MINDANAO: Manila aims to crush the MILF

Issue 

BY NICK SOUDAKOFF

On February 12, the Philippines government renewed its military offensive against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Three-thousand government troops, backed up by air force bombers, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks, stormed MILF camps in the Liguasan Marsh in central Mindanao.

After five days of heavy fighting, the Philippines' troops succeeded in driving the MILF combatants out of the area. Some 40,000 residents were displaced and about 200 people, including 43 MILF combatants, were killed in the battle.

Since the Liguasan Marsh battle, fighting has erupted throughout central Mindanao, displacing some 80,000 people. The MILF has conducted extensive small-scale raids, including one upon the 26th Infantry battalion headquarters in Lanao.

The government initially claimed that the military offensive was part of its "war on terror" and that the offensive was aimed at the Pentagon Gang, a kidnap-for-ransom group that the US lists as a terrorist organisation.

However, the military admitted on February 17 that it organised the offensive to go after the MILF. "What precipitated this action is the massing of MILF forces in the area", armed forces chief General Dionisio Santiago said at a press conference reported by the Philippines Inquirer. "We can't let them do that without the military doing anything", he added. Another military spokesperson stated the aim was to capture MILF chairperson Hashim Salamat.

The offensive coincides with the preparations for a renewal of the peace negotiations between the Philippines government and the MILF in Malaysia. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has declared that she wants the peace talks to be concluded within six months.

Another factor in the renewed offensive against the MILF has been the difficulty in implementing the Comprehensive Development Plan for the Liguasan Marsh. The marsh is known to have extensive oil and natural gas deposits, which oil companies and the Philippines government are keen to exploit. The plan includes the development of a large dam on the Pulangi River to provide electricity and the development of a fish cannery and commercial fresh water fishing industry.

The MILF has been vocally opposed to the development plan, claiming it will displace the Bangsamoro people whose livelihood is dependent on the marsh's natural resources.

The 200,000-hectare Liguasan Marsh is the largest wetlands in the Philippines and the second largest in south-east Asia.

From Green Left Weekly, March 5, 2003.

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