Soldiers raise the Philippine flag over a school in Camp Abubakar after its capture by the military in July 2000 (Grab from ABS-CBN's TV Patrol)
Camp Abubakar, a place firmly associated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the long-winded struggle for peace in Mindanao, no longer evokes the immense respect, fear or awareness it once did almost two decades ago.
Until the late 1990s, the camp was not just the stronghold of the rebel group but also its largest settlement and seat of its Shariah-based government.
Its territory stretched to 32,000 hectares, covering the Maguindanao towns of Barira, Buldon, Matanog and Parang. Forests and bodies of water acted as natural barriers around the camp, augmented by trenches and tunnels dug by the MILF.
The group’s leaders—founder and chairman Salamat Hashim and then-military chief Al Haj Murad Ibrahim—lived and held office there. Abubakar contained a school, a training academy, a hospital, businesses, farms and markets, providing for the needs of its fighters and civilian residents.
The camp meant security for those claiming allegiance to the Bangsa Moro, but caution for the Christian locals and armed forces surrounding it. None dared approach or pass through.
All that changed on July 9, 2000 when Camp Abubakar fell into the hands of the Philippine military at the end of a two-month offensive. More than 20,000 residents were affected by the clash.
After 5 days of non-stop air and ground attacks on the camp, Murad sounded the retreat of his forces when the Marines broke through the camp’s gateway.
It was the climax of an “all-out war” waged by then Pres. Joseph Estrada against the MILF. Formal peace talks slated that May had broken down amid the military buildup in the region. Launching “Operation Dominance”, Estrada vowed not to stop until the guerillas were finished off.
He flew to Mindanao the day after Abubakar was overrun. Following the raising of the Philippine flag over the camp, Estrada awarded medals to the soldiers and brought in truckloads of roast pig and beer (food anathema to Muslims) to celebrate.
ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol aired the first images of the camp a day after it was occupied, along with highlights of Estrada’s visit. It also reported the MILF’s claim that the military had seized a mere fraction of the camp.
MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu said then that the incident only served to strengthen their group’s resolve to secure independence.
Fast-forward 15 years later. The MILF remains part of the national conversation, not as separatists but as proponents of an autonomous Philippine territory to replace the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Negotiations with them took an administration after Estrada to reopen. The past decade of talks already produced an agreement paving the way for legislation to create a Bangsamoro region.
But then came in January 2015 the covert police operation in Mamasapano, also in Maguindanao, which set off an encounter that killed 44 police commandos, nearly 20 MILF members, and a handful of civilians.
The aftermath fueled calls for another “all-out war” against the MILF. It also ignited the debate on the terms of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, whose passage Pres. Benigno Aquino III had been pushing for within the year.
On Aquino’s final year in office, the draft measure—billed by some as unconstitutional—still languishes in Congress.
Now, as before, the MILF also struggles to gain the trust of many Filipinos and their leaders.
Meanwhile, the cease-fire had allowed Camp Abubakar to quietly transition from combat zone to potential economic belt. Renamed Camp Iranun, it became the home of the Army’s 603rd infantry brigade that helped conquer the site in 2000.
Former evacuees returned to rebuild. Nature slowly covered up the ruins and ditches. The Gloria Arroyo years tried to bring development—concreting, replacement buildings, housing projects—but did not finish what it began.
Still, the influx of funding to the area made it ultimately rear crops ranging from rice to fruits and vegetables. Traveling through has also become less fearful.
Other plans have been proposed for Camp Abubakar: as military and police training ground and even as tourism destination. The latest: as storage site for MILF firearms decommissioned as part of the peace agreement, with a portion for decommissioned fighters and their families to resettle.
On July 1, the 603rd brigade pulled out from the campsite. Army officers called it part of the normalization process, but said it would not be returned to the MILF.
Fifteen years after its fall, Camp Abubakar’s historic value—as well as its future—remains uncertain. Its fate will depend on how the struggle that created this camp years ago will be finally put to rest.
Research acknowledgments: MindaNews, Gulf News and Rappler
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.