Zaynab Ampatuan, 27, hardly looks like one who has experienced being driven from home by bombs and bullets courtesy of the military. But she has – and more than twice. Her experiences with the oppression of Muslims in the Philippines led her to become an advocate for the Moro cause.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Petite and slim Zaynab Ampatuan, 27, deputy secretary-general and one of the party-list nominees of the Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Moro People) Party for this year’s elections, hardly looks like one who has experienced being driven from home by bombs and bullets courtesy of the military. But she has – and more than twice.
In 2000, then President Joseph Estrada declared “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The “all-out war” took a heavy toll mostly on civilians in Mindanao. Military offensives in areas claimed by authorities as MILF strongholds have sporadically taken place under the Arroyo regime, even as the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) is engaged in peace negotiations with the group.
“Our family was among those (whose homes) were bombed by the military,” says the soft-spoken but otherwise affable Ampatuan.
Their family, she says, have had to relocate more than twice as a result of the “all-out war” declared by the Estrada government – which was eventually replicated by the Arroyo administration in 2003. Her parents and eight siblings now stay in a relocation center in Carmen, North Cotabato.
The time of the “all-out war” declared by the Estrada regime was not the first for their family to have to flee from a place they had come to consider home.
Their family originally lived in Carmen until they were attacked by the Ilagas, a fanatical vigilante group composed of Ilonggos in Mindanao, sometime in the 1970s. “Based on stories that have been told to me, my parents’ house was among those burned down by the Ilagas,” she said.
Early on, thus, she developed a high awareness of the oppression suffered by the Moro people in the Philippines.
She admits, though, that she had been reared on the idea that Muslims should not befriend Christians.
“Our elders would often tell us that Christians are traitors,” she says, “because of the many sad experiences of Muslims.”
“When I started going to school I learned that there was that same kind of prejudice among my Christian classmates,” she continues. “Their elders would tell them not to befriend Muslims because the latter are murderers.”
What is made to appear as a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines dates back to the Spanish occupation (1565-1898).
The Spanish colonizers used a diluted version of Christian doctrine, together with the sword, to coerce the natives into submission. The Moro people – being economically, politically, and culturally stronger than many of the other ethnic groups in what came to be known as the Philippine Islands – successfully resisted the intrusions of Spanish colonialism. The Spanish colonialists vilified the Moros as “heathens” (or wicked) before the eyes of their “Christianized” subjects.
“Fortunately, I would later learn that instead of exacerbating our historical and religious differences, (Christians and Muslims) can and should work together toward solving our common problems,” Ampatuan says.
In the late 1990s she took up AB Development Communication, majoring in Broadcasting, at the University of Southern Mindanao’s Kabacan, North Cotabato campus. Her goal was to take up Law after graduation. The motive for this was two-fold, she says.
Her parents, who owned a small restaurant, earn lower than her aunts and uncles. One of her reasons for wanting to take up Law was the desire to help bring their family up from the hard life.
The other reason, she says, was that she wanted even then to defend the rights of her fellow Muslims – and she thought that being a lawyer was the best way to do it.
Her developing awareness of social realities led her to join the League of Filipino Students (LFS) chapter at the University of Southern Mindanao – of which she eventually became the spokesperson. In 2000-2001, she served as president of the University Student Council, which she led in campaigning for various causes.
After graduation, she became a full-time activist instead of pursuing her original dream of becoming a lawyer. In 2002, she became one of the founding members of the Suara Bangsamoro Party.
“One of our reasons for founding the Suara Bangsamoro Party is that the Moro people have no voice (in the country’s political life),” she says. “We want the Moro people to have a voice, to have legitimate representation, in Congress. At the minimum we want to be able to block anti-Moro and anti-people policies of the government.”
The Suara Bangsamoro Party, Ampatuan says, aims to: Uphold the Moro people’s right to self-determination, promote a politics of self-reliance, bring about a “progressive and healthy interaction” between the Moro and Filipino peoples, forge a just peace not only in Mindanao but throughout the Philippines, embark on a policy of “genuine industrialization and land reform” as the path toward eradicating the Moro people’s poverty; create international solidarity against foreign aggression, domination, exploitation, and oppression; and protect the Moro people and their homeland.
There have been many individual politicians and even several party-list groups from Mindanao claiming to represent the Moro people. How does the Suara Bangsamoro Party differ from them?
“The Suara Bangsamoro Party has been consistent in speaking out on various issues affecting the Moro people, particularly the massive human rights violations,” she says. “There have been many Moro politicians who claim to represent our people but have never taken a clear stand for our cause, who have not come up with programs responding to the basic needs of the Moro communities. To this day there are many Moro communities in Mindanao that lack even basic services like water and electricity.”
“The Suara Bangsamoro Party has never allowed and will never allow big politicians or clans to dictate upon it, to make it sacrifice its principles,” she added.
The Suara Bangsamoro Party ran for party-list seats in the 2004 elections, with its secretary-general Amirah Ali Lidasan – a former chairperson of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) – as its first nominee. It lost, however, having fallen victim to the dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and vote-shaving) that is known to be widespread in vote-rich Mindanao.
Ampatuan says the group has learned hard lessons from the 2004 elections which she hopes would help it achieve success in its second electoral bid for Congress.(Bulatlat.com)