A friend who grew up in Tawi-tawi writes this open letter to the President of the Philippines. Zarah Kathleen Toring Alih is concerned about the “many unsolved murders” in Bongao, Tawi-tawi, most recent of which is the November 13 shooting of Mindanao State University principal Ponchita “Ching” Francisco.
Francisco, according to news reports, was shot dead at the gate of the Catholic church right after hearing Mass.
Read Alih’s letter:
November 16, 2012
His Excellency BENIGNO S. AQUINO III
Republic of the Philippines
Dear Mr. President,
Tawi-Tawi is an island province of the Philippines located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The capital of Tawi-Tawi is Bongao. The province is the southernmost of the country sharing sea borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian East Kalimantan province. To the northeast lies the province of Sulu and to the west is Sabah in Malaysia. Tawi-Tawi also covers some islands in the Sulu Sea to the northwest, the Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi Island and the Turtle Islands, just 20 kilometers away from Sabah.
Tawi-Tawi was previously part of the province of Sulu. On September 11, 1973, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 302, the new province of Tawi-Tawi was officially created, separate from Sulu. The seat of the provincial government was established in Bongao.
Bongao is home to the Mindanao State University – Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO), Tawi-Tawi State Agricultural College (TSAC), Mahardika Institute of Technology (MITI), Abubakar Learning Center Foundation College (ACLC), Tawi-Tawi School of Midwifery (TSF). The first two are government owned state colleges, while the last three are privately-owned. There are several secondary high schools in Tawi-Tawi such as the MSU TCTO – Science High School, MSU TCTO Preparatory High School, Tawi-Tawi School of Arts and Trade, Notre Dame of Bongao, and so on.
Bongao is a minuscule cosmopolitan that is becoming a model of multicultural society. In downtown Bongao, there are mosques for the majority Muslim population, a Catholic church, a church for Protestant inhabitants, a Chinese temple, a church for the Iglesia ni Cristo, a church of the Seventh-Day Adventist and a Baptist church. There is also a local congregation of Jesus is Lord (JIL) of one-time presidential aspirant Pastor Eddie Villanueva.
It was relatively a peaceful place but not anymore. Tawi-Tawi is no longer serene and beautiful. It is dirty, noisy, unkempt, and stinky.
Bongao is no longer safe. Bongao today with rampant criminality seems to be a haven for drug dealers and killers.
Last Tuesday, November 13, 2012 a school principal who helped many young students at Mindanao State University Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography Laboratory Elementary School, who was quiet a disciplarian, who mentored many lives, was shot and killed right by the gate of the church. We cry justice for Mam Ponchita “Ching” Francisco!
Her death is just one of a series of incidents in Bongao. Many of them unreported.
Bongao today is already a killing field. The murder of Mam Ching is not an isolated case. It is now a common incident in Bongao. So many unsolved murders encourage the killers to continue killing innocent people. Last week a Deltan brother of ours from Tabawan was shot and killed in Nalil. The authorities including the Police are doing nothing to run after the killers. A Christian family friend called up and told my source: “Sir, ano na ba itong nangyayari sa Bongao. Basta na lang pinapatay ang mga inosenteng tao. Ang mga political leaders natin ay walang pakialam. Mag antay na lang ba tayo maging biktima.” Ang sagot ng source ko sa kanya: “Iyan na po ang effect ng pinili natin mga political leaders. Tayo rin ang naging kawawa.”
The leadership seems helpless Mr. President. And the general feeling is the leadership does not care.
We do not know the exact solution Mr. President. We suggest you meet with ARMM Regional Governor Hataman to form an intervention plan. We hope you would do so very soon.
Why do we still care Sir when some of us have all left Tawi-Tawi? Because so long as Tawi-Tawi is the poorest province in the whole Philippines, we know the bright minds of the province who come from the poorest families will continue to flock to Tawi-Tawi, despite the risks, because they do not have a choice. MSU to this day remains as the only University in the country that offers the cheapest fees, cheapest cost of living, with nationally competitive academic standards.
Mr. President I work as the Psychosocial Counselor for the Urban Refugee Program with the Jesuit Refugee Service Thailand. I am proudly an MSU graduate and a Tawi-Tawian. So for the sake of poor students, I plead you to please help save Tawi-Tawi.
I believe strongly that Tawi-Tawi is a microcosm of the Bangsamoro Region. It is closest to an ideal Bangsamoro community. Bongao can be proof and should be proof that great things can come out of the Bangsamoro region. May God give you wisdom as you act on this problem. I pray you act swiftly so lives can be saved.
Very truly yours,
ZARAH KATHLEEN TORING ALIH
Urban Refugee Program
Jesuit Refugee Service THAILAND