Wed, 14 Jun 2000

Calculating the costs of the Mindanao war

BACOLOD CITY: I joined Alay sa Kawal Foundation president Ramon Pedrosa and executive trustee Ed Santiago in this city the other day to award checks of P10,000 each to the widows of 12 soldiers from the 6th Special Forces Battalion of the 303rd Infantry Brigade, commanded by Col. Alphonsus Crucero, based in Negros.

The soldiers, some of whom were native to this province while others were married to Ilonggo women, were among the troops sent to Basilan last month and involved in the rescue of hostages kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf. Unfortunately, in the battle to free the kidnapped teachers and children, the soldiers were slain, some in a most brutal manner. It has been a period of mourning in Negros Occidental.

In Bacolod we got to see the faces of the victims of the Mindanao war up close, and we realized all the more how senseless that war is. Except for one woman who is 37 years old, the widows are very young (their average age is 25 years) with two or three young children each. One widow delivered her third baby the day after her husband was buried, while another will give birth any time now.

Touched by the outpouring of sympathy for them, the widows couldn't hold back their tears during the simple ceremony.

Looking at these young mothers as they went up the stage with their little children to receive the checks from ASK, and talking to them afterwards, we realized how difficult it would be for them to raise and educate their children on the meager pensions of their late husbands with today's cost of living. Those widows have to work to supplement those pensions, but unfortunately some are only high school graduates or college dropouts. Only one finished college.

This is where livelihood training must come in. We hope ASK's small donation would be used as seed money to put up a sari-sari store or carinderia or buy a sewing machine.

The turnover of checks drew sympathetic souls touched by the poor widows' plight. Bacolod civic leader Nena de Leon, who founded the Mindanao for Peace Movement that is also raising funds for the soldiers' families, co-hosted the ceremony held at the Bacolod Pavilion Resort that she owns and where she put up the ASK officials for free. Businessman Sammy Palanca, who is undertaking a multi-billion development of the city's new port on reclaimed land, shouldered the expenses for the ceremony and the simple lunch.

Bacolod Bishop Camilo Gregorio delivered the invocation. Local politics took a backseat when the city's lone representative, John Orola, and the opponent he beat in the 1998 congressional fight by the smallest margins, lawyer and former councilor Renecito Novero, took part in the ceremony. Both good sports, Orola delivered remarks in praise of the soldiers' patriotism, while Novero, a gifted tenor, led the singing of the national anthem and Pagkakaisa.

Orola was the only Bacolod official around when the remains of the 12 soldiers arrived at the pier two weeks earlier. It was only by accident that he heard the news of their arrival over the radio.

Rushing to the pier, he ended up with the frightful task of consoling the wailing widows and families (he was able to persuade President Estrada to give P50,000 per family of the slain soldiers).

When we invited him to grace the ASK ceremony, Orola, whom we knew from his days as a tourism attache in Tokyo in the early 1990s, skipped last Thursday's session at the House of Representatives and caught the 5 a.m. PAL flight. "I have to be here," he said.

Rep. Apolinario Lozada, whose district was home to nine of the slain soldiers, couldn't come because of pressing House activities, but he sent Brig. Gen. Raymundo Jarque (ret.) to represent him. The ailing Mayor Oscar Verdeflor was represented by his wife Barbara.

What are the other costs of war? As of the first week of June, the Mindanao fighting had affected 306 barangays in 11 provinces, displaced 200,000 people and caused an average of three deaths a day. The recent "Summit of Mindanao Leaders" said this has exacerbated the damage wrought by the recent drought and the financial crisis, which have adversely affected 500,000 families.

Summit participants expressed fear that the continued armed confrontation in Mindanao would further erode the agricultural sector, as the ground preparation for the next and larger harvest has already been delayed.

Business and investments have been set back, prompting Prof. Fermin Adriano to forecast that estimated growth rates for this year could be cut by some 1.7 to 2 percent .

A 50 percent reduction in play production in Central Mindanao and the ARMM translates into a deficit of 320,000 tons of milled rice.

Last year, the Philippines imported 1.2 million tons of rice and this year, even without the projected shortfall in Mindanao, we are importing at least 500,000 tons. At this point, however, no one can accurately factor in the full effects of the Mindanao war on the rice supply.

ARMM and Central Mindanao could also experience a drop in corn production which would further affect the poultry industry that is already reeling from the flood of cheap imports.

The Mindanao Summit pressed for immediate government action in terms of emergency agricultural packages, short-term intervention focusing on the second half of the year, the participation of Mindanao officials in the Cabinet Cluster E and "inspiring leadership with the correct vision" for the island.

Lawyer Jess Dureza, the last presidential assistant for Mindanao of the Ramos era, recently spoke before some 100 CEOs of multinational companies assembled in Makati by Peter Wallace of the Economic Intelligence Unit.

Dureza's thesis expectedly was that peace under former President Ramos proved to be a far better option than war under the Estrada administration. He said that from 1992 when Ramos assumed office, up to the second half of 1997, when the Asian region was hit by the financial crisis, Mindanao exhibited a steady growth rate. In fact, he said, the Mindanao-BIMP-EAGA growth rate was far higher than the rest of the Philippines, triggering the phenomenal growth of such boom areas as General Santos City, Davao City and Cagayan de Oro.

Dureza pointed out that the Mindanao economy experienced a downward trend only after 1997, and that the recovery from 1999 to the present has been slow. He stressed the need for an immediate resolution of the conflict.

It is now being asked whether or not the Ramos administration was justified in choosing to look the other way with regard to the MILF question, in its preoccupation with growth for Mindanao. Was the MILF allowed to grow in order not to disturb the "peace" that became the basis of that period's economic growth? (To be continued)

-- The Philippine Daily Inquiry/ANN Asian News Network