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Peace and stability needed in a troubled region of the Philippines

At the end of last year, Benigno Aquino, the new president of the Philippines spoke of his determination to bring peace to the troubled regions of his country. In the southern island of Mindanao, militant Islamic separatists have been fighting to annex land for the Muslim minority.

Mr Aquino plans to tackle this insurgency by bringing more multi-skilled troops to the area. Instead of deploying these forces to combat the insurgents, the new troops will be tasked with delivering social and medical services to communities and rebuilding rural infrastructure. Mr Aquino believes poverty in the region breeds rebellion and if improvements can be made to people’s living conditions “we can stop the war and the shooting”.

However, conflict on Mindanao is not only caused by the militant Islamist groups wanting self-rule. The island is also scarred by feuding between rival clans and frequent acts of retaliatory violence, known as ‘rido’. Attacks are rooted in the culture of honour, where perceived insults need to be avenged. The high level of violence between warring clans creates huge instability in the region, which experts say is a key contributor to the poverty and social isolation of communities. Government statistics show poverty levels running at 62 per cent, compared to the national average of 33 per cent. And according to the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), under-five mortality rates are three times the national average. The organisation points out that people living in areas of armed conflict generally suffer from “poor nutritional status” and “higher risks of disease and death” and Mindanao is no exception.

A reporter for IRIN spoke to Wilson Nandang, the mayor of Labangan, a remote southern town of Mindanao. Mr Nandang is currently in hiding from local gunmen after being threatened by a political rival. He told IRIN “my town needs urgent development, food for the people, medicines for health centres, but I cannot do anything...I cannot govern”. The Asia Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, believes thousands of people have lost their lives to ‘rido’ violence in Mindanao, where guns are rife and political elites control the population. Many locals believe ‘rido’ is more of a threat to the development of Mindanao than the conflict with the Islamist groups. Whether the new troops sent by Mr Aquino can help reduce levels of ‘rido’ and clan violence in Mindanao, paving the way for the health, medical, social and educational services so badly needed by the ordinary people, remains to be seen.

By Laurinda Luffman for SOS Children