Sunday, December 7, 2008

Letter from Cotabato City

Tensions simmer over pig in Cotabato City

In this majority-Muslim Filipino city, a fight over roast pig sheds light on bigger hurdles Christians and Muslims here navigate.

Christian Science Monitor
December 5, 2008

COTABATO CITY -- To understand the culture clash wracking the southern Philippines, consider the lechon.

That's the name for the roast pig that's a Philippines' signature dish. Sold by the kilo in public markets, it's a must-have at any Filipino celebration.

But pork is taboo for Muslims, now a majority in this city (about 60 percent, compared with 40 percent Christian), and who see this part of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao as their ancestral homeland.

Eating pork is a no-no, and even smelling or seeing it is offensive to some.

So what to do about the street lechon sellers?

In Cotabato City last year, shop-owners were ordered to cover their lechon, says Flordeliza Cavite. I found her selling her swine at a stall downtown. Vendors had to use curtains, paint over windows, or move their pork inside to avoid offending passersby and to comply with the ordinance.

This year, rules were relaxed, she said – possibly the result of a power struggle between the Muslim mayor and the city council (mostly Christians).

In a region that's seen bloody, on-and-off warfare between the Philippines military and Muslim rebels for decades, the lechon problem may seem trivial. But it highlights the tricky compromises needed in order for Christians and Muslims to live here in peace as neighbors.

For the fundamental question now is how to expand and enhance an already-existing, nearby, Muslim autonomous region, while respecting Christian neighbors' rights and way of life.

The stakes are higher than dead pig displays. Get the balance right, and peace could finally come to Mindanao. Get it wrong, and the insurgency that's racked the island for some 40 years will grind on.

That conflict has drained Manila's coffers, killed thousands, displaced more, and caused a refugee problem in Malaysia. It's also created a lawless haven in this area for gunrunners, arms smugglers, kidnappers, and terrorists – including some involved in the murderous Bali bombings.

In early August, the government and Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), were on the verge of signing a preliminary peace deal. If signed, Cotabato City and some nearby, Muslim-majority communities would have become part of an expanded Muslim autonomous region. And not only a bigger region, but one with greatly expanded powers – to run its own courts, and security force, and control much more of its own resources.

Only an 11th-hour Supreme Court injunction stopped the deal. That outcome sparked renewed skirmishes between the MILF and the Philippines military, stalling the peace process.

But many of the area's Christians were relieved. Ms. Cavite worries that if the city becomes part of the Muslim autonomous area, Muslim leaders will ban the public sale of lechon. Her feelings are raw. "Muslims are very bad," she says. "They will control us Christians."

Other Christian locals say they'll move if it becomes a Muslim autonomous area.

Their fears are misplaced, says MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu. "Mindanao is totally different than in other parts of the Muslim world – here we are living side by side with Christians. So we will be liberal on [these] issues," he says.

Comforting talk. But not likely to allay anxieties when it's widely known that in MILF camps, where rebels live with their families, women are shrouded in head-to-toe coverings that leave only their eyes visible, and Islamic shariah law is strictly enforced.

Still, there's some cause from optimism. Moslems and Christians now have long experience living here as neighbors -- creating a town where the sound of the Moslem call to prayer alternates with the sound of the Roman Catholic mass broadcast from a downtown church.

And some things unite Cotabato City residents. One is the "MacDoh", as abbreviation-happy Filipinos call it. A McDonalds -- the impoverished city's first -- is due to open in a matter of days. Locals, both Muslim and Christian alike, are eagerly anticipating the event, and expect long lines on opening day.

Then there's Pac-Man. That's the nickname for Manny Pacquiao, the boxer and local pride of Mindanao. He's set to take on Olympic champion and US boxer Oscar de la Hoya in Las Vegas on Saturday night, and the Filipino media is playing up the fight as if it were the final battle of Armaggedon. Across Mindanao, Muslim and Christian alike are expected to be glued to their TV screens to root for the local boy.

That means a de facto ceasefire between the Philippines military and the MILF this weekend, when the fight will be broadcast live. "If there was a Pacquiao fight every day, there could be peace in Mindanao," said the MILF spokesman Kabalo, as he thumbed through the sports pages after our interview.

It was a joke, of course. But behind the humor, there's the hope for Mindanao: that the commonalities of the Moslems and Christians in this troubled corner of Asia will prevail over their seemingly irreconcilable differences.

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