PHILIPPINES: Human Rights in Sulu: The Case of Temogen Tulawie 

Dear friends,

We wish to share with you the following article from a campaign website, Protect Human Rights Defenders! Protect Cocoy Tulawie!

Asian Human Rights Commission
Hong Kong

An article from Protect Cocoy Tulawie! Campaign forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PHILIPPINES: Human Rights in Sulu: The Case of Temogen Tulawie

Mr. Temogen Sahipa TulawieHow it all began

What does it mean to be a human rights defender in Moro country? Temogen Tulawie is no rebel. Though had he wished, it would have been easy.

Belonging to one of the prominent clans in the Sulu islands, Cocoy was privileged enough to be sent to a university in Manila for a college education. He enrolled in an Engineering course at Adamson University, and a year later, went over to the University of the Philippines in Dilliman to take up Islamic Studies. It was however a time of intellectual ferment: Cory Aquino had just been installed into power via people power and there was all over the country a desire for a much needed change. In the city, the Muslim youth were bestirred, engaged in one social transformation project or another. Islamic scholars were doing the lecture circuit and the Golden Mosque in Quiapo was becoming a hub of activities critiquing society and Moro polity. In the University, he sat in his Arts & Science courses with would-be leftists. They were wary of his Moro trapo background; he was cautious and didn’t find secular organizations faultless. Leftists invited him to their forums and discussion groups; he went if he could, but most days he was too preoccupied with trying to organize fellow Tausugs in the city to have the time. More radicalizing was his two-year exposure and involvement in the struggles of farmers in Batangas and Tagaytay and of the fishing villages in Navotas, where he did community immersion as part of the required units in the Community Development electives he chose. The experience would later be very useful when he would go back to Jolo to do human rights work.

His apartment in Sta Mesa became a meeting place for Moro youth to gather, sleep and eat together. They spent nights talking Islam, history and Bangsamoro struggle, filling each other out on news from back home. At the time (late 1980s) their families back home were in a bitter feud, the Tulawie versus the Estino, and then the Tan versus the Tulawie. While relatives home were killing each other, the sons in the city reached out to each other. There was a consensus that all right, let’s face it, Moro society is just as rotten at the core, if not more, the Bangsamoro masses are oppressed, we have to do something. They formed a loose group calling themselvesTawhid (Unity), regularly meeting to engage in political discussions and meet with other Muslim intellectuals in Manila. People often came to the house to speak with him, introduce themselves as coming from one group or another, asking help or offering one. Perhaps, he thinks now, more important than whatever political discussions they were having, his place served as some kind of a hideout, a home away from home, where fellow Tausugs could freely speak in their own tongue and talk about home and bangsa. It was a camaraderie that lasted for years, from 1986 to 1992. For himself, he was growing restless and yearned to be home to do things. His family, he knew, was part of the problem, forever enmeshed as it was in bitter family feuds. He wanted to be part of the solution.

In Manila, some of the youth who came to his place had fallen into vice: Unable to adapt to Manila’s maddeningly fast life, they sought relief in drugs. One such youth got to such a mess that he ended up selling the last furniture he was sitting on, to his family’s embarrassment. His parents disowned him. He had him join them, taking him to meetings and prayers. When later the poor guy was reformed, the parents’ gratefulness was boundless. During school breaks when he would be home, he tried to do what he could, talking to tricycle drivers, fish vendors, neighbours and poor relations who would come to their house for one need or another. Then without finishing his course, he finally decided to get home, for good, he had hoped.

The way back home

In 1993 Cocoy married Mussa Sherian, a nurse, also from Jolo. He went into business, plying the southern route between Malaysia and the Sulu ports — used clothes, garlic, sotanghon, canned goods and later, seaweed. He was making well, especially after a couple of Chinese-Singaporean businessmen from Singapore, looking for an honest man to deal with, found him. The Chinese nationals were into sea cucumber and he did middleman work for them, going around the islands and sailing with them to as far as Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi, collecting and then shipping the product to Cebu for export in Singapore and Taiwan. Then in 1997, the Asian economic crisis hit home. His business partners cut down on orders. As business slowed own, he found himself more and more engaged in community work.

When Cocoy went back to the islands in 1993, the Abu Sayyaf was already training recruits in Patikul, Sulu. He knew that as early as 1991, the idea of an Islamic revolutionary group was already in incubation among the Moro youth and young intellectuals. Janjalani was then teaching in a madrasah in Zamboanga City. Cocoy himself does not believe the CIA had ever anything to do with the formation of the Abu Sayyaf; he knew some of the core leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, some of them were his best friends from home. He knew that the idea was birthed locally, out of the realities of Bangsamoro society, and cradled in the Muslim youth’s radicalism, in their rejection of what they perceived to be an evil system.

One day, while tending the store fronting their house, Majid Ibrahim, a close friend of his and one of the Abu Sayyaf Group’s core members, visited him and invited him to visit them in the camp. When he finally made his visit, his wife Mussa and friends went with him. Seven of them trekked to the hills, four women and three men including himself. The young were earnestly looking for something to anchor their hopes on. The MNLF had by then practically ceased to exist as a revolutionary organization, only resuscitating itself later when the Ramos government entered into another peace talks with Misuari. Amidst unchecked military abuses in the islands and unbridled corruption in government, people were growing helpless. Nur Misuari was in self-exile in Malaysia, so with almost all of his field commanders in Sulu. The few that were left behind surrendered. The civilians, who had to bear the brunt of military reprisals in line with government campaign of routing the secessionist rebellion, felt abandoned, having to face the wrath of the military on their own. They moreover felt betrayed: they stood behind the MNLF-led jihad because they wanted a Bangsamoro Republic, that is what Nur Misuari promised them, how come the MNLF negotiated with the traitor government and settled for autonomy and on top of that, they now leave them to fend for themselves? So they took to the Abu Sayyaf. “I’m not an impressionable person. I admire a few people. But he really was very charismatic,” he says of the now martyred Abu Sayyaf founder Khaddafy Janjalani. They made several visits more, discussing the situation in Lupag Sug¸ the need for change.

There was of course the temptation to join the group. But there were things he could not fully accept, such as the idea that all Christians are considered enemy and oppressor of the Bangsamoro and that kidnapping for ransom is allowable, if the jihad had to come to it. After all, it is their tax money that is being used in the war against the Moro people. He hesitated. His years of community development work among the fishers and farmer activists in Luzon had taught him enough to accept such sectarianism. He also felt that even if he went with them now, the day will come when they will disagree. Besides, he could not decide alone. He had a family. His father was still alive then and he had duties he could not just turn his back on. He was also with the youth and students who dissuaded him from going: they still needed him for the many things they wanted to do in their hometown without having to resort to the use of arms.

That did not change the respect and trust they had for him. When the Abu Sayyaf would later have their first hostage-taking, their demands were basically political: the removal of the foreign vessels in the archipelago. Ransom was not in the agenda. Erap was the vice president at the time; he came to Sulu to negotiate with the release of the American linguist Walton. The ASG asked him to be the local negotiator, because they said to him, there was no money involved in this case and they would like him to be the negotiator as he could best articulate the political demands they put forth. He did not want to be on the spotlight; he asked an uncle, then Congressman Ben Saudi Tulawie, to do the negotiating. Erap agreed to the conditions set by Walton’s captors and the ASG released the captive. But none of the political demands asked was fulfilled. “Erap made a promise when he went down to Sulu,” he says, “that’s why when he became president, the Moro people really took him to task, demanding that he fulfil his promise.” Of course in the end, it was all-out war that he delivered.

He set out to do full-time human rights work. He gave up his sea cucumber business, understanding as well that once he got to moving things in the grassroots, he would be at loggerheads with those at the board room of the sea trade. The marines, under instruction from the Southwestern Command in Zamboanga City, guard the backdoor ports; they also provide security for the giant trawlers combing the Sulu seas. Smuggling in the southern borders has been made lucrative for local businessmen with the help of military officials who got big stakes in the sea-based businesses. In Jolo and neighboring municipalities, the Scout Rangers were in a rampage, burning houses, killing civilians, destroying crops. Politicos were not doing anything, preoccupied as they were with keeping themselves in power. Ridosbetween rival families raged on, driving people out of their homes and livelihood, further impoverishing the poor. In the hills, armed bands took to extortion activities. There was a growing awareness as well and discontent over the state of things in the islands. In 2000, he set up the first island-wide alliance of human rights advocates, the Bawgbug.

A new clearing

About the time that Bawgbug was set in motion, peace advocacy and good governance projects were well on their way in conflict areas. There was a keen interest from the outside world and the rest of Mindanao on the viability of democratic reforms in the islands and there was a welter of support from everywhere. A believer in self-reliance and people’s sovereignty as both means and end, Cocoy refused external funding to run local organizations. He had seen enough corruption around him to know that outside funding only managed to divide people, sowing intrigues and dissensions within organizations. If an outsider NGO worked with him and Bawgbug, he made sure it was on those terms: the locals make the decisions and own the process and they tap local resources.

In 2001 following the arrest and detention of Nur Misuari, Bawgbug led the protest as Sulu once more rallied behind the beleaguered leader. Together with religious leaders and young students, he went around the town, gathering people up – youth and students, farmers and fishers, vendors and tricycle drivers – to demand for the immediate release of the detained leader. Thousands poured out into the streets to show the world where lies their allegiance. For all his failings and all the blame heaped on him, most of Lupah Sug has remained steadfast in their support for their fallen hero. After all none has risen so far to equal what he did and achieved in his time.

Perhaps, the most important accomplishment Bawgbug made, he says, is the new awareness that people had after direct engagement with human rights work. BeforeBawgbug, all that people ever knew was to pick up a gun to fight. They didn’t know of other avenues of struggle. Such only serves the central government’s militarist agenda in dealing with the Bangsamoro people. Soon after he set Bawgbug into motion, people were suddenly speaking up, going to him to file their complaints that they would be handling one hundred HRV cases at a time. It is not true, he says, that it is not in their culture to file a case, get documented. The experience of Bawgbughas disproved all that. It’s a matter of making people aware and making them feel that they are not that powerless.

In 2003, the Cotabato-based Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), made its way to Jolo. A Mindanao-wide network of Moro civil society organizations, CBCS wanted Jolo to be part of the broader solidarity network. Cocoy played mediator, neutralizing resistance. In the wake of mounting criticisms against fund-driven NGO projects, people were wary of help, even if it came from fellow Moro Muslims. There were accusations that people would not normally bother with projects unless they have something to gain for themselves. Sometimes he wanted to scream, he says, tell people that he is not doing anything for money, he’s using his own money and he is not about to be used by anyone, but he chose to shut up, laugh it off and kept on with his work. Soon people took to him. When he coordinated the CBCS program, he insisted on certain terms before he accepted the responsibility, ensuring that voluntarism was going to be the main mode of doing work. He felt that this is the only way to answer to people’s criticism about their misery being capitalized on by opportunist NGOs. Such policies however did not always endear him to other local actors: while others were asking for more money, he was setting himself above the rest, asking for less.

In Jolo as in other conflict areas saturated with peace projects, new NGOs proliferated. He however feels that before warlord politics, most NGOs do not have mettle enough to influence local government. Instead of influencing government and introducing democratic reforms, he says, they sometimes end up being used by politicos who profited from the so-called GO-NGO partnership, refurbishing their image and giving them credibility they otherwise long lost. He cautions INGOs about creating wrong expectations: “Upon entry INGOs would explain their presence, saying they’re in the islands to help, to provide accompaniment and civilian protection and improve the human rights situation, and to connect the islands with the rest of the world, work which they often could not deliver.” He especially doesn’t take well to INGOs’ offer of funding: It gives people all the wrong notions.

Intrigues and vilification is however something he had long learned to weather. “If you threaten those in position of power, you are bound to be attacked.” But sometimes it was not just politicos and the military that disparage his efforts, but fellow Moro activists as well. Detractors in the Southern Command and politicos say he is making himself very useful to Christian activists and leftists. Critics in the civil societymovement question his credentials: isn’t he scion son to one of the warlord clans in Sulu? It just so happened that the Tans now have the upperhand; if his family was still in power, would he be a rebel talking human rights like he does?

In fact, he did. In his family, which includes his Uncle Tambrin in Talipao, he has become the troublemaker, a rebel son. Even when he ran and served as municipal councillor from 2004 to 2007, he did not turn trapo but remained a staunch human rights defender and government critic. Whether he is sincere or not is up to those in the grassroots to judge, he says. He admits to his trapo origins. Totoo naman. Corrupt naman talaga ang pamilya ko, he says, with a laugh. But he has good memories of his own father, Kimar Tulawie.

In 1989, he recalls being summoned home. His father, then Vice Governor of Sulu, was in a rage over military abuses in the islands, particularly of one Colonel Caharian who headed the Cobra Team which specialized in abduction and killing of suspected rebels. Bodies were being dumped in shallow graves. The Governor told his gathered children that he could not anymore take what was happening in Lupah Sug, he was withdrawing his support to then incumbent Governor Tupay Loong. It was a shame, his father said, that opposition to the military had to come from a lowly functionary in the local PC-INP, while the highest officials in the islands looked on: A certain Sargeant Hapas in the Jolo police force, had just challenged the fascist Colonel Caharian. Wielding a megaphone in front of the Islamic Center in downtown Jolo, Hapas dared Caharian to come out, if he be so brave, and face him in a man-to-man combat. Caharian responded by sending a load of soldiers that had the policeman picked up and pushed out of the truck, then shot at. The incident would be reported later by the military as an encounter with Moro rebels. That was only the latest of the Colonel’s capers. There were countless other hapless victims before Sergeant Hapas, most of them unvindicated and undemnified. At least Hapas fought back and miraculously survived and would later join the Tableegh, a fundamentalist sect; most did not even make it to the Provincial Hospital. People’s anger was a-swell and the Governor was not doing anything. His father took on the task of seeking vengeance. He took leave of his family saying he is going to square it off with Caharian, even if that meant rebelling against government, or dying in the attack. He led the raid of the Colonel’s camp in Asturias, Jolo. The Colonel escaped but several soldiers died. The incident made news enough to call the attention of Malacaňang and compelled Cory Aquino to send his Chief of Staff to the islands. The dreaded team was in no time booted out of the islands. His fathered had of course henceforth removed himself from office.

In a way he took after his father, he says. “And he didn’t build a house or got himself a car using government money.” Before his father died of cirrhosis a few years back, the old man had told his wife Mussa how lucky and proud he is to have a son and a daughter-in-law like them. The two of them, he and his wife Mussa, are deeply involved in human rights work, and they make sure that this legacy is passed on to their children.

Warlordism and contemporary Moro politics

For being a consistent critic of whoever is in power, Cocoy is of course “enemy” of the status quo, regularly disparaged and pilloried even by friends and kin in government. “When Governor Jikiri was the incumbent and Tan was running against him, I was being accused of being in the payroll of Tan. Then when Tan won and Munir Arbisson ran against him, Tan accused me of being in payroll of Arbisson.”

In fact, he and Arbisson were far from allies, he says. Bawgbug blames Congressman Arbisson as responsible for the presence of the US military troops in the Sulu Islands. He opened District II as entry point of the US Army when the rest of the archipelago was against it. When Bawgbug held a rally barring US forces from the shores of Sulu, Congressman Arbisson mobilized his own contingent for another rally welcoming the troops into the islands. In the trumped-up multiple-murder charges filed against him by Governor Abdusakur Tan, the Governor took the notion of lumping him with the Congressman as co-accused. The Congressman challenged Tan in the last gubernatorial race but was defeated by the latter. Even Arbisson, he gathers, was also surprised that the two of them should be co-defendants in a case. It’s bad mathematics, the association him with Arbisson, but it’s Sakur Tan’s game at the moment and he wants Cocoy eliminated, along with his rival Arbisson.

Since he took up the human rights crusade, threats have hounded him. His own trapo uncle Tambrin Tulawie took the trouble of showing him an intelligence report purportedly of an assassination plot against him and offering him money how much ever he needed to get away to Malaysia or Singapore or wherever he wished just he leave the place. His own wife would be followed by motorcycle riding men on her way to work in the provincial hospital. He refused to be cowed.

In the contemporary politics of the ARMM, power still comes out of the barrel of a gun and wealth may still be secured through the control of vast lands, but there is a shorter way now: the IRA. Good governance and democratization aside, the IRA is as good as loot. In the town of Talipao, for instance, where his aunt Hadja Sitti Raya Tulawie and her husband Tambrin Tulawie sit unopposed as Mayor and Vice Mayor, he knows that of the 7 million monthly IRA, only 2 million is used for implementation; the 5 million is take-home money, from month to month. “All you have to do is have the local banks’ managers in your confidence. That’s what I mean when I said welcome to Sulu’s mansions and palaces of corruption.” And to please count out the line agency monies, he adds, in the Department of Agriculture, for example, and to count out as well the business side of political office, the share in the backdoor trading, the contraband goods, including guns and narcotics. That’s why officials in the Southern Command had to be paid off as well: They oversee the sea routes, and oversee the election results. If the armies of private security cannot ensure electoral victory by bribe and harassment, the marines take over to take care of the votes. That’s why the same military officials in the Southern Command are in the sea business as well. That’s why the local lords had to buy guns from them as well. You keep each other in the wealth. It’s all part of the family business, and the Southern Command, if you look close enough, is family to the Tans, to whoever is in power in the islands. And if you look further, of course, Malacanang is family, too. It is an interlocking directorate of reciprocal political economic and para-military interests.

The crusade for human rights in Sulu

On July 22, 2009 a charge of multiple frustrated murder and attempted murder has been filed against Temogen Tulawie at the Regional Trial Court branch 3 of Jolo, Sulu. He was supposed to have plotted the bombing incident in Patikul, Sulu on May 13,2009 which wounded twelve persons including the Governor and his uncle Tambrin. He had been granted Temporary Protection by the Court of Appeals in Cagayan de Oro City when he filed a Writ of Amparo on June 13,2009 and was provided escorts from Philippine Marines, but when a warrant of arrest had been issued against him on October 5,2009, he had to go into hiding.

For frontlining in human rights defense in Sulu, Cocoy has earned the wrath of the powers-that-be in the islands. In the last decade, his organization, Bawgbug, has been working with local, national and international rights advocates to bring in change in the warlord-dominated politics of the islands. In his various capacities as community organizer, provincial chair of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, and one-time Councilor of the municipality of Jolo, he had rallied attention to the human rights situation and had organized campaigns and mass actions in the local level. These included fact-finding missions, legal actions, forums and symposiums, and mass mobilizations.

In January 2008, an ID Card System was proposed by Col. Natalio Ecarma of the 3rd Marine Brigade station in Sulu in line with the military campaign to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf in the islands, a move which the Governor supported. The plan was suspended following mass actions spearheaded by Bawgbug and other local civil society organizations. Reports of killings, abductions, and massacre of families, including cannibalism, were also investigated and acted upon. For more than two decades, civilian abuse by Marine soldiers have been the order of the day, with no action from local officials for fear that come next election the military will not support them. Under his leadership, HRV cases have been dug up and brought to court and the office of the CHR-Region 9 in Zamboanga City.

In June of 2008, right after the release from kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf of news reported Ces Drilon, military bombardment of Tanduh Pugut, Baragay Siunugan in Indanan was conducted by the military. The offensive came after the Governor’s appeared on national television saying Tanduh Pugut is a playground of the Abu Sayyaf. Cocoy facilitated a preliminary investigation by local human rights activists then arranged for an international fact-finding mission. Both missions revealed that the community bombarded was civilian territory and damage to life and property has been extensive. The Governor was forced to backtrack and promised compensation for injuries inflicted. The promise was of course never fulfilled and the Governor went on to say that human rights reporting is detrimental to the image of the province.

Then on March 31, 2009, following the kidnapping of International Red Cross volunteers, the Governor issued Proclamation 1 putting the entire province of Sulu under State of Emergency and converting the ruling clans’ private armies into the Civilian Emergency Forces. On the same day, warrantless arrests were carried out. Cocoy challenged the declaration and set out to organize a huge mass protest, to be staged in front of the Governor’s Office. He questioned the basis of the latter’s proclamation and demanded for the guidelines in the implementation of the Emergency Rule and reminded him as well about the killings and massacres very recently committed by the military which remain unaccounted for and unindemnified. Piqued, the Governor called his uncle, Vice Mayor Tambrin, and castigated the latter over the behaviour of his nephew. His uncle invited his mother and two brothers in his office. In the meeting the Vice Mayor told his mother and siblings that whatever will happen to Cocoy, he is not to be held responsible. His brothers retorted that’s okay, neither are they expecting any help from him. Cocoy filed a petition before the Supreme Court, on April 4, 2009, challenging the legality of the Proclamation. Then he proceeded with the plan to hold a big protest action that will demand for the immediate release of arrested civilians. Before the rally could be launched, the Regional State Prosecutor of Region 9 issued an order releasing those arrested. The Governor complied, but the Emergency proclamation remained in place. It was not to be lifted, especially after the Governor finally succeeded in exiling him from the province: using all his powers, the patriarch procured a court order for Cocoy’s arrest.

Temporary victories

It was no mean feat, organising people, telling them to take to the streets and demand for their rights when they have a fatalistic attitude towards life and believe that their lives are not in their hands but in the hands of God. “If someone dies, from a bullet or from hunger, they attribute it to destiny. And now there you are telling them that they have human rights, that the rich oppressing the poor is not necessarily the natural order of things? It was a daunting task. But once you get them out of their holes u engaged in struggle, you know that you are on your way. He makes sure he does not give people false hopes, does not make wrong expectations. You just make them see the world as it is, the truth as they themselves have known it: that’s consciousness-raising. “I tell them not to expect that justice will be served in their time, because it is going to be a long journey, and a hard one.” But sometimes just getting them involved in human rights struggle is victory enough, against fear, against helplessness.

That is why he believes that no matter how small the step that has been taken, it is worth celebrating. Every little victory should be celebrated, he says. Just seeing people leave the drudgery of work and enslavement to march in the streets, challenging the political and military establishment, pouring out their anger, their collective outrage, is exhilarating. Even the Sama Bajaus, who never in their whole life participated in political actions called on by Tausug leaders, he says proudly, went out into the streets with them, exhorting others, shouting Para kato kini! Para kato kini! (This is for all of us!). It is this engagement in struggle, in collective action, that gives people a sense of awakening, that makes them feel their lives can change and that change is possible. When the Governor, for instance, raised the toll tax they levy against tricycle drivers, Bawgbug mobilized a huge rally protesting it. Tricycle drivers sacrifice a day of work just so they could join the protest. Rightly so: the Governor rescinded the newly issued tax.

Knowing how this new awareness, how this awakening threatens their hold to power, politicians have sought not only to rein in the emergent human rights movement, but took ways as well to ensure that it lost religious backing. When the Jama’a Lupah Sug, an alliance of civil society organizations in Sulu, of which Bawgbug is one of the convenors, launched a protest action in November 2009 against the holding of the35th Bishop-Ulama Conference in Jolo, the mass mobilization was so huge that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had to cancel coming to the conference as guest of honor. Graced by high military officials and heavily guarded by the abusive Marines, the people saw the high-level Catholic-dominated conference as an insult to their religious sensibility: the conference program included a visit to the Golden Mosque by the most corrupt local and national government and military officials, to be escorted by the most venerable of bishops and ulamas. People masses in front of the mosque to barricade the offending guests, to the displeasure of the Governor and local hosts. The Grand Imam, Cocoy would learn later, had been heavily rebuked by the Governor that henceforth, he was not to allow the use of the mosque as rallying point for the faithful. On that very same days, in what looked like so quick a turnaround, he announced to the gathered throngs of people that from that day on, he alone may use his time for giving the khutba. Cocoy had asked that he be allowed to speak, thank all those who participated in the mass rally cum barricade for without the strength of their huge presence, hypocrisy would have won the day, but the Grand Imam refused to lend him the mike. Except for Nur Misuari who is Chairman of the Board of the Grand Mosque, no one else has the right to use khutba time but him. Cocoy, would later grab the mike as people were being dispersed and told to get home, and ask one and all: How come that if it is for Misuari and in praise of Misuari, we don’t mind sharing khutba time, but if it is only for the sake of the Godforsaken tricycle drivers, we are not allowed to speak? That of course had the tricycle drivers and the hordes of the unfortunate raising their fists shouting Allahu Akbar!

Women and the religion of honor

The Central Mosque in Tulay, Jolo, has always been the hub of religious-political gatherings. The khutba (Friday sermon) always served as a crier of issues that affect the community of the faithful. It was therefore a big disappointment for Cocoy to know that the ustadzes, the appointed moral guardian of the Muslim community, would close their eyes at the time when they were most needed as witness by the community people. “You would not expect much from your politico-businessman friends. But you would hope that your ustadz friends would do better.”

A focal issue that divided the religious was rape. The Civilian Emergency Forces of the Governor had been involved in the gang rape of two women, with some of the perpetrators identified by the victims. However, no investigation and no punitive action has been undertaken by the police or civilian authorities, least of all by the Governor. The identified rapists, it turned out, belong to prominent families. Cocoy sought help from the ulama. He had hoped that the ustadjes would act with more conscience. The mufti did take part in the indignation rally; but that was all. He didn’t even enjoin his followers to make a stand. And as though the crime did not deserve his outrage, neither did he make a public statement denouncing it. At one time or another, he expressed doubt the rape happened. In fact, most of the ustadzes would like to believe that the gang rape is heresy: no Muslim would rape another Muslim. While the ustadzes step back before condemning rape, they usually don’t think twice when object of the protest is US imperialism, the Manila colonial government arresting the great leader Nur Misuari, or the Catholic bishops guiding Gloria Macapagal Arroyo into the Grand Mosque of Jolo.

In traditional Muslim society, rape is meted out with the death penalty. Not only is it a crime against chastity; it is also a crime against family honor. Men (husband, brother or father of the rape victim) may commit parang sabil, killing or dying, in redeeming family honor. In demanding for justice for the rape victims, women human rights workers were invariably questioned, harassed and interrogated: asked to shut up and file the case away. The ideology and religion of honor likewise edicts that the “dishonored woman” is irredeemably damaged and is best “banished”. But over decades of military and para-military abuses in the islands, rape of women has become all part of enemy’s terror tactics, along with killings, beheadings and mutilations, and in one documented case, cannibalism. Cocoy avers that rape has been the most difficult to handle. It incurred him the most enemies and caused him to fall out from friends in the religious community. At one moment, he thought he was going to die on it.

A day after Cocoy brought the complaint of the two rape victims to the attention of the town mayor Hussein Amin, he got a call from the latter. The Mayor asked him to bring the complaining victims to his office, for an interview and an affidavit. Accompanied by two Marines (provided him by the Court after he filed a writ of amparo following threats and harassments from the Governor), his wife, one of the victims and her mother, he went to the Mayor’s office. When they arrived, the place practically was in a state of war. Around a hundred CEFs surrounded the Mayor’s office, waiting for them, their guns cocked. Hadji Kadil Estino, a warlord and adviser to the Governor, was there; so was Hadja Amina Buclao, wife of Provincial Board Member Hector Buclao, whose son was implicated in the crime. Buclao’s wife was especially agitated and followed the rape victim when the latter went to the comfort room. Cocoy, seeing the Hadja going after the victim, went after them and heard the Board Member’s wife tell the other woman: “Hilapun ku in tutuy muh” (I will cut your clitoris off.”) Outraged, Cocoy raised a hand to slap the woman, at which instant he also saw her draw a pistol from her bag. He had a vision he was going to die that day and that hour and was saved by the push of bodies that came in between them, putting down his raised arm and embracing him. Upstairs of the municipal building where he used to hold office as town councillor, he would be told later, some of the employees were already crying: they thought the Mayor invited Cocoy that he may be handed to the CEFs to be shot. The victim refused to sign the affidavit later because nowhere in the document was it clearly stated that the affiant had been gang-raped. The three of them went home cold, the women crying. They had been had. The hadja who threatened the complainant, incidentally, was a relative of the Mayor’s wife, a poor relation.

In the face of intensified harassments against victims and human rights defenders, the Central Mosque in Jolo took a beating, too. It was learned the around 50 ustadjeshad stopped getting their monthly stipends after their participation in human rights and anti- US troops rallies. When after negotiation with the Governor they were able to get their allowances back, along with the monthly allocation for light and water for the mosque and the madrasahs, the khutba changed gear: New rules have been imposed. From then on only the grand imam can use the microphone and he alone may decide what are topics fit for discussion and who can be lecturer. These days, the khutba keeps off from political issues. Human rights and good governance are taboo topics; lectures now focus on virtues related to obedience and respect for leaders. The ustadzes are to stay put henceforth; no more participation in rallies unless called on by the ruling politicians. The ustadzas had also been issued an ultimatum: they either stop going with Cocoy and Bawgbug or they stop going with the ustadzes and lose their jobs at the madrasahs. The women chose the latter.

Hope for human rights

The last time that Cocoy heard from Jolo, the Governor and his men were happy over his “banishment” from the town. With him gone, the voice of dissent has been silenced. Even NGOs and INGOs who have managed to stay in the islands have grown more and more cautious. There are no more human rights rallies, like the Governor wished. The youth and student activists who now and then break out from the corral, to speak up, to disagree with how things are, are all too quickly hushed, reprimanded: would you like to be another Cocoy? Now a fugitive, his adversaries like to reduce him to a lesson in prudence.

He sometimes suspects that his enemies back home only want him out of the islands; now that he is not there to give them trouble, they probably would rather that he enjoy a long get-away vacation, like what his uncle Tambrin once begged him to do. He however understands that no matter how insular Sulu Islands may be, what happens there is not divorced from the bigger realities outside it, not separate from the bigger rot that is Philippine polity. In the first place, the monstrous corruption and abuse of power that have taken hold of the islands would have not been possible without the help of Malacanang and all those in the higher echelons of power. It is a big chain to break and that way, he is not neither safe where he is.

Hopeless as the situation may be, he believes that there will always be those who will keep the fight. “Out of ten there is always one soul who will dare; who will refuse to be gagged. They are the ones who will keep the sliver of light all throughout our struggle. The history of Lupah Sug has shown so, time and again.”

“Do you really believe they will be in power forever? I don’t think so. Naniniwala ako na tayo pa rin ang mananalo. The thing to do is to reach out to other democratic forces.” (SBA)


Human Rights in Sulu: The Case of Temogen Tulawie

PHILIPPINES: Petition asking President Aquino to take custody of a falsely charged activist

PHILIPPINES: Harassment of a prominent Muslim human rights defender

PHILIPPINES: “Guilty until proven innocent”

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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