JOLO (Philippines): From the air, this southern island and the other surrounding isles of the Sulu archipelago look idyllic with hectares of verdant forest surrounded by white sandy beaches.
But for most people living in the Philippines, the names Jolo and Sulu are associated with violence: Muslim rebels attacking military outposts and kidnapping people for ransom while political clans kill each other over election disputes.
The Tausogs, the native Muslim group that makes up the majority in the islands, take pride in their tradition of martial courage that resisted both Spanish and American colonisers.
But this has also resulted in giving this island a reputation for violence that has scared away business and left the area mired in poverty.
The Tausogs' fondness for weaponry and the willingness to launch ridos or clan feuds further reinforces this.
They say here, it doesn't matter if we go hungry as long as we have arms, remarked Brig-Gen Agustin Dema-ala, head of a task force hunting rebels and terrorists here.
The Tausogs, all of us, are fighters, said provincial spokesman Sabri Asri.
The latest outbreak of violence here started on Feb 7 when followers of jailed Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari, backed by local Abu Sayyaf guerillas, launched attacks on military outposts.
About a hundred soldiers and rebels were killed in a week of clashes. While the guerilla camps have been overrun, fighting has persisted with as many as 10 soldiers and rebels killed last week.
Of the Sulu province's population of 620,000, government figures found that 63.2% lived below the poverty level compared to the national average of about 27.5% in 2000. Many non-government organisations say the poverty level here is actually much higher.
About 35% of Sulu's population is functionally illiterate compared to the national level of less than 16%.
Sulu was not always poor. In the early-1970s, it was the envy of surrounding regions as a major trading centre.
But in 1974, Misuari and his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces launched a separatist war, resulting in the burning of Jolo town. Many businessmen fled the island and the province has never recovered.
Misuari signed a truce in 1996 in a deal which saw him become governor of an autonomous Muslim region, but after the government rejected giving him a second term in 2001 he launched a new uprising here. This one was swiftly crushed leaving 100 dead and Misuari under arrest.
In the late-1980s, the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group alleged to have ties to the al-Qaeda network began a campaign of bombing and kidnapping foreigners and Christians further adding to the island's notoriety.
Virtually every male in the island chain owns a gun and the wealthy and powerful maintain private armies complete with their own uniforms.
The government, supported by Western aid donors has poured money into Sulu in hopes of alleviating the poverty and providing an alternative livelihood for former Muslim rebels.
But officials warn that increased prosperity is unlikely while the bloodshed continues. AFP
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