Frontline World

PHILIPPINES - Islands Under Siege, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Islands Under Siege"

On the Front Lines in Mindanao

Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines

Population, Government, Economy

Muslim Rebels, U.S. Presence, Politics




Reporter's Diary: Orlando de Guzman
Songs of Resistance: History Repeats Itself

U.S. soldier on his cell phone

U.S. soldiers are scheduled to conduct training exercises in Jolo. The U.S.-Philippine military exercises, called Balikatan ("shoulder to shoulder"), are meant to quell Abu Sayyaf, another Islamic militant group with alleged links to Al Qaeda that has degenerated into a kidnap for ransom gang.
The day I arrived in Jolo, it was announced that joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises were going to be held on Jolo, among other places in Mindanao. The plan is controversial, given the Jolo residents' venomous relationship with the Philippine military. Streamers protesting the joint U.S. military exercises had been hastily strung in a number of prominent places. One reads, "No to War. We Do Not Want a Repeat of History."

"We heard the Americans are coming. We are sharpening our swords to slaughter them when they come ... our ancestors are calling for revenge."
This is not the first time American troops have come to Jolo. In 1902, U.S. soldiers imposed military rule on the island in an attempt to quell a brewing rebellion. In 1906, a tax revolt culminated in the massacre of hundreds of Muslim men, women and children who holed up in a mountainous area called Bud Dahu. It took the United States almost 15 years to "pacify" Muslim trouble spots in Jolo and elsewhere throughout Mindanao. It was a brutal campaign that became known as the Moro-American War.

Yankees Back Off poster

Jolo's inhabitants deeply resent the heavy Philippine military presence and the U.S. occupation of 1902-1945. The second Balikatan incited new tensions.
Jolo has largely been forgotten in U.S. history books, but the people here have never forgotten the Americans. Residents are reminded of the United States' past atrocities almost daily. The local radio station plays mesmerizing ballads known as "kissa": songs that recollect how Jolo's Tausug warriors fought the Americans in Bud Dahu at the turn of the previous century. The songs, which can go on for hours, weave current events with reflections from the past. "We heard the Americans are coming," the lyrics will go, the singer's voice rising with the melody of two violins, "and we are getting ready. We are sharpening our swords to slaughter them when they come ... our ancestors are calling for revenge." These songs waft through Jolo's dense neighborhoods -- clusters of ramshackle houses built on stilts above the swelling tides.

Traditional kissa singer performs

A traditional "kissa" singer performs a song of heroic resistance. American forces are almost always the enemy in these songs.
This is one of the few places in the Philippines where Western pop music hasn't pushed out traditional songs. The people here are proud of their intact culture and their independent spirit. Spanish and American colonial troops portrayed the Tausugs as sword-wielding warriors who charged into certain death in battle. Today's perception hasn't changed -- the only difference is that now the Tausugs are armed with M-16 rifles. People here are proud of their martial tradition.

U.S. soldiers at a training camp

U.S. soldiers at a training camp.
But they are also worn down and tired of war. "America first came to us in the name of war," says Julkipli Wadi, a history professor from Jolo. "Now they're coming again in the name of war. It is not fair. In the 21st century, they should come in the name of peace." To win the hearts of the people of Jolo, the United States has delivered medicines and hospital equipment and has promised to start a number of civic projects on the island. But the United States' alliance with the Philippine military will likely stir trouble. Filipino soldiers are seen as an occupying force here. Many on the island feel that the American presence will only complicate matters, that it will continue to militarize an island that has already seen enough war.

"You cannot continue to intimidate a people who've long been intimidated," says Wadi. "At best, what a military solution can do is neutralize for a moment the agitation of a people. But you cannot totally remove the sting that has been there for a very long time."

NEXT: Hearing Voices

PREVIOUS: Arriving in Jolo

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