The New Settlers: Mindanao Muslims Head North


By Claire Delfin

It was 1984. Hadja Amina Jed, then 29 years old, packed her things, left Maguindanao in Western Mindanao and sailed north to Manila.

She is the second of eight children and her mother died while she was still a child. Her father was a fisherman. “Mahirap talaga ang buhay. Pag walang huling isda ang aming tatay, wala rin kaming makain (Life was hard. During times when father had no catch, we also had nothing to eat),” says Amina.

Amina was determined to change her family’s fortune. Going to Manila and finding work seemed the only option.

Twenty-three years later Amina works in Manila as an agent of a manpower agency that sends mostly Muslim Filipinas to the Middle East for work. She stayed single and was able to send all her siblings to school. Today she has a car and a comfortable house in Quezon City.

Lika Amina, Mosrifah Labay also saw the move north as the best option to change her life. She left Marawi City in Mindanao in the 1990s.

Ten years later, she runs a series of small market stalls, selling ready-to-wear clothes in Quezon City.

Amina and Mosrifah are just two of the 1.6 million Muslims who left Mindanao in pursuit of a better life in the capital.

The majority of the Muslims here belong to the three main Moro tribes — the Maranao, Maguindanao and the Tausug.

The Maranao, like Mosrifah, come from Lanao province and have a reputation and tradition for entrepreneurship. As a group, the Maguindanao from Cotabato, Maguindanao, Saranggani and General Santos tend to do less well and are generally the poorest of the three tribes. They come from provinces where the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is most active. Here, many families had already left their farmlands for fear of getting caught in crossfire between the MILF and government troops, as is happening once again this week.

Maguindanao peoples typically find work in companies or in small businesses in Manila. Many females go abroad to work as domestic helpers.

The Tausug hail from Jolo, Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga provinces and also work as employees in businesses or else head overseas.

Former Lanao del Sur representative Benasing Macarambon, Jr. says that the Muslim departure from Mindanao started in the 1970s amidst widespread poverty at the height of armed Moro insurrection in the region.

“War was at its peak. People were starving. There was no choice but to leave,” says Macarambon.

Challenges

In Manila, many Muslims have seen their fortunes change. Their livelihoods have flourished and their finances have improved. Yet for many, life remains a constant struggle.

Amina and Mosrifah no longer worry about what food to put on the table. Instead they worry about their safety. Both claim to be abducted and held for ransom by members of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

On a late Sunday afternoon in May 2006, Amina was on her way home to Quezon City from a beach excursion in Cavite. While traversing Tandang Sora Avenue, a group of armed men waved to stop her vehicle. Five of them got up and demanded the driver to step out. The strangers quickly commandeered the van.

The men identified themselves as police officers and said they were arresting Amina for involvement in illegal drugs. None of them, however, showed an arrest warrant.

At the police station, another police officer who Amina alleges failed to identify himself, accused her of being a head of a drug syndicate in Tandang Sora’s Culiat village, known for Muslim settlers from Mindanao.

“Sabi niya, drug queen daw ako sa Barangay Culiat (The officer said I was a drug queen in Culiat village) ,” Amina recalls.

She was told that a criminal case had already been readied against her but that she could escape the charges if she handed over PhP 600,000 (USD 13,636).

Amina who claims never to have been involved in any illegal activity told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project that she was left frightened, confused and intimidated. She called her relatives and appealed for help. Together they raised more than PhP 300,000 (USD 6,818).

The police officer accepted the ‘offer’ and Amina found herself freed four days after her ‘arrest.’ No case was ever filed against her during her detention but she was threatened she would be killed if she reported the incident.

Mosrifah tells a similar story: One day, also in 2006, armed men suddenly jumped out of a maroon van parked outside her store and pushed her inside their vehicle.

With each brandishing a gun, the men took her jewelry, cellular phone and purse. Mosrifah reports being scared for her life believing any sudden or rash move she made might be her last. Her abductees introduced themselves as police officers who were arresting her for selling drugs — but that she would be freed and the charges dropped if she paid a million pesos (USD 22,727). She was driven around in the back of the van for what seemed like hours.

Luckily for her, her relatives had alerted the government’s Office of Muslim Affairs (OMA), which immediately got in touch with senior officials of the PNP. Mosrifah believes the officers in the front of the van must have gotten wind of an attempt by their superiors in the PNP to plant a trap for them and so she was dumped in Cubao without any ransom changing hands.

‘Hulidap’

The incidence of renegade police officers kidnapping Muslims and extorting them is so common according to the OMA that it has coined its own word for it: hulidap. ‘Huli’ being the Tagalog word for arrest, and ‘dap’ short for kidnap.

“There were days we have as many as 10 people coming to our office to complain about hulidap,” says Datu Hassan Dalimbang, OMA director for the National Capital Region (NCR).

But while many come to OMA to complain, very few are willing to divulge their full identity and file cases for fear of reprisal.

As a result, the OMA has set up its own surveillance and entrapment system in partnership with the PNP. In one successful operation, Amina’s captors were arrested and are now facing charges in court. OMA has also gone around Muslim communities, conducting awareness campaign to educate Muslims of their rights.

One percent

According to Dalimbang, about one per cent of police officers comprise these renegade officers who regularly target Muslim businesses in hulidap syndicates.

But despite official attempts to clamp down on the corruption, hulidap remains a serious problem according to Dalimbang. Corrupt officers are believed to run paid informants in the Manila Muslim community who alert gangs to rich pickings among the Islamic business world here.

These rogue cops usually accuse their victims of involvement in illegal drugs. Attorney Sittie Rahana Jhan Ganda, OMA legal officer, says it is an “easy concept” because there have been several Muslims who have been arrested in legitimate police operations against illegal drugs.

“We don’t tolerate these Muslims who are involved in illegal activities,” says Ganda who adds that some have managed to bribe officers to stay out of jail.

Torture

A number of hulidap victims have complained of physical torture too. Dalimbang says men were beaten to pressure their families to give money fast, while some women have been raped while abducted.

Alima Mangotara has yet to get over from the trauma she went through while negotiating for the release of her husband who was allegedly abducted by a hulidap gang on Valentine’s Day two years ago.

Over the phone, she would hear her husband screaming in apparent pain while being beaten. “Pag naisip ko yon, naiiyak ako (I cry whenever I remember it),” says Alima.

Alima is 27 years old and says that when the gang learned of her age they demanded she too go to the police station — alone. Having heard of cases of hulidap victims being raped, Alima politely begged off, saying she was heavily pregnant and near labor.

Blank wall

The issue of hulidap has reached senior PNP management which maintains it is strenuously battling the problem. But senior officers complain they face an uphill struggle since most alleged victims are too scared to come forward and register an official complaint.

“We cannot work in an environment where everyone’s afraid,” says Director Geary Barias, National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) chief. But he says that this is not even a reason for the PNP to ignore the crime.

Instead the PNP has run surveillance and counter-intelligence operations on its own men. As a result, more than 200 police officers in Manila have so far been dismissed or charged with different offenses, including extortion.

“We are committed to discipline our people. We cannot allow undesirables in our roster,” says Barias.

The PNP has also been active in meeting with different Muslim organizations in a bid to rescue its tarnished image among Muslims. The meetings are also part of its campaign to establish rapport with communities.

Battling misconceptions

While Muslims have learned to fit in well with their fellow countrymen in Metro Manila, many still complain of discrimination. Some blame this on media, which they say are responsible for perpetuating misconceptions and bias against Muslims.

Hadja Alnahar Baby Lazo, OMA-NCR Settlement Division chief, says it is common for news reports to identify criminal suspects as Muslims. “I cannot understand why the media have to identify a suspect as a Muslim. Why is there a need to include somebody’s religion? They should just identify the name.”

“People think we Muslims are war freaks and violent,” says Abubakar Sansaluna, chief of the OMA-NCR Cultural Division.

He says misconceptions are hard to fight. But stereotypes have to be constantly challenged if there is to be any real improvement. Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

(The author is a television news reporter of GMA Network, Inc. and a regular contributor of special reports on women, children, health, education, and the environment to the network’s news and public affairs website, GMANews.TV.)

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