[Part 3] The MNLF and the United States

Patricio N. Abinales
'The brief episode of US Army rule in Muslim Mindanao left a deep imprint on the Muslim popular mind. Muslims were impressed with the "American warriors" but also valued how the American "datus" governed them'

This is the third and final part of an abridged report I wrote as a fellow at Washington DC’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (READ: [Part 1] Mindanao rehabilitation: Lessons from the past and  [Part 2] The MNLF and the United States)

The final element to consider is te Moro encounter with colonialism. The Americans engaged in a series of brutal small campaigns against resistant datus (chieftains) while establishing a working relationship with those who opted to cooperate. This “small war” is what is often always remembered in US military or Philippine national history. Little has been written about how the Army then turned to the business of governing what became known as the “Moro Province” – its patronizing, racist, civilizing mission combined with administrative procedures that were identified with the Progressivist notions of state governance.

This brief episode of US Army rule in Muslim Mindanao left a deep imprint on the Muslim popular mind. Muslims were impressed with the “American warriors” but also valued how the American “datus” governed them: stern, “professional,” and protective of them against the Filipino caciques. In a feat that would be repeated 90 years or so later, American military consuls steered clear of Islam, promoted “petty trade” and “Moro exchanges” to encourage petty entrepreneurship, and supported their Moro wards’ determined refusal not to become Filipinos.

When the Army turned over control of Muslim Mindanao to Manila, the latter did very little to erase this memory, preferring instead to deal only with Muslim politicians who were less concerned about their constituents’ welfare and more about the spoils of office. This became the norm even after independence, and contributed to the failure of the Muslim areas to develop.

But this ironically helped preserve popular memory of Army rule as well.
USAID’s Emergency Livelihood Assistance Program (ELAP) was thus launched in a conflict zone where the residues of pro-Americanism persisted.  ELAP teams spread out, many of them initially apprehensive of what they would encounter. They were surprised at how grateful the beneficiaries were for bringing back the “Melikans” (the locals’ slang for “Americans”) to their communities.

ELAP formally ended in March 1999, and one of the partners, the Office of Transitional Initiatives broke away and set up its own program. GEM renamed its part of the project the Livelihood and Economic Assistance Program (LEAP), with a budget of $4.7 million. GEM reported that after 5 years, LEAP had assisted 28,000 ex-guerrillas of whom “over 90% [were able to] maintain their farming operations.” About 4,000 of these “graduates” joined another GEM project, the Targeted Commodity Expansion Program, diversifying their crops, and then connecting – with GEM’s help – to markets beyond their provinces. None of the MNLF beneficiaries ever went back to the armed struggle.

USAID and GEM staff with MNLF commanders. Photo courtesy of Noel Ruiz

GEM struck me as an interesting project because of its long history (it was in operation for over 15 years). Of course, talking about aid projects, detailing the distribution of monies and calculating costs-and-benefits – especially at the local level and on a daily basis – do not make an exciting narrative on insurgency and counter-insurgency. Or if they do end up included in the discussion, the tendency is to look more at the outcomes and conclusions of evaluations, and hardly the process of, and politics behind, their implementation.   

But it is precisely in detailing these “everyday forms of development assistance” that we can understand why a lot of aid programs falter and why a few flourish. It is in the very humdrum of these economic exchanges that we can see what kinds of institutional parapets end up being constructed, how much they deviate from the original plan, and how they perform when built upon complex settings like war zones.

This is not new, of course. It draws inspiration from the scholar James C. Scott’s studies on the failure of state-led, technocratic, and vanguard projects when faced by ceaseless “everyday forms of resistance” by the poor and the powerless. But where Scott is interested in failure, I find myself more curious about understanding success, and where he is fascinated with resistance, I am more drawn towards examining the negotiations and compromises that happen when policy meets reality in Muslim Mindanao.

Now will replicating GEM’s LEAP project with the MILF work? Some MILF commanders were precisely adamant about peace talks because they witnessed the changes MNLF neighboring communities had experienced. The MILF had supposedly approached the Americans to ask if a LEAP-like project would be implemented in their areas.

This is one project that will be worth watching if only for one reason – to find out how long American interest will last, given that this superpower’s attention span is often short. – Rappler.com

Patricio Abinales is an OFW

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