Last summer I went to Zamboanga City for a vacation. Upon the advice of my brother I took the long overland route via Lanao del Sur passing by the renowned Narciso Ramos Highway, named after the former President’s father. This is the new highway connecting Cotabato City in Sultan Kudarat and Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur. Before the opening of this highway one has to backtrack to Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental and Lanao del Norte before one can proceed to Pagadian City. The new highway cut travel distance by more than three-fourths. The alternative was to take the non-scheduled light plane or the overnight motor boat (when the fastcraft suspended service).
An offshoot of the opening of the highway is the opening of the Cotabato City-Marawi City-Iligan City van route which before did not also exist. Several new jeepney routes also came into existence serving the small Lanao del Sur towns.
I undertook this travel also as a present to myself because I will viewing sceneries and places that were formerly closed to the outside world (meaning Christian world). It means passing through Campo 1, the gateway to fabled Camp Abubakar of the MILF which they lost in the 2000 war. The highway also passes through Malabang, Lanao del Sur and Sultan Naga Dimaporo (formerly Caromatan), Lanao del Norte, two places that heretofore needs a “visa” (an unofficial permission by some powerful person) to be visited. Christians in Lanao del Norte normally spend their whole lifetime not being able to see these places.
The van I took in Cotabato City took an eternity to fill . There were only a few Christian passengers but the Muslims, just like my experience before, were courteous and non-threatening. Upon reaching a certain point they mounted their red roof light, an indicator they paid the right “taxes” and has the “proper” authority to travel. They turn on these lights during night travel to prevent strafing. No wonder that the fare was unusually high.
Along the way we passed through the known MILF towns including the town whose former mayor employed MILF fighters as security when he ventures into Iligan City. He was the first town executive to receive the symbolic key as the government’s gesture of “returning” the town to the “fold of law” during the 2000 war. And he was teary-eyed in the local TV when this happened. But I do not think it was from joy since he is generally known as a MILF mayor.
Many in Luzon and in Visayas do not know that the completion of the highway is one of the proximate cause of the 2000 AFP-MILF war. The government rerouted the highway so that it will pass through higher ground to which the MILF opposed since it will be cutting through the entrance of their central base, the Camp Abubakar. The AFP general in charge said they do not want to be passing in the lower ground as possible sitting ducks for ambuscades. The war “settled” who was “right.” The road passed through the higher ground.
Between Cotabato and Malabang and especially after Barira, Sultan Kudarat the terrain was generally hilly and forested. After Malabang it was generally flat and the land was obviously rich and not over-utilized. Crossing over to Zamboanga del Sur we passed over the legendary tunnel built by the Japanese during World War II. Afterwards we came over to Tukuran, seat of the former Iranun (a linguistic group related to the Maranaos) sultanate but now a half-Christian, half-Muslim municipality and then to Labangan, seat of a Muslim sultanate in earlier times (Pagadian City is a former barrio of Labangan). But in Tukuran and Labangan the Muslims are already a minority. And that is the long history of Muslim Mindanao. Once opened in a few decades time the Muslims become a minority in their native land.
A month ago a van carrying passengers along the Narciso Ramos Highway was waylaid. The gunmen let the Muslim passengers off but hijacked the van along with the 5 Christian passengers. The next day the 5 were found executed in a not-so-distant place. Together with the ongoing war I suspect that possibly civilian travel along the Narciso Ramos is now stopped.
That highway will be a marker in the future if it is again “peacetime” in Muslim Mindanao.