Islanders measure worth by power of their guns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am

A man's economic worth is measured by the calibre of his gun in Talipao, as in all other towns on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.

Home to the fierce Tausug tribe, Jolo is touted to be the next arena for a joint Philippine-American operation against terrorism.

'The tradition in Jolo is, you cannot marry if you do not have a gun,' said Ustadz Sharif Zain Jali, an Islamic scholar and native of the area.

'Women will not like you and if you do not fight, you are considered the smallest mammal,' he said.

Another local, known only as Abdul, is an abaca farmer in Talipao and the proud owner of an M-14 assault rifle.

In between planting and harvesting the hemp that is used to make rope, Mr Abdul engages in what can be called 'contractual insurgency'.

The main contractor in the area is Abu Sayyaf leader Galib Andang, alias Commander Robot, who now has a US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) price on his head - a price placed by the US government.

Robot has a list of all the male residents, classified according to their gun calibre, because contract prices depend on this.

Those like Mr Abdul, whose M-14 can be used for sniping, command a high price.

Before even getting his pay, Mr Abdul knew what to do with it - buy groceries and a higher calibre firearm. Although he knew kidnapping was illegal, he said it was the only way he could earn more for his family.

The main body of Robot's army consists of family men like Mr Abdul, as well as their sons and fathers. They, together with Robot, have only the vaguest notions of the Abu Sayyaf's extremist religious beliefs. Sources said that during last year's Sipadan hostage standoff, Robot had to import young religious radicals from the neighbouring island of Basilan to give his press releases a religious overtone.

Still, warned Mr Jali, Jolo is ripe for the growth of Muslim extremism and is a place where religious insurgency is waiting to happen. A United Nations Development Programme report released last week tells why.

Jolo, along with the neighbouring island provinces of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, have performed the worst among the country's 77 provinces, based on the UN's latest human development index.

In Jolo, for instance, residents can expect to live only to the age of 52, compared to the life expectancy in Cebu of 71. Economist professor Solita Monsod, president of the Philippines Human Development Network that did the study for the UN, said since 1995, when the regions were first studied, Jolo has been the worst performer. She noted that Jolo was not the poorest in terms of per capita income, but in terms of human development, which was a matter of governance.