Pirates put law to the sword in land of neglect

By Louise Williams, Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 6 May 2000

Louise Williams, a former Philippines correspondent who has travelled extensively in the Sulu islands, reports on the region's bloody history.

If the world were flat, locals like to say, the wild, lonely string of islands that trail off into the turquoise waters of the southern Philippines would be teetering on the edge.

It is here, among the coral atolls of the Sulu Sea, that the rule of law ends and the rule of the pirates, and their guns, begins.

It was from these waters that Muslim seafaring kings once lorded it over the trading routes of South-East Asia, snatching slaves from the Christian islands to the north and controlling such lucrative cargos as bird's nest, a delicacy for the tables of distant China.

And it is here that 21 hostages, 10 of them foreign tourists, have been huddling in a rank bamboo hut on the island of Jolo, part of the Sulu group, captives of heavily armed Muslim extremists and besieged by troops of the Philippine Government.

This week perhaps four Filipino hostages died after a 10-day battle to free another group of hostages on the island of Basilan. For the first time the Muslim kidnappers tortured and executed a Catholic priest, a step analysts fear heralds an even more brutal chapter in the long, bloody history of these languid, pirate-infested seas.

The kidnapping of the tourists, who were forced off a Malaysian resort island at gunpoint almost two weeks ago, was intended to show just who commands these tropical waters and the sea border that divides the southern Philippines from Malaysia.

But kidnappings are neither new nor unusual in a region racked by a religious conflict that dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish colonisers landed in the north of the Philippines and began their campaign to Christianise the people.

In the south, Islam had arrived in the 14th century with the migration of Muslim princes with Arab traders, who established local kingdoms throughout the southern islands.

Even before Islam reached the region, historical accounts describe complex societies on the islands of Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan and Palawan, thought to be the first independently administered communities in the Malay world.

For hundreds of bloody years the Spanish pushed south with their Bibles and guns, and for hundreds of years the Muslim kingdoms defended their small, lush islands, their white sand beaches and their power in the sea lanes, armed with little more than traditional swords.

Within the modern political structure of an independent Philippines the same chasm—and the same conflict—remain.

But much of the south is now the domain of pirates, not proud traders, the traditional seafaring communities with their bright-coloured sailing boats, cowed by years of warring, modern shipping and maritime border regulations.

The 5 million Muslims' resentment of the Catholic-dominated government in Manila is framed by religion, but most analysts consider the core of the conflict to be economic disparity.

Catholic government officials have moved into the islands and taken over large slices of local trade. Barter trade rights, which allowed the Muslims to trade legally across the sea border into Malaysia, were removed in the early 1980s.

What remained was smuggling: speedboats mounted with machine-guns and filled with cigarettes, whisky, electronic goods and illegal immigrants dash across the sea border, locally referred to as the back door.

The failed smugglers, locals say, become pirates with a simpler mission. They merely lie in the lee of a coral atoll to plunder, rape and kill.

Locals tell the tale of a fishing boat found bobbing empty in the sea, the lines still attached. Just under the water lay the pirates' message—12 severed heads.

Kidnapping, too, has long been a common means of settling scores or earning money. Most kidnappings are local, and reflect tensions between families and clans which still proudly cling to the principle of being seen to extract justice themselves.

A man can buy his wife back, the people of Jolo say, for about $A50. A ransom of $12,000 was reportedly paid for a Swiss tourist in the late 1980s, and there have been several kidnappings of foreigners since.

A local trader said: The apparent lawlessness in the Muslim south is not a confirmation of the rule of anarchy but rather the refusal of the Muslim community to recognise the laws of Manila.

Marites Vitug, co-author of the recent book Under the Crescent Moon; Rebellion in Mindanao, said: The Muslim areas are the poorest people in the Philippines, they have the lowest literacy rate, they have few schools, they do not have access to potable water.

Into this explosive social and religious divide came the expansive forces of international Islam. In June 1971, Philippine troops called the old men, women and children from a village in Cotabato into the mosque for a peace conference where at least 70 were slaughtered with knives, guns and grenades.

On hearing of the massacre the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, began a program of aid for the Muslims that eventually extended into military support. Financial and military support continues to come from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Malaysian extremist groups.

Islamic experts say the Abu Sayyaf, which is holding the tourists hostage on Jolo, are merely criminals hiding behind a religious label; adrift and increasingly violent since the death of its founder in a shootout with the military two years ago. The original demand for the return of the foreign tourists was simply money, which was later modified to include political concessions.

The group was formed in 1991 by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who studied in Saudi Arabia, received military training in Libya and later fought alongside the mujahideen against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

There he is thought to have established contact with such extremist gurus as Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi thought to be behind the 1998 bombing of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Janjalani adopted the name Abu Sayyaf, bearer of the sword, and attracted anywhere between 200 and 1,000 followers when he returned to the Philippines with his pure form of Islam, under which he would ban television, dancing and even laughing with bared teeth.

The young, angry disenfranchised men he appealed to were frustrated by years of fruitless peace talks between Manila and the two main Muslim-independence armies.