By Ed Quitoriano

(Part 1)

Frontiers are physically distant from the administrative reach of the central state. Where central state power is at its weakest, local power structures define the norming and forming of the local society. Instituted economies lean on informal norms more than formal systems of permits and taxation. High-value illicit goods become objects of competition and contestation involving law enforcement agents, suppliers, and redistributors.

A key challenge in state building national development is how to not leave behind frontier areas; at the least, how not to leave frontier areas in the hands of non-state actors and treat frontiers as principal objects of military campaigns against crime, rebellion, insurgency, terrorism, and violent extremism.

Palimbang fits the bill of a maritime frontier that needs watching.

First, its geographic location. Palimbang lies on the southwest frontier of the Philippines facing the Celebes Sea, a loosely guarded and porous maritime border that easily offers a route for illicit trade in guns and drugs and in-out movement of terrorist groups. It is also a refuge to fisherfolk from neighboring Indonesia, accidentally brought to its shores by strong winds. In fact, the town got its name from stranded fisherfolk from Palembang (Indonesia) who built a community on the Pula River estuary.

Second, its isolation and distance from the provincial capital of Isulan. It takes five hours to reach Isulan through mountain roads of the Daguma Range which is the home of the West Daguma Front of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). In fact, people from Palimbang have easier means of travel to, and commercial links with, General Santos city via the Sarangani coastal road.

Physical isolation also has historical significance. For a long time, Palimbang had not seen the face of the central state compared to the neighboring coastal municipalities of Lebak and Kalamansig, which fell under Spanish politico-military administration in the 1870s and the American military administration thereafter. American civilian administration first emerged in Lebak in the early 1900s alongside the homestead and resettlement programs and the entry of American timber companies.

Palimbang became a municipality only in 1959. Even then, it remained an isolated frontier area with little road access to the growing towns of Lebak and Kalamansig and the coastal municipalities of Sarangani Province. In the 1970s, the face of the central state was the military in hot pursuit of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Third, rebellion is in the heart of the predominantly Muslim population. Palimbang has had a long affinity with the Moro rebellion beginning with the MNLF since the early 1970s, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) since after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2011, and the CPP-NPA insurgency in recent years. The distant memory of the infamous 1974 massacre of 1,500 male Muslims by government soldiers in and around the H. Hamsa Tacbil Mosque in Barangay Malisbong is not yet forgotten. A landmark has been erected in the village, including a mass grave at the back of the mosque. A worn-out MNLF flag flies at the entrance to the mosque.

The predominantly Maguindanaon Muslim population has not abandoned the MNLF and the MILF. Worn-out MNLF flags continue to fly at the Malisbong Massacre shrine, Camp Gadungan in Barangay Libua, and Camp Butril in Barangay Butril.

Kumander Ronnie Piang, Chairman of the Biwang State Revolutionary Committee, holds office at his residence in Sitio Kolong-Kolong. Although he can hardly walk and speak due to a stroke, he maintains command of fellow cadres and younger followers. The MILF flies its flag at the 104th Base Command in Barangay Tibuhol. Macalma Sabidan Ali (aka Kumander Teng) commands the base. Under him are six brigades located in other barangays. His wife, Bainon Benasi, is the Barangay Chairperson of Tibuhol.

Fourth, Palimbang has been the object of CPP-NPA expansion since 2016. The West Daguma Front of the CPP-NPA tried to establish bases in Palimbang since 2016 upon the assumption of the Rodrigo Duterte administration but it could not penetrate the Muslim communities. At best, the CPP-NPA could pass through for procurement of food supplies or to reach out to the Dulangan Manobo communities. The MILF and MNLF commands in Palimbang still consider the CPP-NPA as a revolutionary group, but do not want to get infected by the government’s characterization of the group as communist-terrorist group (CTG).

Four main actions have been observed: the recruitment of youth among indigenous people (IP), the procurement of supplies, a failed attempt to celebrate the 52nd CPP founding anniversary in 2020, and the establishment of indigenous people’s (IP) schools under the banner of the Center for Lumad Advocacy, Networking and Services (CLANS).

At least 14 CLANS schools were established in the municipality since 2016. One was established near the MILF camp in Barangay Tibulho. The MILF tolerated its presence, and the barangay local government of Tibulho even contributed roofing materials. However, what was supposed to be civilian infrastructure was also used by the NPA as military infrastructure. In May 2022, an NPA unit strafed a group of Muslim civilians that were cutting some logs near the school, hitting an MILF cadre by accident. The incident caused a spark that soured the relationship with the MILF and the barangay government and subsequently induced a military reaction from the AFP.

The array of factors and actors of violence would tend to show a gloomy picture of Palimbang. However, the municipality has managed not only to cope but, more significantly, to transform defeatism into a proactive instrument for peaceful transition. The second part of this article will explain why.

(To be continued.)

Ed Quitoriano is a Chevening fellow on Conflict Resolution and specializes in peace and conflict studies. He works as senior advisor of the Council for Climate and Conflict Action Asia and principal consultant of Visus Consulting.