I had purchased a AC ticket for the ferry to The Philippines. I didn’t really know what the difference would be, but after sleeping in cockroach central on the way from Jakarta to Pontianak, I had no intention of repeating the experience. Happily, the Tim Marine ship from Sandakan to Zamboanga was nowhere near as bad and at least a million times more fun.
As on the ferry from Pulau Batam to Jakarta, I shared a large-ish cabin (only this one had bunk beds) with about forty or fifty other people. It was a nice communal atmosphere and everyone who spoke a bit of English was happy to sit and have a chat with me, amongst them was a guy called Zakaria who was the Secretary General of the Foreign Relation Office of the Sultanate of Sulu.
Where’s that eh? Next to the Kingdom of Kirk and the People’s Republic of Spock?
Ah yes – I should explain, the Sultanate of Sulu hasn’t been invented yet.
Zakaria was keen for me to read the declaration document which will be presented on November 17th 2010 in which the islands of Sulu (the currently Filipino-owned islands which stretch from Borneo to Mindanao) stake their case for becoming a new and independent nation. Yup, if Kosovo or South Sudan doesn’t get there first, the islands of Sulu are hoping to be the 193rd member of the UN.
Should I worry? Should I head out to the Sulu islands just in case it becomes a nation before I finish The Odyssey?
Nah. First up – MUCH too dangerous. Secondly, if it is going to happen, it won’t for a long time. A few reasons (which Zakaria and I discussed)…
1. The Philippines are unlikely to give up an oil-rich region of their sovereign territory without a fight.
2. The document that Zakaria gave me says they want to set up a Sultanate, not a democracy: a tough sell, even to the UN.
3. The document also says that they want to enforce sharia law over the inhabitants of the Sulu islands. As a sizeable minority of Sulu islanders are Christian or animists, another tough sell.
4. The separatist rebels of Mindanao and Sulu have been committing terrorist acts for decades now. This will not warm any civilised nation to their cause. The fact that The Philippines government can (somewhat justifiably) argue that they are fighting ‘terrorism’, the ball will be in their court.
The Sulu separatists are, sensibly, dropping the rest of Mindanao from their vision, as Mindanao has been ‘colonised’ by too many Filipino Christians for it to make sense as a Muslim state (I love the assumption that the Christians are the usurpers and the Muslims have been there since the beginning of time… I think there are some animist tribes that may well have a chuckle at that one).
Independence struggles that involve the protagonists murdering innocent civilians hardly (if ever) work in this day and age: just ask Hamas, Eta or the IRA – the national governments tend to just dig their heels in. Yes, some African nations think they bought their freedom in blood, but in the general sweep of history I would have been amazed if after Portugal had gotten rid of the tyrant Salazar and then kept hold of their colonies, especially since by 1975 pretty much every other European power had already given theirs up: India, the jewel of the British Empire, was granted independence because of a elderly lawyer in a nappy who explicitly preached non-violence.
Generally speaking, your best bet is to reign in the hot-heads, deliver a compelling case for independence (which I do think Sulu has – historically and since The Philippines government is riddled with corruption) and – as I suggested to Zakaria – add the word ‘peace’ to their movement’s name – AND MEAN IT.
Zakaria told me that he was hopeful that Sulu would be a full independent state within two years. Given that it takes a good seven years for a western nation to prepare for the Olympics, and that the UN have been pottering around Western Sahara for the past nineteen years doing a hell of a lot of nothing, my thinking is that it’ll take a heap big longer time than that.
But, you know, Zakaria wasn’t a loony, he handled my difficult questions well, and he was obviously sincere in his belief in a better future for Sulu. I just wish that he wasn’t doing it for all the wrong reasons: the last thing this world needs is yet another nation in which the church and state are inseparably and inexorably entwined. Any church, for that matter – but particularly the one which Zakaria is a member of: one in which unfairness, sexual discrimination and intolerance of beer, dancing, kissing, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and apostates (not to mention brutal penalties for offenders) is coded in a seventh-century law that can never be amended.
Not exactly propelling the human race forwards to utopia is it? Well, not one that I fancy being part of.
Anyway, after all that dry politics I was in the mood for some nice wet beer. I entered the canteen/karaoke bar and the Filipinos on board (and pretty much everybody was Filipino) just wanted to do what Filipinos do best: attempt to get me drunk. And hurrah for that!
The San Miguel following like warm frothy waterfalls, I soon joined in with the spirit of things (my collective noun for Filipinos is a ‘Karaoke’) and began warbling some half-remembered tune. The microphone had broken by this point, but that wasn’t going to stop me. The afternoon was given over to Bacchus as we sung to the sirens, drifting imperceptibly towards the forbidden island of Mindanao, borne on Neptune’s wake. Or, in other words, beer and karaoke, yeah!
By the time we arrived in Zamboanga at 11pm, I had lost all apprehension of Mindanao, lousy reputation notwithstanding, and the concept of spending the next two days cowering in my hotel room seemed not just cowardly but a trifle bizarre. Off the boat I was shepherded by a group of passengers who were working doing PR for a soap company, and one of their brood, a transsexual called Jenn, chaperoned me to my hotel ($7 a night and a room the size of a shoebox) and then we went out for a drink in one of the marvellous tuk-tuks they have here, which are a motorbike and sidecar-type that I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, a government imposed rule that nobody could drink alcohol the next day (there’s a local election on Monday) meant that from midnight all drinkies were off.
I didn’t mind so much – after all that San Miguel and karaoke this afternoon, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I headed back to my hotel and got my head down for the night, happy in the knowledge that I was now in NATION NUMBER 182: THE PHILIPPINES!!
And to think… THREE WEEKS AGO TODAY I WAS IN SHANGHAI…!
In just three weeks, the time I was stuck in Gabon, the time I was stuck in Comoros and less than half the time I was stuck in Cape Verde or Kuwait I have made it over land and sea to Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and The Philippines. No wonder I was so tired.
That’s 182 countries down, 18 to go – but every single one of them is an island which I can only attack from the sea. If I get to the next 11 countries in less than three MONTHS, I’ll be doing well. Here goes nuthin’…