Jolo, Zamboanga, Basilan: Sights and sounds

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

For four days this week I joined a low-key electoral campaign sortie in Western Mindanao, specifically in Jolo, Zamboanga City, and Isabela, Basilan.

I welcomed the chance to return to these places, accept the invitation of old and new friends among barangay officials to visit them, and have a look-see at developments in their localities.

Let me report some of my impressions and insights.

Jolo, the capital of Sulu, definitely bustles today with far more people and more economic and social activities. It also exudes a better sense of physical security than in 2005 or earlier, when I came on congressional missions. Mayor Hussin Amin, who hosted my recent visit, was then Sulu district representative and vice chair of the House committee on peace, unity and reconciliation that I headed.

In 2005 Rep. Amin and I moved about in Jolo and neighboring towns with a convoy of heavily-armed police-military security. Early this week we leisurely drove around the city until evening with light police escort. Still, Mayor Amin has imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, more to deter young people from roaming in the streets at late hours.

Standing outside Mayor Amin’s resthouse near Jolo’s port, I gazed at the golden glow of the near-full moon in a clear sky. The edge of the seawall teemed with children making cheerful noises. Others frolicked about and some dove into the clear water, swimming with facility much like fishes.

Yes, I felt the calm atmosphere. But I couldn’t banish the persistent thought that, beneath this calm exterior, restlessness seethed in the hearts and minds of Sulu’s vast number of poor people who would sleep hungry that night. They have long been mired in destitution and official neglect. They demand redress for many injustices inflicted upon them. And they yearn for peace.

When Mayor Amin took office in 2007, Jolo was a second-class municipality. It was upgraded to first-class status under his administration. A vision-mission statement by his office projects Jolo “to become a peaceful, progressive and strong municipality by year 2013 onwards.” With infrastructure development, aid from donor agencies, and enhanced fiscal management, Amin aspires to attain city status — as it did in pre-colonial times — for the capital town.

However, there’s a problem. Although Jolo has exceeded the P100-million annual revenue required for cityhood, it is far from attaining the minimum population requisite of 250,000.

Per the 2007 census, its population was only 140,357 (in 2000 the figure was 87,998). The biggest town of Sulu, Jolo has only eight barangays, spanning 12,640 hectares. There appears to be limited land space for an expanding population, unless a massive housing rezoning and vertical construction are undertaken.

In contrast, Zamboanga City continues to flourish with upscale building construction, expanding businesses, and entertainment places absent in Jolo.

Yet, when I arrived last Wednesday and Thursday I was immediately asked to respond to two appeals for assistance and support in two cases: one involving an actual human rights violation, the other a potential violation.

The first case, protested by the Darul Ifta’ (an association of foreign-educated ustadz, or Muslim clerics also called ulama, in Zamboanga), involved the alleged shooting and abduction of their colleague, Sheikh Bashier Mursalon, by motorcycle-riding men last Jan. 21 in Malandi Patalon, Barangay Labuan.

The Darul Ifta’ had appealed to the city police, Mayor Celso Lobregat, and Zamboanga City Rep. Ma. Isabelle Climaco, for help. Lobregat mobilized his crisis management committee to look into the incident.

Climaco wrote letters of appeal to President Aquino, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, PNP Chief Allan Purisima, and the Commission on Human Rights regional director seeking urgent action on the case.

With no results, Darul Ifta’, along with Sheikh Bashier’s relatives, filed a complaint with the CHR against the police commander of Labuan and some of his men. It also filed a 33-page petition, including affidavits, to the city council urging a public hearing on the incident.

At the hearing, a policeman testified that his responding team was about to fire at Mursalon’s abductors but they were restrained by their leader, Chief Inspector Roberto Marcos, after the latter got a call from his superior. When asked to comment, Marcos affirmed the call came from City Police Director, Col. Edwin Ocampo.

Col. Ocampo declined to talk, not even to invoke his right to self-incrimination. However, when interviewed by media soon after the abduction, Ocampo declared that Mursalon was involved in kidnapping activities in Labuan. Obviously he has a lot to explain.

The second case involves Mujeenar Dagam Cabalo, a madaris teacher in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan. The Zamboanga City police tried to arrest him at the city hospital, where he had been confined, on the strength of a 2007 arrest warrant for frustrated multiple murder issued by a judge in Kidapawan, North Cotabato. But the name in the warrant is Aman Kabalu, who had been arrested by the NBI in 2010 and later found dead.

I promised to help bring to national attention the abduction-disappearance of Mursalon. Then I immediately contacted Public Attorney’s Office chief Persida Acosta to assist Cabalo. Acosta then alerted Edgardo Gonzales, PAO regional director, who visited Cabalo and assured him of speedy legal assistance.

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March 2, 2013

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