The 2013 Zamboanga Crisis did not just happen. While the people were shocked by the seemingly uncontrolled war between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), we see some patterns at work that are similar to various disasters happening around the world. Those observable patterns can be referred to as manifestations of Shock Doctrine.
Shock, displacement, and loss of dignity. “I just want to recover Papa’s body,” Ramel said as a military truck filled with soldiers in full battle gear rumbled by. It was the 18th day of war in Zamboanga City and his father was taken by unidentified armed groups during the second day. “My father was opening up shop in Talon-Talon when the rebels stormed our house. They took him, my two sisters and my two nephews,” he said. His nephews were let go after a few days. His sister managed to escape on 21 September with the help of their dad but they were separated when firefight ensued. Ramel and his brother have been scouring military offices and the funeral home to look for their father.
Meanwhile, 134,359 people were displaced. Despite efforts to help the evacuees, there was so much more to be done. “I line up at 5:30 in the morning to get breakfast for my family, I get it at 7:30 am,” Gaspar, one of the evacuees narrated. “I will never choose this kind of life for my children. I am a fish dealer and I pay my taxes. But now, we live on a pair of clothes and line up for the comfort room,” he said. “There are people here who treat us like dogs,” another evacuee shared.
He is a Muslim and dogs are considered haram or forbidden.
Shock and confusion. On the surface level, the war stemmed from the desire of the Moro National Liberation Front to re-assert itself. However, statements from two MNLF Facebook pages, both claiming to be official, were contradicting each other. One was ordering MNLF troops not to obey combat instructions while the other asserted independence. The supposed Facebook account of MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari has been posting ground reports on AFP’s alleged violations.
Witnesses’ accounts were also varied. Several evacuees who live in the battle zone said that they were wakened up at around 1:00 in the morning of 09 September to gunshots. They rushed out to escape but were forced to retreat because MNLF fighters and government forces were already battling out in the main exit route of their neighborhood. These evacuees reported that the first shots were from the MNLF.
Other evacuees said MNLF fighters were in their neighborhood prior to the war. “They said they only wanted to put up their flag in the city. They will be having a rally. We were surprised when the rally turned into war.”
There was a notable division of responses among Muslim and non-Muslim interviewees. A Muslim interviewee pointed out, “Why is it that the only places being burned down are Muslim areas?”
Another interviewee said, “When I came to the evacuation center and a policeman learned I am a Tausug, he said that Nur Misuari who started the war is a member of my tribe.” Whether the discrimination was factual or perceived, this issue should be addressed properly by all sectors involved.
Another observation was the lack of voice for the Bajaos. All of the Bajao interviewees had difficulty articulating their concerns. Their children had little education in accordance with the public school system. Although language barrier is a factor, we hope there will be an effort to dig deeper into the Bajao issues and bring it to national consciousness since they are also as affected by the war in Mindanao as the other ethnic groups.
All of them whether Muslim or non-Muslim had one plea, “Please stop the war. Tell us what is happening.”
Shock doctrine. In seeking to understand these mindless acts of violence, we, at PeaceBuilders Community Inc. (PBCI), chose to use an analytic framework of Naomi Klein in looking at disasters like the Zamboanga Crisis. Klein asserts that “free market policies of Milton Friedman have risen to prominence in some countries because of a deliberate strategy of certain leaders to exploit crises by pushing through controversial, exploitative policies while citizens were too busy emotionally and physically reeling from disasters or upheavals to create an effective resistance.”
According to her, Disaster Capitalism or Shock Doctrine is similar to a shock therapy used in both Canada and the USA in the last few decades in which patients in mental hospitals were given beyond normal therapeutic electric shock treatment. This shock therapy is an attempt to remove psychological resistance; it creates a tabula rasa personality in which doctors can imprint anything into the persons memory system. When the individual’s personal narrative is erased, a new narrative can be configured into one’s psyche.
The shock doctrine is also applied to a country’s political-economic system. Klein has pointed out several examples in which the shock doctrine was used during the coup in Chile under the leadership of General Pinnochet. It was used in Bolivia, Poland, Russia, South Africa, the tiger economies in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the occupation in Iraq.
Klein also delved into how a small group of people profit from disasters and push for unpopular political-economic policy changes such as the ones implemented after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Shocked Zamboanga. In Zamboanga City, people affected by the war shared narratives that showed indications very similar to the global observations of Naomi Klein.
More than a hundred thousand people were displaced, struggling to have the most basic needs of food and shelter. They do not have the luxury to voice out their current plight and suffering. As Kaiser, one of the interviewees aptly said, “I only have a pair of women clothes and we cannot even use the toilet properly.”
As we were talking, one of them pointed to black smoke rising in front of us. “Look at that smoke. That is where we live. I thought the war is over. Why are they still burning our homes?” he asked.
Physically, several neighborhoods that were affected by the war in Zamboanga were virtually erased — a literal tabula rasa for new developments.
In one of her local radio interviews, the mayor of Zamboanga City, Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco, said that the people can go back to the areas if they have land titles. Most of them had none but were born there.
A similar scenario happened in the aftermath of the tsunami that happened in various coastlines of Southeast Asia in December 2004. The question would be, in the future, are we going to see high-end real estate developments in those Zamboanga City lands that supposedly have no titles? We really hope this would not happen.
These neighborhood fires also happened in other areas where the armed clashes between the government forces and the Moro rebels took place — Rio Hondo, Talon-Talon, Sta. Barbara and Mariki. These neighborhoods are along the mangrove area, coastal area and near the city proper which indicate high economic viability. The urban poor, mostly Moros, used to live there.
Tadzmahal, another evacuee said, “I don’t believe that the MNLF burned our houses. Many times, we see a tora-tora fly over our barangay then after a few minutes, we see black smoke go up. It is soldiers burning our houses.” They refer to government warplanes and helicopters as tora-tora.
In another evacuation center, we were told by several women that their respective husbands stayed in their houses in Sta. Catalina. They did not want to leave for fear of looting and burning. One of them narrated, “Around a week ago, my husband and some other men saw a hand coming out of the small opening in the covered canal. When they opened the canal, four MNLF [fighters] came out. Three men and a woman. They have lots of money and many kinds of cellphones. The MNLF [fighters] said they had been in the canal for four days and nights. They wanted to surrender because they had not eaten for four days. They had no more bullets. My husband fed them and then called for the Marines. Then two days ago, red alert was raised in our barangay (Sta. Catalina) because the MNLF [fighters] had escaped. That is impossible. They were in the hands of the Marines and they escaped? After that, soldiers and local officials told our husbands to get out because they have to look for the MNLFs. Our husbands stood their ground. Who knows, when they leave, our houses will get burned down too. Where will we go?”
Two other interviewees said that one of the four MNLF fighters died after their surrender.
Ramel’s sister, one of the hostages and the first that we had talked to, told a similar story. On 21 September, the MNLF command that took them hostage had no more bullets. As she and other hostages tried to escape, military forces kept on shooting despite their cries that they are civilians.
Another interviewee affirmed the same thing. “A family tried to go back to their house two days ago and they were shot,” she said.
An evacuee with six children with ages ranging from 7 years to 2 months was worried about her husband who was detained when he went home to get their belongings.
Another woman was crying because her brother was nowhere to be found. “He is uneducated and if he is mistaken as MNLF, he will not be able to explain himself,” she said.
The women were all living in Sta. Catalina.
A soldier in an earlier interview also raised a similar question. “If you are the father, isn’t it that you would protect your children? The civilians are like the government’s children. They have to be taken out of harm’s way. But what can we do? We are simply following orders. You are observers. Do your work,” he said over and over again.
All of the interviewees, coming from various sectors, were surprised by this prolonged war in Zamboanga City. As a media report said, there were attempts of surrender from the MNLF but was ignored.
Disaster capitalism and war. One may also look at the Zamboanga Crisis from a global perspective. We have expressed our view that the United States intervenes in the affairs of smaller countries, like the Philippines, motivated by their global War on Terror. The American foreign policy is largely influenced by their fear, insecurity, and economic interests. Southeast Asia is a major focus of their global security concern.
David Stockman, a bestselling author and budget director under the Reagan administration, admitted American interventionism as one of his country’s major problems. And he made a strong argument that the necessity of such war against terrorism is baseless. According to him, the War on Terror is a part of a “historic building blocks of a failed Pax Americana.”
The fear that the Zamboanga Crisis evoked can be used by the American government to pour more of its taxpayers’ money on securing American interest in Southeast Asia. Some of this money may be shared to the Philippines which might even be promised to a select few in high positions to invoke war. It may also be used by some politicians to sway the public attention from the pork barrel scam or by anti-peace forces to derail the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Before Sen. Miriam Santiago’s speech, several Tausug leaders also whispered to us that Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile allegedly funded the MNLF operations in Zamboanga. This does not prove anything but it hints a reality that there may be a few highly-placed people who are orchestrating the war for their own interests.
There’s also an angle that we need to look into: the fact that the Philippine government is buying attack helicopters, warplanes, warships, and various sorts of military hardware. We know, for example, that:
- The Philippine Navy awaits delivery of 5 helicopters.
- The Philippine Air Force will get new warplanes by 2014.
- The Department of National Defense is buying 2 brand new warships.
- The Philippines is seeking modern military hardware from the US.
The Zamboanga Crisis would be a very convenient argument for the military and the Department of National Defense to justify the purchase of the above-mentioned defense products.
Shock doctrine and the media. Another sector to look at is the media. In theory, the media is the watchdog of the society, the fourth branch of the government. It is supposed to present fair and balanced news.
In practice, however, media also has its gatekeepers. News has to sell so what we mostly see are emotion-filled news and sometimes exaggerations. Media outlets have owners and these owners are the same families from whom politicians, businessmen and people of power come from. Media can be used to protect the interests of its owners by putting a blanket on information.
To give few examples based on the Zamboanga Crisis, the team stayed where the media were stationed. Here are some of our observations:
- A broadcast journalist from a national radio station was reporting regarding the situation on the ground. He was actually reporting based on the facts before us. A military truck was passing by and an ambulance went out of the area. But the way he said it evoked images of carnage and of an ongoing firefight. He even interviewed our team leader in the middle of his report. We wondered what emotions will it evoke from the people in other parts of the country?
- After the government’s “mission accomplished” declaration, the only news reporters that were allowed to go inside the war zone were the three big media companies in the Philippines. They were only allowed to go there together for three minutes, driven by a military car and accompanied by a soldier. Their stories, of course, were told from the same point-of-view. And that’s the kind of stories on our news headlines and the same video images we get on national television.
Mainstream media can be used, wittingly or unwittingly, as a tool to perpetuate mis-information. They can create a new narrative that erases the people’s narrative. Through their lenses, the evacuees will be told that it’s not safe to live in their neighborhoods and homes anymore. Habier Malik, the MNLF Commander “who led the attack” is not yet captured and is still roaming around. He will be back and he will show himself again.
To protect the people from the return of Malik and “the MNLF attackers,” the government, then, would assure the evacuees that, in their goodness, the displaced people will be relocated in various areas deemed more safe and secure with new homes provided by benevolent foreign aid organizations.
But there’s a more realistic fear we’re facing than the return of Commander Habier Malik and his armed band. We’re afraid that new real estate developers would soon enter those war-torn neighborhoods. We’re afraid that by now, they may already have good development plans — new housing projects, shopping centers, parks, roads, and religious buildings. We’re afraid that the people behind these plans would have all the legal papers and formalities prepared faster than the healing process of the people’s trauma. Such is our fear of the reality of disaster capitalism in the 21st century.
Beyond shock, active hope. We wish that our analysis that causes us to be afraid is dead wrong. We wish the government and the big real estate developers would truly support and assist the people to get back to their neighborhoods, rebuild their homes, and continue on with their lives.
We wish. And we’ll go beyond wishing.
We’d rather hope. Hope is not just a noun. Hope is a verb. Hope is an action word.
To start with, let us hope in God. We need a kind of spiritual strength that can sustain us for a long-haul as we struggle for justice and peace. This spiritual energy is needed as we seek to see through the facades of the taken-for-granted realities dominated by greed, corruption, injustices, lies and abuse of power.
This hope in God liberates us from our fears and gives us courage in the face of the realities we tend to be afraid of. This is active, empowering hope!
A New Testament writer understood this source of hope and courage as he was contending against the injustices of the Roman Empire:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities,against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me,that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Ephesians 6:10-20 (New International Version)
Let’s hope for the strengthening of our being. We get back from the paralysis of shock when we start focusing on who we are. We are human beings. We have inherent human rights. We are people with dignity.
Let’s hope for the clarity of what we will be doing. We will rehabilitate our lives. The government and the powerful people may assist us. But it is us who will actually need to decide to get up from where we have fallen. It is us who will decide to stand up. It is us who will decide to start walking again. It is us who will decide to start running the race of life again.
Let’s hope for the attainment of what we would be having. Our needs are not just material things. Our needs include the following:
- social aspects of life — respect, security, participation
- cultural aspects of life — culture, spirituality, identity
- material aspects of life — food, shelter, health care
Let’s master all these perspectives of hope.
Then let’s practically share them with those around us in Zamboanga.
Or wherever you are in this planet.
Reported by Twinkle Bautista. Interviews by Joji Pantoja, Twinkle Bautista, and John Mel Sumatra. Photos by Byron Pantoja. Edited by Dann Pantoja.