Creating Terror-Free Zones: How a Citizen Organization is Helping in the Philippines


2016-11-28 By Albert  Santoli, President, Asia America Initiative

The Philippine archipelago of 7,000 islands and water passages of trade, defense and communications form a strategic crossroad vital to the security to the entire Pacific Region and the West Coast of the United States.

The strategic relationship between the United States and the Philippines is currently sliding into jeopardy due to political faux pas by both sides, aided by the clever manipulation of China.

A solution to maintaining people-to-people alliances is a citizen diplomacy approach.  This includes anti-poverty and community-based good governance programs unrelated to political influence or funding by the US government.

Map of Philippines highlights key sea transit routes from Asia.
Map of Philippines highlights key sea transit routes from Asia.

A modest-sized Virginia-based organization, Asia America Initiative, has devoted more than a decade of citizen diplomacy relationships with both Muslim and Christian communities in the Philippines. The tri-border area [with Malaysia and Indonesia] of Sulu is where AAI has based its most dynamic friendship programs.

We have a partnership of trust with local civic leaders and educators.

Among one of the most significant areas of the Philippines is the southern 125 islands of the Sulu archipelago, a fiercely independent-minded Muslim region dominated by the Tausug and Yakkan tribes [largely on Basilan island] that forms a scorpions tail between the former Spanish capitol of the Philippines, Zamboanga and the narrow Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia.

All maritime traffic between East and West Asia [including the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf] must transit this narrow passageway into the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands to serve as naval stations and air force runways capable of threatening all of its neighbors from Southeast Asia to Japan and South Korea.

An estimated $5 trillion worth of goods are transported through South China Sea shipping lanes each year.  This includes more than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.

The alternative to the Malacca Straits is a seldom-used passage through Sulu Archipelago that transits the Celebes Sea toward the Pacific Ocean.

While Beijing has been steadily building an aggressive hegemonic presence to dominate the region, extremist Muslim organizations have entered the Muslim Mindanao region seeking to exploit intensive poverty – considered by the United Nations to rival the poorest nations in Africa – and strive for an independent caliphate.

Strategic Distances Phillipines

During the past decade, US special operations forces made a variety of mistakes that enhanced corruption by local warlords.  Diplomats and colonels in the US embassy traded permission to create barbed-wire mini-forts in Mindanao in exchange for ignoring the smuggling of meth-amphetamines “made in” China.

The meth trade, controlled largely by political bosses, created a plague of criminal violence that can divide communities through the fear of ruthless kidnap gangs.  In 2016, this led to hostility toward the US by the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the long-time mayor of Davao City in Mindanao where he was born.

In a familiar story related to the US  “war on terror,” billions of dollars has been spent by USAID, the US State Department and the US military’s “soft power” programs.

However, corruption, mismanagement and the gap between rich and poor has dramatically grown. 

This has provided a populist pulpit for President Duterte to blame all the country’s problems on US neo-colonialism.

He has visited China and Russia  where he railed against the US and voiced the desire for a “strategic partnership” with Moscow, Beijing and Manila “against the world.”

Throughout this period, Asia America Initiative has maintained constructive relationships with the communities we assist, with full respect for their own dignity.

Our coordination teams consist of local teachers, nurses and community leaders who understand our stringent accountability procedures. Because we accept no US or Philippine government funds we are not obligated to play any game which reinforces corruption.

Even when the situation has grown closer to another full-scale war, I travel to our program areas to reinforce our message to residents that they are not alone and that progress is possible.

On September 6, 2016, one week after a terror bombing in the night market in Davao killed and wounded scores of people I arrived in Sulu on a crowded ferryboat. Across the Philippines, a fierce drug war has taken 3,000 lives.

I was the lone Westerner among 500 Muslim Filipino Moro people on a 5 hour ferry boat ride from Zamboanga.  The province of 125 islands is arguably the most feared place in Southeast Asia.

The region was on edge with a new President and former “vigilante” Mayor of Davao, Roddy Duterte, swearing revenge against those who took credit for the Davao attack.

Planeload after planeload of hard-edged Filipino soldiers with heavy weapons was being rushed into the forests and hills surrounding the city of Jolo.

The echoing explosions of artillery could be heard day and night.

In the urban area kidnappings was a daily threat, with children as young as 5 years old victimized and the principal of the city’s largest elementary school receiving an anonymous text message death threat.

The Philippines as seen from a global perspective.
The Philippines as seen from a global perspective.

Some 4,000 families were internally displaced from the homes in the combat zones.  They were given refuge in some of the 30 public schools – from pre-kindergarten nursery to college grad schools — that Asia America Initiative supports.

Practicing “Citizen Diplomacy,” we take no funds from either the US or Filipino government.  It was my personal choice to provide assistance to displaced families and moral support to communities under siege to create “Child Friendly” Peace Zones.

Our main events in four days of non-stop activities were an open air “Education Fiesta” in the District of Indanan, and a “Health Fiesta” in the large open schoolyard of Mohammad Tulawie Central School where the principal had received the threat.

We could not have achieved these events without three trucks of local paramilitary police who secured our safety and also the shadowy presence of law-abiding Moro National Liberation Front guerillas who protected our flanks and made their presence known to back-off any potential Abu Sayyaf Group meth-head assassins.

The events were conducted without interruption.  This is the Tausug tribal way.

We thank God and appreciate the teamwork of many groups who created our spontaneous “peace zones.”

Citizen Diplomacy, as Asia America Initiative conducts, is based on mutual respect, friendship proven over time.  The key component is trust between those communities who cannot escape and their friends from abroad who choose to be with them and share the same risks.

Across the world, as politics, economics and bloody cultural feuds continue to fester, Great Power rivalries are playing out in proxy wars.  Bilateral political and military relations can easily break down.

This is when modest-sized private organizations that have personal relationships built on years of trust within front-line communities can perform tremendous good.

On a humid afternoon at Sahaya Elementary School while I inspected the school’s garden and tool shed, artillery echoed from nearby mountains where many of the schools children live into the valley where we were chatting.

A faculty member, Ms. Jenny, asked if I regretted coming because no ferry would be departing the island for at least 20 hours.

“Can you leave?”  I asked.

“No, Sir,” she responded.

“This our home and we have 200 school children too poor to buy a ticket, including my own son, who depend on us teachers.”

I looked at Jenny and her colleagues and said, “You are my friends.  When times are difficult that is when I should be here.  Not only when it is easy.”

Politics is never stable, but bonds of friendship built from these experiences cannot be broken.

As the strategic equation grows more complex in the Asia Pacific region the need for people to people relations grows more significant by each passing day.  To achieve trust untainted by politics, private groups involved require independent private funding sources to expand their work.

At this critical time, such efforts are especially needed.

In 2017, Asia America Initiative hopes to double the number of communities and schools where we are having a positive impact with citizen diplomacy.

Our website is where our Pay Pal site is located.

Or you can send a contribution of any size to our address:  Administrator, Asia America Initiative, 1521 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Albert Santoli

Adjunct Professor, Institute of World Politics

President, Asia America Initiative

1521 16th Street NW

Washington, DC  20036

Tel  202-232-7020

Email  [email protected]