This is the second 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.
The narrow garden between vice-mayor Roderick ‘Oric’ Furigay’s downtown house and the street would, in more easy-going times or in certain fatalistic moods, be a pleasant place to sit in the early morning or late in the day when the tropical heat eases. The lawn is lined with lush shrubs and there is a rocky water feature. Oric looks up at the netting extending high above the wall and gate. ‘Somebody threw a grenade here but it hit on the tarpaulin,’ he says. The bounce protected the vice-mayor and his guests in the front meeting room where we just ate breakfast, and which has screens showing a variety of CCTV views, but seven people were cut down on the road.
Out on the street, Oric’s gunmen stand to attention, some in the guardhouse directly beside his gate, others positioned opposite. ‘Down here there was a time bomb,’ he says, nodding to the right from where a few of Basilan’s ubiquitous stray dogs come sniffing. ‘Home-made bomb with sharp nails. Five injured, two seriously.’
‘This make you nervous about your family?’ I ask.
He laughs his ever-cautious little laugh. ‘Yeah, yeah – that’s why we transfer our kids.’
The guardhouse is a rustic wooden chamber with crude bunks; it projects into the footpath to better the view to each side. A couple of the khaki riflemen are older, late fifties maybe, and one of them draws my attention, his head wrapped in a red and white checkered cloth. The man’s eyes are slightly out of sync and the whites are red in patches from some kind of haemorrhage. Over his chest hangs a red pouch which Oric says contains a protective amulet carried by members of the Iliga, a fearsome Catholic paramilitary group-cum-cult that emerged in central Mindanao in the 1970s when government-supported ‘settlers’ to the Muslim territories, many from the central Philippine island group of the Visayas, found themselves in the path of a Muslim rebellion.
The Ilaga has been more than a little atrocity-prone – but then who here hasn’t? Its 1971 massacre of 65 people in a mosque apparently prompted Libya’s late Colonel Gaddafi to start arming and training the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), drastically increasing the scale and intensity of the conflict. Ilaga members are inducted with rituals, which include the bestowing of an amulet that they are told will protect them from bullets. The movement’s ritualistic side has been macabre, with reports and confessions of fighters eating enemies’ flesh and organs.
The Ilaga is usually presented as an excess of the 1970s now faded into history, something I heard again from Oric over lunch yesterday. But I have also read that the Ilaga resurfaced in Mindanao in 2008 after the Supreme Court rejected a laboriously negotiated peace deal and rebels reacted with an anti-Christian rampage, killing scores as they sacked towns.
I smile at the veteran. ‘You’re Ilaga?’
‘Yes, sir,’ he says.
Oric grins at him. ‘Often times I do not use police; I use only Ilaga and Tadtad,’ he says. Tadtad is another notorious Christian militia, the name of which means ‘chop chop’. As part of their initiation, Tadtad applicants are hacked at with a machete, with only those who are not cut being accepted, or so the story goes. ‘Together with some relatives who are Muslims,’ adds Oric.
Inside his pouch,the Ilaga man carries an icon of St Joseph, which he says he was given at a shrine in Cebu, the main island of the Visayas.
‘Protects against bullets?’ I ask.
‘Has someone ever shot at you?’ He nods, and says he also escaped injury in the bombings here, even as men near him were felled.
Back cruising with Dan to a radio soundtrack of Tagalog hip-hop, I ask what a grenade costs on the black market.
‘Seven hundred,’ Dan says. About $14.
‘Those security guards at the mayor’s place,’ I say. ‘Some of them seem like old veterans. Been through everything.’
‘Yeah,’ says Dan. ‘They were Ilaga.’
When I mention my surprise at finding Ilaga in Basilan, as I had thought it was a phenomenon from mainland Mindanao, Dan corrects me.
‘They’re all over the Philippines.’ Dan looks to either side of the road and remarks on how well the residents here are following instructions to keep the gutters and footpaths clear of the garbage one gets used to seeing. ‘Because in previous incidents the IEDs you cannot easily see,’ he says.
Closer to the beach, Dan has the driver slow beside a scattering of shanties and points to a shattered power pole lying in the grass. ‘IED,’ he says.
‘What for?’ I ask. ‘Extortion?’
‘A few days before the bombing some people had their electricity cut off is what I heard,’ says Dan. ‘Maybe terrorism, maybe a customer complaint.’
‘How much does it cost to make an IED?’
‘One thousand,’ he says, which converts to about $20. ‘The simple ones are easy to make and right now the enemy here has Malaysians helping them, some with explosives: a doctor, an engineer and a cleric. There have been others here recently from Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan, but we think they’ve left.’
‘So if the Malaysians are caught or killed then the people they’ve taught can now teach others?’
‘Of course. You can make complex IEDs if you want, but even the simple ones do a very good job.’ Dan chuckles and stretches in his seat.
He is a jovial fellow, at least with me, and I ask about his ambush and what it was like getting shot seven times. ‘Did you lose consciousness?’
‘Did you feel anything, or was it numb?’
‘I feel nothing for the first thirty minutes. After that it’s very hot inside,’ says Dan, patting his scarred torso. ‘Like your body’s burning.’
‘This is Matt Thompson,’ Oric tells the trio of city tourism officers as they wrap up their work lunch and hover smiling by our table. ‘He is here to see how we live and to tell people about Lamitan.’ After the women have taken leave, I ask the vice-mayor how many tourists are here. He points at me. ‘You.’
Tonight the cops’ knock on the door is to collect me for a karaoke session over dinner and drinks with Oric, his buddies and cousins, along with a few quietly spoken army and police officers. The buffet restaurant has, for a quarter century, belonged to a paunchy man sitting next to the vice-mayor, I’m told. Tonight, our group – duly guarded inside and out – are the only customers.
It is hard not to glide into drunkenness when no sooner does one of my beers hit even the halfway point than the owner signals for another to be cracked and plonked beside me. If a time comes when I can’t stomach any more beer then they have brandy waiting, bottles of which line the table. The food – grilled fish and chicken, vegetables, rice and fruit – is simple and fresh and as plentiful as the booze. No women at the table, I notice: none to share the laughter that erupts when Oric talks of how his great grandfather, Datu Kalun, the esteemed founder of Lamitan, had sixteen wives.
‘Who can even keep one woman happy?’ shouts Boy, slapping the table.
In this region, Datu is a title for Muslim tribal chiefs, but in 1876 when the great grandfather of Oric (who is an evangelical Christian) arrived in Basilan, which the Spanish had not conquered, he was neither Muslim nor a tribesman. Born Pedro Javier Cuevas, he was a Christian and a fugitive, having fled across the strait after escaping a penal farm in Zamboanga City. Cuevas, then in his late twenties, had been serving a life sentence for taking part in a failed anti-Spanish mutiny some 900 kilometres to the north in his home province of Cavite, a district neighbouring Manila. With a small band of fellow mutineers, Cuevas found refuge in Lamitan, reportedly helped by Christian traders, and became a force to be reckoned with on the island, eluding the Spanish authorities and defeating bands of both the local Yakan people and Tausugs from Jolo, who came on slave raids and to collect tribute for the Sultan of Sulu.
Cuevas gradually conquered much of the island, eventually slaying a fearsome chief, Datu Kalun, and assuming his name. He also set about taking wives from influential families, thus entrenching himself in the clan-based social structure. He endeared himself to the Spanish by saving their garrison from pirates and was pardoned in 1884 before, in 1886, being recognised as the lawful ruler of Lamitan. This rogue’s conquest and his delivering of Basilan into the Spanish fold in the twilight years of Spain’s empire are why Cuevas is known to many as the last Conquistador.
The 1898 Spanish-American war cost Spain its Caribbean and Pacific possessions, bringing to an end a colonisation of the Philippines that began, on paper, with Ferdinand Magellan’s 1521 ‘discovery’ of the island cluster, and then got real in 1565 when the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and his soldiers arrived from Mexico.
Cuevas, alias Datu Kalun, welcomed the new overlords even as they fought a brutal counter-insurgency campaign to crush the independence movement of the north. He died in 1904. His dynasty, however, continues, institutionalised as the Cuevas-Pamaran-Antonio-Flores (CPAF) Clan. Furigay, like his senior advisers and much of his entourage, are members of this clan, which has dominated Lamitan politics since the rise of their renegade forefather with all his wives and power.
A city councillor with a loud shirt and crisp tones is talking tourism and wants to know what tale I’ll tell of his hometown. ‘Would you recommend Lamitan?’ asks Clarito B. San Juan.
‘Lots of people would kill for this way of life,’ I say, sweeping my hand around the feast and friends.
Clarito stretches back in his seat, his smile expansive. ‘You know, Matt, this is how we live our life in Lamitan. Very simple. We live a simple life.’
‘Good food,’ I say, stripping the meat from a fried fish. ‘Good friends. But,’ I say, swigging a bottle dry and lifting a replacement. ‘What should I tell people? Do you get any tourists? Do you want any? What would you do if people came?’
‘Tourists are very welcome here,’ Clarito says.
‘But I’m protected around the clock by a heap of guys with guns.’
‘Yes, and if tourists come here we will secure them,’ says Clarito. ‘If you are white, I hope you don’t mind but we will have to secure you.’
‘I need a spray tan,’ I say. ‘And maybe you should give me weapons, too.’
Clarito guffaws but Oric turns in his chair to face me. ‘You want?’ he says.
‘Issue him an M14,’ says one of the cousins.
The MC calls me to the microphone. To the discomfort and confusion of the Filipinos, all of whom appear to take karaoke unnervingly seriously in their wistful renditions of love songs, I unleash my tone-deaf steel-grater on Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, but changing it to
These vagabond shoes
Are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
Back at the table after a smatter of polite applause no one makes eye contact for a while, leaving me to drink in solitude until Oric starts in on tourist attractions that he can have me taken to, listing Datu Kalun’s tomb and a waterfall before asking what I would like to see.
As it happens, a text message has come in from a Filipino intelligence analyst who is concerned about me being in Basilan, saying to get out soon because Oric cannot guarantee his own safety, let alone mine, and under no circumstances to go to a place called Tipo Tipo, as it is ‘the capital of the terrorist. 100% you will not return.’
‘Tipo Tipo,’ I tell the vice-mayor.
‘You want to go to Tipo Tipo?’ says Oric.
Clarito cuts in. ‘That is outside Lamitan,’ he says. ‘And it is very dangerous – a lair of the terrorist – one of the most dangerous places in Basilan. We cannot guarantee your safety.’
‘Okay,’ Oric says, putting down his drink and reaching for a cell phone. ‘I will arrange it.’ And that he does; a brief call to an army colonel based in Tipo Tipo secures an escort for tomorrow to the terrorist domain. After the business is done, Oric holds the phone towards me. ‘Matt, this is Lieutenant Colonel Paolo Perez, nicknamed Tiny. He is the commanding officer of the 18th Infantry Battalion [18IB] in Tipo Tipo.’
The colonel introduces himself and says that he will be hosting me tomorrow night at his headquarters, before returning me to Lamitan the next day. ‘You are white, Matt?’ he asks.
‘You cannot show your skin on the drive here or it may provoke an attack,’ he says. ‘There will be people watching all along the route so you will have to be behind black windows or lie on the floor.’
After signing off, I raise my glass to the vice-mayor. ‘Muchas gracias.’
‘Whatever help I can provide for your stay.’ He shrugs. ‘I told the colonel that you are my guest to be protected. He is sending enough guys for you.’
An army officer beside me leans in. ‘About forty,’ he says.
Reaching for the brandy, I nod as Oric briefly outlines tomorrow’s arrangements while his merry men talk weapons and soldiering and business and Freemasonry. The vice-mayor and a few others have asked if, like them, I am a Mason. It seems expected and they act a little surprised to hear that I am not a ‘brother’. Anecdotes about my hometown Lodge closing and a sole Mason friend of mine dying somehow turn into Oric telling the others that I am on track to enter the brotherhood but that it has been postponed due to events beyond my control. Quite a world of boy’s clubs here, on all sides of the law.
‘Ever have women join you here?’ I ask.
Oric puts down his drink and picks up his cell phone. ‘You want a woman?’ he asks, scrolling the contact list.
‘Not tonight, pero gracias.’
He stares at me blankly and puts the phone down. ‘Whatever you wish.’
A plain clothed military intelligence officer with experience ranging from the jungle to Washington joins me under armed guard on the sofa of the hostel lobby while my hangover and I wait for the late-running Tipo Tipo escort. Sam, as I will call him, knows the route well, as he used to deal with the American soldiers who were stationed at the infantry base until recently. ‘It was good riding with them in convoys. A few weeks ago their jamming devices prevented an IED from detonating. Large IED by the road,’ says Sam. ‘But their mission is over.’
‘Philippine military doesn’t have the jammers?’
He laughs. ‘Can’t afford it.’
‘Americans have left Basilan, huh?’
‘Their mission is over. They have withdrawn.’
‘But nobody else has, have they? All the armed groups are still here, right?’
Another laugh from Sam. ‘From 18IB you will see their camps.’
‘Yes. You’ll be able to look down at the al Barka camp. You’ve heard about what happened in 2007 when the Marines charged in and 2011 when army special forces did the same? Dozens killed with a lot of men beheaded,’ he says. ‘A lot of Scout Rangers were killed in 2012 in another area. It goes on and on. But even when we capture camps it makes little difference. The enemy just moves. They inhabit their terrain, their communities, and they move from part of the jungle to another. Or they move from Basilan to Jolo and from Jolo to Basilan. They move to Zamboanga or central Mindanao. They move back again. We’d have to occupy it all forever. And we can’t.’
While we sit and watch televised senate hearings into alleged graft and corruption in Manila’s financial centre, a text message arrives from Jolo:
Hell0 Dr Th0mps0n, this is faht, the secretary of vice g0vern0r Tan of sulu, he is very much enthusiast t0 meet y0u here in sulu anytime at y0our c0nvenience. Thank y0o.
‘At last!’ I say, showing Sam the text. For weeks I have been trying to arrange to meet Abdusakur Tan of Jolo, a political heavyweight who, after reaching the term limit,is now vice-governor of Sulu to his son, also named Abdusakur Tan. Faht is presumably short for Fatima.
‘Sulu,’ says Sam, his mouth curling into a wary grin. ‘The last foreign journalist to go to Sulu, to Jolo, to interview Sakur Tan was kidnapped afterwards. You heard about the Jordanian? And about the Red Cross workers kidnapped from very near the capitol building in Jolo? ’
‘I did.’ The text message is a buzz, though, cutting through my grinding headache. One way or another I’ll get to Jolo. ‘Hey, how many private soldiers does Tan have? Two thousand, I heard.’
‘More,’ says Sam. ‘But you cannot trust Tan or his men. Nor the police – many of them will be related to the terrorists. Don’t trust anyone but the military.’
I nod, remembering a similar conversation with Oric when he leant forward and hushed his voice to give what he called ‘brotherly advice’ against going to Jolo and even against trusting any other politician in the Sulu region. ‘I am not saying that I am good,’ Oric said, ‘but you can trust me.’ Many others will be inclined to facilitate my kidnapping and then make a show of helping to negotiate my release, he said – for a handsome cut of the ransom.
‘Military aren’t helping, though,’ I tell Sam. ‘Giving me the brush-off about everything – even just sleeping on a base for a night around an interview with Tan. Won’t come out and say no but they won’t say yes either.’
‘That’s Filipino for no,’ says Sam. ‘They probably don’t want foreigners anywhere near there now as with the pressure on over the hostages you would be a big target of opportunity.’
‘Comprendo, but I can’t see why it’s such a big deal right now. Jolo is dangerous, sure, but I accept the risk. And I’ve been there before, you know, about eight or nine years ago. It was crazy then. Seven Marines had been assassinated in the weeks before I first arrived, including one guy jogging on the airport runway. When I needed to change money the Marines closed the street around the bank, taking up firing positions. There were bombings and all that. What’s the difference now after years of campaigns against the Abu Sayyaf with American help and all that? Hard to see much difference.’
Sam nods. ‘There’s no difference. But the military now has a big headache with kidnapped foreigners. There’s a lot of work for everyone when foreigners get kidnapped.’
‘Okay, that makes sense. But why no difference? I get what you’re saying about if you attack a camp here the rebels just move to another spot, but basically I’ve just been trying to find somewhere to stay a night.’
‘And despite there being thousands of troops in Jolo, more pouring in every day, and Tan having thousands in his own private army, there’s no secure hotels in the city. Not even one? How can that be? I mean, look at this place,’ I say, glancing around at the guards by the wall and nodding towards the stairs which lead down to more protection. Even Sam is packing heat. ‘Why can’t this exist in Jolo? Maybe if it’s crazier there than here it would need three times as many guards, but Tan has three times as many guards. Lo siento perono comprendo.’
‘Jolo would have a secure hotel if Tan wanted one,’ says Sam. ‘Like this, yes. But, you know, Furigay is the only politician that you can trust in this region. Don’t trust anyone else.’
‘That’s why all the assassination attempts?’
‘One reason. It’s also the nature of politics here. Winner take all. But the attempts are why it is dangerous for you to spend much time with him. There are active plots now.’
‘Sir,’ says a policeman who has come up the stairs. ‘Your escort is here.’
Two army trucks in the car park bristle with gunned-up soldiers, some wearing ski masks even in the heat. They strut and grin, clutching rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns. An officer checks that I’m ready and points to a black-windowed SUV that Oric has sent. ‘Sir, your vehicle will travel in the center of the convoy,’ the officer says, looking me up and down. ‘Do not lower your window at any time. If we stop, unless you are directed otherwise, do not get out of the van. If there is an incident follow the instructions of the men who will travel with you. Is that okay, sir?’
Three soldiers pile into the SUV with me and the slightly anxious-looking driver that Oric has assigned. A heavily-built infantryman to my side twists to watch his comrades climb into the rear. The early-twenties guy is Muslim, it appears, as above the battalion crest on his arm is a patch reading ‘TODO POR ALLAH / TODO POR LA PATRIA’, meaning ‘All for Allah / All for country’.
‘How long is the drive to Tipo Tipo?’ I ask, a little tight in the chest about crossing into ambush and IED country. I am in no hurry to hit the edge of Lamitan.
‘Twenty five to thirty minutes, sir. That’s to the battalion base. The border is closer.’
When the neighbouring municipality draws near, the soldiers in the open-backed truck ahead stand to intimidate, many with a boot up on the rails. Barrels hanging ready, they square off to each side, death-staring the riders of every trike and jeepney, checking out the buildings and thick foliage crowding the sides of the road and scanning the forest beyond. But it’s all done with a nonchalant, scruffily-confident air: the ski masks and irregular boots and bandanas – no one wears a helmet – exude a blasé gang-banger vibe. Battle of the gangs out here.
‘Much chance of IEDs today?’ I ask the fellow beside me.
‘Had some encounters in Tipo Tipo?’
‘No serious injuries?’
‘No, sir. Just light wounds,’ he says, rolling back a sleeve to show a long pink furrow gouged out of his wrist on a day when the Abus came creeping through the rubber trees in force.
The signs welcome us into Tipo Tipo. As we drive none too fast past hard-faced young guys on motorbikes or walking and watching by the road, many with machetes scabbarded on their belts, I struggle to trust the window tinting. And it is so cramped in spots on this narrow, slow, semi-constructed road that winds through lush forest that people from these rebel-inclined communities are often staring at the van from barely a few feet away. Paranoia for sure, but often it seems a guy is staring right at me, fingering a cell phone out of his jeans pocket to spread word of our position, or maybe remotely trigger a device.
Just paranoia – I always have good luck.
After more small talk with the soldiers about clashes with the guerrillas, I give chatter a rest. There was a time when their war stories and derring-do would have enthralled me, but gunmen are just one part of an ecosystem that too often goes largely unseen, unrecognised, and uncomprehended. These guys are apparently here because the Sulu Archipelago is ‘unstable’, but how unstable can a continuum be? To be continued …