PHILIPPINES: Government divided over war in Mindanao



The Philippines government has threatened to label the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a "terrorist" group. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on March 10 stated that "actions, including the sabotage of [electricity] transmission lines, only bolster the argument made by more and more people that the MILF is not a political organisation but a terrorist group".

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has blamed the MILF for the bomb blast outside Davao City airport on March 4, which killed 23 people and injured 130 — even though the Abu Sayyaf terrorist gang has claimed responsibility. Already, 148 leaders of the MILF have been charged with murder for the Davao bombing, even though the investigation has only just begun.

The MILF is the largest national liberation organisation in the southern Philippines, struggling for the Moro people's right to national self-determination. The AFP has publicly argued for years for the MILF to be declared a terrorist organisation.

In the lead up to last year's joint Philippines-US Balikatan 02-1 military "exercises", the US offered to add the MILF to its list of foreign terrorist organisations but the Philippines government refused the offer at the time.

Philippines defence secretary Angelo Reyes told journalists on March 10 that declaring the MILF a terrorist organisation would "definitely have repercussions on peace talks" in Mindanao, but that the government was "studying" the option. The AFP and Philippines police have issued arrest warrants for the entire leadership of the MILF, casting further uncertainty over the talks.

The MILF grew rapidly after the Moro National Liberation Front was coopted into the Philippines state after signing the 1996 Peace Agreement. Since 1996, the MNLF's armed wing has been integrated into the AFP and its leadership integrated into the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) structures which govern Mindanao.

Some sections of the Philippines government believe that the MILF could also be drawn into the ARMM by offering increased autonomy. However, the AFP is sabotaging the peace process, with the launch of an all-out military assault on MILF-controlled areas in the Liguasan Marsh on February 12.

Arroyo has called for the MILF to participate in peace talks, giving them six months to agree to peace. However, the MILF has argued that the peace negotiations cannot continue while the government is waging a military offensive against them.

In a recent round of fighting, more than 1000 MILF combatants attempted to drive AFP troops from their positions in Liguasan Marsh around Pikit, but the MILF fighters were dispersed with intense air strikes and helicopter gunship attacks.

Smaller clashes between MILF and government troops are taking place throughout Mindanao. The current fighting has displaced more than 150,000 people.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Dutente has also proposed the imposition of martial law on Mindanao. Dutente was appointed by Arroyo as "crisis manager" over the southern and central Mindanao regions following the Davao bombing. Dutente claims that martial law would allow the AFP the greatest scope in hunting down "terrorists". Dutente has also blamed the Davao bombing on the MILF and has labelled them terrorists.

'War on terror'

The government is trying to take advantage of the international "war on terror" to decisively crush the MILF and the Communist Party of the Philippines' armed wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA). Democratic rights are being rolled back in the process.

The March 10 Manila Times reported that the Philippines is speeding the passage of "anti-terrorism" bills to strengthen the government's campaign against "extremists".

The bills, which were tabled in September, will allow for warrantless arrests and searches, expand the state's powers to intercept all communications and conduct surveillance of terrorist suspects. It will allow "suspects" bank accounts to be frozen and extends detention without warrant to 72 hours.

The definition of "terrorism" will become: the "causing or attempting or threatening to cause wanton destruction or loss of lives, liberties or properties through any means with the intent of sowing terror to the public, changing or impeding the operation of public utilities, or disturbing public peace and order whether internationally or domestically, or in the advancement of ideological, political, religious, ethnic or cultist belief, or any form of belief espousing any cause or purpose".

When the bills were tabled last year, they were met with widespread public opposition. Now, with the public horror over the Davao bombing, the government has seized the opportunity to get that legislation passed.

The AFP offensive against the MILF and the proposed use of US combat troops in Sulu province against the Abu Sayyaf gang has split the government and ruling class in the Philippines. The "doves" favour a political solution to the conflict in Mindanao or at least the reopening of negotiations. The "hawks", with Reyes leading the charge, believe the political climate allows the government and AFP to move to destroy all armed resistance to the Philippines state.

However, the government's military offensive against the MILF, as well as the proposed Balikatan exercises with the US in Sulu, have been widely condemned.

At a February 22-23 meeting of the Mindanao Summit of Muslim Leaders, which also included many national representatives from Mindanao such as Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr, called on the government to stop the military offensive against the MILF and to disallow US troops a combat role in the Sulu province.

Muslim governors, members of congress, mayors and other officials met in Davao City on March 11 to discuss ways of restoring peace in Mindanao. According to the Philippine Inquirer, they called on the Macapagal administration to resume the peace talks with the MILF and drop the criminal charges filed against MILF leaders.

On February 28, 50,000 people rallied in Rizal Park, Manila, to oppose both the war on Iraq and the war in Mindanao. It included trade unionists, farmers, students, artists, the urban poor, Catholic priests and their congregations, and senators and other members of congress.

The Catholic Church helped organise the demonstration, along with left groups and non-government organisations. One of the speakers at the rally opposing the wars in Iraq and Mindanao was Philippines vice-president Teofisto Guingona.

Setback for Washington

The divisions over how to deal with both MILF and the NPA insurgencies have also impacted on the question of US troops being involved in combat operations against Abu Sayyaf (and perhaps later the MILF and the NPA). Manila openly contradicted claims made by Washington in February that US troops would be conducting combat patrols in the jungles of Sulu province. Manila made it clear that US troops would not be "actively" involved in fighting.

This split in the ruling class over the direct involvement of US troops in combat operations in the southern Philippines is a setback for the US administration.

Dr Chalmers Johnston, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequence of Empire, said in an interview published in the October 8 Focus on a Global South that the US is itching to return to the Philippines.

Johnston believes that hard-line ideologues who dominated the US administration have never got over the fact that the US was forced by public opposition to withdraw from its Philippines bases in 1991. US defence officials see US bases in the Philippines as crucial for intervening in South-East Asia and to counter China's influence.

Furthermore, "the United States shows signs of exploiting every single war to enlarge the base structure, not to shrink it, as we have seen in the Persian Gulf War. [The US] now has bases in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman. We were not in many of these places before. In the wake of the Afghan war, we have bases in Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan — places where no-one ever before imagined [the US] would be".

Since the Balikatan 02-1 exercises a year ago, US troops haven't left the southern Philippines. Washington hopes that the operations against the Abu Sayyaf will legitimise the presence of US military personnel in the Philippines and pave the way for the reintroduction of permanent US bases.

Meanwhile, the US training and re-arming of the AFP continues. Under the cover of the "Bayanihan exercises", which began on February 23, US troops are training 12 "light infantry battalions" — about 6000 Philippines soldiers— in intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism tactics, including night fighting. The training is part of a US$25 million security "assistance" package from the US government.

From Green Left Weekly, March 19, 2003.

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