The rest of Pakila's riverside hide-out was made up of a farmhouse, a mosque and a basketball court. He led us into the house for a curried chicken lunch he'd cooked himself. As he served the chicken, he said something to his men, and they placed three brand-new American-made M-16s on the table. According to Pakila, he'd been buying American weaponry from the Philippine Army since 2002. The heavier weapons were taking a toll. "Both sides are stronger after Balikatan," he said, referring to the joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises. "Many more people are dying." U.S. intelligence officials told me later that such weapons sales were nothing new; the MILF buys most of its arms from Philippine government troops.
A young soldier leaned against the kitchen counter cradling an assault rifle. "How old are you?" I asked.
"I'm 15 but was 14 when I joined. We have 8-year-olds who are training and carrying guns."
The room went silent.
Pakila said his battle with the governor had nothing to do with Islam. It was about control of land with untapped oil beneath it. This is today's MILF, I thought to myself: its leaders are more concerned with oil than jihad, and the Moro people are caught in the middle.
Pakila asked me to come outside into the glaring sun. The schoolteacher from the boat approached. "They are fighting because the government stole their land," the teacher said. I asked her to translate a question: Would everyone who'd lost their land to the government please raise their hands?
I waited a minute, but no hands went up. Maybe they didn't understand, I thought, but Pakila interrupted. "No," he said. "The land the government has taken is mine."
"All of it?" I asked.
He nodded yes, saying there were 1,000 hectares (about four square miles).
Suddenly I realized that these "rebels" were actually the private army of a feudal lord. Pakila was a very rich landowner. "So let me get this straight," I said. "If you weren't at war right now, would these men be farmers in your fields?"