Arts & Culture

Ex-MNLF rebels wage a different war in Siocon

The Sta. Maria Fishing Village in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte. By Joseph Arnel Deliverio
The Sta. Maria Fishing Village in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte. Photo by Joseph Arnel Deliverio


Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte—Moro National Liberation Front rebels grabbed the limelight when they laid siege to Zamboanga City Sept. 9, but most former MNLF forces, like those living in this town, are quietly fighting a different kind of war.

Four decades ago, this town was a hotbed of strife and a flashpoint of Muslim rebellion in Mindanao.

It was the worst of times.

Siocon was then largely inhabited by Muslim Tausugs who are widely known as fearless warriors and bold seafarers. The town played host to the MNLF, whose biggest component was holed up in Barangay Sta. Maria, a coastal village in the western part of Siocon.

In January 1973, government troops arrived here and engaged MNLF rebels in a firefight that lasted three months and almost reduced the town to rubble. The fiercest encounter happened in Sta. Maria where the Army employed heavy artillery against the infantry of rebels who held their ground.

Tan Cailo, a Tausug native of the sub-village of Busicong in Sta.Maria, remembers it well.

“We had no other option but to join the MNLF,” Cailo said. “For four years, the rebels assimilated themselves into the community and stayed with us.  It was a terrifying time for us.  Every peace-loving resident was suspected of being a member of the MNLF.  We were constantly threatened, subjected to harassment and abuses by the military even if we did not do anything wrong.”

“Soon enough, the people in the village turned out to be either combatants or sympathizers of the MNLF,” he added.

Only 15 years old in 1976, Cailo became a full member of the MNLF and figured in skirmishes with the Army in the mountains of Sirawai and Baliguian.  He started as a second-liner in his unit, which meant he fought without a firearm and looked out for a fallen comrade so he could use his gun and continue the fight.

Cailo experienced the unbearable hardships and endless difficulties of waging a war against the government. But after a relative died in the course of fighting, he grew tired and disillusioned.

Wanting to have an education, he came down from the hills and settled back into the village. Although he remained a MNLF sympathizer, the young former combatant could not close his eyes to the worsening conditions suffered by his tribe as a result of the conflict.  He realized that his struggle was not about gaining an independent state but achieving freedom from poverty.

Members of the Sta. Maria Fisherfolks Association cast-off on F/B Ruaida.  After a year of fishing operations, the fishing vessel continues to generate income for the fishermen who were once members of the MNLF. Photo by Joseph Arnel Deliverio
Members of the Sta. Maria Fisherfolks Association cast-off on F/B Ruaida. After a year of fishing operations, the fishing vessel continues to generate income for the fishermen who were once members of the MNLF. Photo by Joseph Arnel Deliverio

After more than two decades of fighting, the MNLF forged in 1996 a peace agreement with the government and disbanded, its members returning to the fold of law. Peace returned to Siocon, allowing people to make a living from the abundance of minerals, agricultural and fishing resources.

However, the specter of war still hovered over Sta. Maria, particularly in Busicong, which could not shake off the stigma of its violent past, and, in everyone’s mind, it remained a place inhabited by belligerent warriors.  As a result, government support hardly reached its people even with the most basic necessities like potable water, electricity and education.

In fairness, the Tausugs here, most of them former MNLF soldiers, have since lived in peace, trying to forge their existence as simple fisherfolk.

Cailo, now a first councilman of the barangay and president of the 76-member Sta.Maria Fisherfolks Association, strengthened his resolve to elevate the hardships of his people.

Meanwhile, the wharf of Sta. Maria had become a busy port. The mining firm TVI Resource Development Philippines Inc. had set up operations in the hinterlands of Sitio Canatuan in Siocon and turned Sta. Maria into a hub that saw copper and zinc being shipped out to buyers.

This was a golden opportunity for Cailo.  When TVIRD management offered to help his community and asked him what kind of sustainable livelihood program suited his people, he boldly ventured that they needed a “kubkoban.

A kubkoban is a 50-foot, ring-net type, wooden-hulled fishing boat powered by a diesel engine and manned by a crew of 20 to 25.  It is capable of reaching as far as the Sulu Seas and carrying tons of fish.  The kubkoban did cost a small fortune–some P2.8 million – but the expenses can be recouped in a short time once the boat begins to operate, Cailo reasoned.

“You see, a kubkoban can earn as high as P100,000 in just two good days of fishing.  What if we go fishing twice a week, won’t we possibly be making P800,000 a month?” he pointed out.  To show his resolve, Cailo even volunteered to build the boat to save costs.

The company approved, especially given the thought of their dire circumstances.  After buying the materials in Dipolog, Zamboanga City and other places, he led his men in building the boat that took them a year to finish. They named it Ruaida and it sailed for the first time on April 9, 2012.

The first time the fishnet was cast into the sea yielded an income of P33,000.  And as of June 2013, FB Ruaida has already generated a total gross income of P1.7 million since its first expedition.

Each crew member gets an average share of P2,400 per voyage, which happens three to four times a month.  On top of these, the Sta. Maria Fisherfolks Association Inc. enjoyed a financial windfall of P175,000 in savings in the bank.  They said this will be used to buy a 60-ton capacity cargo truck to transport fish products to nearby towns and cities.

In times of bad weather when the kubkoban could not sail, income could still be derived from the use of the truck through transport contracts for lease or rental to others.

Actually, the Kubkoban Project is just one of the good things that happened to Sta. Maria in recent times.  There has been collaboration among its people, the government, the company, well-meaning nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private entities to finally usher the progress that has eluded it for decades.

This year, President Aquino moved to provide electricity to Busicong. There is also an excellent business prospect awaiting the wives of the fishermen who have been quietly mass-producing homemade bottled sardines with a potential market in nearby Iloilo.

Cailo and the Tausugs of Sta. Maria now seem to be gaining ground in a different kind of war, the one against the perennial enemy that is poverty.

They now anticipate the best of times.

(Joseph Arnel Deliverio is the public affairs officer of TVRI Resources Development.)