crimes including the 2001 mass kidnapping and transportation to Basilan of 20 hostages, including three Americans (one of whom was beheaded and another died in a military assault). ‘He’s old already – 60, I think. He’s one of the original commanders of the Abu Sayyaf from when the Abu Sayyaf was formed; he’s kind of an ustadz, so somehow he gives them legitimacy when it comes to Islamic radicalism,’ says Tiny, watching the rains move closer. ‘We were able to hit him by sniper in the stomach. He had three wounds but the stomach was serious,’ he says, flicking through the video collection on his cell phone. ‘I lost the video.’ Placing his phone back on the table, he gets it parallel with the wood’s edge. ‘I had a video of him. His kids were crying, two teenage kids who were armed also, who were crying over his wounded body. So we’re hoping that he’d dead.’ Tiny’s laugh is quick and breathy, almost apologetic at times. ‘But they do have that foreign doctor.’
Talk of the doctor bring to mind Dan’s comments about the Malaysian terrorists here – that medico plus an engineer and cleric – and I ask if their presence is being felt.
‘Since these people arrived we have notice a rise in the bombings and bigger bombs. That’s why last August I had twelve wounded from an IED explosion. Three lost hearing,’ he says. The blast was the first carried out under the instruction of the ASG’s latest foreign advisory team, ushering in ‘a series of bombings in Lamitan and an attempted bombing on the US convoy.’
‘So what happens if you just attack the camp? They just swarm or run away?’
‘Either we get swarmed or they just run away and, when we leave, they come back and rebuild the huts.’
‘Do they have much of value there that they would miss?’
‘They just take their belongings and a few weapons and go.’
‘What do they do for food? They got money coming in?’
‘They have money coming in from extortion, from kidnapping. Do you know how much the ASG, the lawless elements, earned last year from kidnapping alone? Two hundred and forty nine million pesos,’ Tiny says, which converts to about $5.6 million.
‘When there’s been a ransom paid, so you see signs of it?’
‘New motorcycles; a commander putting up a bakery; putting up a house. One Abu Sayyaf commander owns a very beautiful house in Limbu Pass and a bakery in Limbu Pass.’
‘But isn’t he an outlaw so he can’t live in the house? Can he go there?’
‘He can’t live in the house but he goes there, sleeps one day, and he has business interests in Lamitan.’ Tiny explains that the businesses are usually in the name of relatives. ‘And they have farms,’ he says, with an ASG commander notorious for beheadings, Nurhassin Jamiri, having several hectares of rubber under cultivation.
As the rain intensifies, we discuss the group’s appeal, how it offers young guys in impoverished areas weapons, a motorcycle, money for a dowry and a tight brotherhood, and how despite the ongoing toll of dead guerrillas (and contrary to the longstanding government claim that the terrorist/jihadist/bandit/gangster gang will soon be finished off) more lads keep signing on. The root enabler of all this, Tiny argues, is a ‘failure of fatherhood.’ He talks about how decades of war and lawlessness have seen generations of boys grow up without fathers, without what should be their central role models and all the values to be learned from a solid dad. ‘It makes them vulnerable for recruitment,’ he says. ‘That’s why when Mohammed Khalifa, brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, came here they first thing they did was establish an Islamic school and establish orphanages all over Mindanao.’ Khalifa, whose charities are believed to have supplied seed funding to what became the Abu Sayyaf, lived in the Philippines around the same time as Khalid Sheik Muhammed, the apparent designer of the 9-11 attacks, and Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.
How strange that the world’s most troublesome currents of intrigue and conspiracy wash right through even to the lush little tropical valley below, with al Qaeda’s visions tapping into receptive conditions and continuums here. And given that counter-terrorism is for the world’s powers a mega-project, draining civil society of vast quantities of money and brainpower and turning the globe into a panopticon, how weird it is that the adversary facing such mammoth countering can be as nothingish as a scattering of village hoodlums in huts.
Serbian-made munitions wait to be used by gunners of the 18th Infantry Battalion. Photo: Matthew Thompson.
Tiny takes me through the shifting ethnic mix of the ASG, from the Yakan members indigenous to Basilan to the Tausugs dominant in Jolo. The group’s cultures and sanctuaries change in response to military pressure, he says. When the US responded to the 2001 mass kidnapping that bagged Americans by sending 1000 or so troops here to help local soldiers, ‘Basilan was cleansed of the ASG; they fled to Sulu,’ says Tiny. However, Yakan members didn’t really fit into Jolo’s Tausug communities, so some filtered back and rebuilt the group here.
‘How was it cleansed before and why can’t you do that again now?’
The colonel laughs under his breath.
‘What’s changed so that you can’t use the same methods?’ I ask.
‘I’ll probably get into trouble if I answer that.’
‘Targeting the families?
‘Focus. To defeat them, there were eight battalions in Basilan.’
‘Four. So, ah.’ The colonel hesitates. ‘Operations were relentless: continuous and relentless. Now it’s more of, ah.’ Again the colonel fumbles for words. ‘Ah, well, it’s probably because the government does not want to create the same effect we did before when there was a lot of destruction. They want it surgical; now it’s more surgical.’ He stabs at a wafer packet, his eyes flicking to the gathering dark. ‘The problem with surgical is there’s a lull. When you engage them for two to three days continuously they lose ammunition. Then you stop and they recover and they buy ammunition again and they kidnap. Then when you go against them again, they’re the same strength – because they have recruited. So I think it should be a balance of relentless operations and surgical operations. If you want to solve something, focus on it.’
‘Would it work again if you did the same as before and then did community building things afterwards?’
‘Yeah, I think so. We’re doing community building now, so we learned from our mistakes before,’ he says, outlining livelihood assistance and road-building projects for which he is hiring the MILF as security against the ASG with its customary extortion racket, hoping involving them will alienate the bandits and help sway rebellious communities to lawful development. ‘I am positive there will be improvement, but I am an impatient person,’ the colonel says. ‘I want to solve it quick. It might seem costly at first but in the long run you save, because fighting the war cheap, in the end you spend more.’
I tell Tiny that when I first came here almost a decade ago Filipino and US forces took pride in telling me that there were just a few hundred ASG left and the island would soon be rid of them all. ‘And I’m hearing the same story now from people – that there are only a few hundred left and –’
‘There are only a few hundred left,’ he says.
‘But that’s what everyone said ten years ago.’
‘Yeah.’ Tiny stretches back on the bench, and talks about his early days mixing it with the ASG. Tiny has not just blasted his way into the bandit camps in raids, surgical or otherwise, but has also slipped in as undercover intelligence agent, pillioned in on the back of motorbikes ridden by relatives of ASG fighters. These were people whom he had cultivated using a talent he picked up not from military intelligence training but from the family business. ‘I came from a family of politicians so my training was as a politician. If you were my asset I befriended you and when you came to me I had two wallets,’ he says, tapping his thigh. ‘This was taught to me by my grandfather who was a long-time mayor and a governor: always have two wallets, so if you are going to give this guy 1000 pesos, always have three 500 peso [notes] in that wallet so when you give him the money you say, “Oh, this is my only money. I only have three 500 pesos. You take two. Can I have one 500 so I can have money to bring home?” So what would you feel? You get more than I get.’
Nodding, I ponder how much better a career in journalism I could have had, had I known these techniques.
‘Why would the ASG let a stranger come in on the back of a motorbike?’ I ask.
‘Because they’re relatives of the person [riding],’ says Tiny.
‘That’s what people are like here? They trust someone if they’re with a relative?’
‘Seems like bad security.’
‘Before. The ones now won’t trust any new face.’
Flushed with nostalgia, Tiny leans smiling into the table, almost having to shout as the downpour grows torrential, and takes me through a more elaborate method that he would use when one of his rebel, or rebel-connected, assets urgently needed money, perhaps due to a family emergency. ‘I don’t have money,’ he’d tell them. ‘But I have my wedding ring, so let’s go to the pawn shop and pawn it.’ The asset would object but Tiny insisted: ‘“For you I will do this.” So you give the wedding ring to the pawn shop, or jewellery – a necklace – anything of value, sometimes your gun,’ says the colonel. ‘“How much you need? Oh, two thousand? OK, give him two thousand.” And you sign overall your stuff to the pawnshop, but actually you are in cahoots with the pawnshop and afterwards they will just return it to you because you already have 10,000 pesos with them.’ Tiny shakes his head and grins. ‘But how would you feel if somebody did it to you? You’d owe them, right? Those things you do not learn in intelligence school; you learn that from politics.’
Dinner will soon be served in the mess; please god let it come with beer. The hangover’s long shadow has deepened and information overload has battered my already shrivelled ruin of a brain. Getting down the hill a ways to the mess should be a bit of an adventure with the night now here and rain pounding down. Everything is mud.
‘We have a few minutes,’ says Tiny. ‘You can ask my men questions at dinner. But anything else I can answer now?’
Where is the alcohol is what I want to know, but instead I ask how, as a local, he can do this kind of work without it coming back on his family.
‘My house was bombed,’ he says. ‘It was hooked up to the gate and the cat tripped the wire. We just found shreds of the cat,’ he says. ‘They tried to get rid of me because I was from Basilan and could identify most of them.’ Other Basileños on his team faced the same problem. ‘We were very effective at taking them out, especially their leaders. So they sent people against us and our families. That’s why the armed forces told me to transfer my family to Zamboanga. But Basilan and Zamboanga are near and they tried to hit my children in Zamboanga,’ Tiny says, the resigned laughter gone now. ‘An Abu Sayyaf was sent to the school of my child. The good thing is my driver was a former Abu Sayyaf who I recruited and he became a soldier. He knew the Abu Sayyaf was there so he pulled out my children from school. Then I was advised to transfer my family to Manila, but after two years in Manila an ASG was spotted in the school. He was the driver of the school bus. An intelligence unit got him.’ The children are now home-schooled. ‘Not much movement.’
‘How do you cope with all this?’
‘There was a time when the pressure got too much,’ says Tiny. ‘Sometimes it becomes personal.’
After the morning Hip Hop Abs workout that Tiny leads his officers through daily, he takes me to a hut facing a prayer grotto that boasts a statue of Mary and a Psalm 91 poster with its message that ‘You will not fear the terror of night … A thousand may fall at your side/Ten thousand at your right hand/But it will not come near you’. Stacked on the benches beside us are collapsible stretchers, a plastic tub of first aid gear, and a stand for intravenous drips. ‘That stuff about to be used?’ I ask, for during this morning’s early solo wanderings through vintage US artillery pieces and rebadged trucks and and scenic points earlier, a soldier manning a sandbagged lookout over al Barka asked if I were here for tomorrow’s assault.
‘Nothing planned, but it’s ready all of the time,’ Tiny says. ‘We’ve had attacks on our posts 500 metres from here.’ He has spoken to the vice-mayor, who has plans for me this afternoon, so the escort will leave during Muslim prayers at eleven when the enemy is less likely to stage an ambush, the colonel explains.
‘How can they fight a war like that? Being so predictable?’
‘They need to appear Islamic or they will lose support. A compromise they make.’
In the time left before the convoy moves out I had hoped to explore the camp’s misty light forest with its black volcanic boulders but the rains slam in so hard that I scurry for the barracks where the men have to shout to be heard. One of them is the Libyan-trained ex-MNLF major who Tiny relies on to calm their younger comrades in battle. The major gives a potted history of the Moro conflict, saying that the Muslims were peaceful from independence in 1946 until martial law was imposed by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 and the military took a liking to unchecked power. I ask if he ever encountered the Ilaga, and with an expression of distaste he says the Catholic paramilitary group was created by Marcos’s regime to commit atrocities that it didn’t want linked to the army. ‘It was the front line of the military,’ the major says. ‘But now the Armed Forces of the Philippines are fair: professionalised and educated.’ Generally this may be true but on prior journeys in the Philippines I have heard more than enough accounts of the military using terror, torture and extrajudicial killings in its war against communist guerrillas (the Philippines has a smorgasbord of conflict), often targeting left-wing activists, to know that there is sometimes a dark space between what is said and what is done.
To be continued.
Postscript, 11 August 2017: Tiny is dead. While visiting his wife and three children on Father’s Day at their Zamboanga City home in 2016, he stepped outside that night to take a phone call. His wife then heard gunfire. The motorcycle-riding assassin vanished. Tiny was rushed to hospital but was dead on arrival. He was 46 years old.
Read the first instalment of Don’t Go To Jolo here and the second here.