PHILIPPINES: US backs Manila's war on Mindanao




On January 15, the first contingent of 650 US troops began arriving in Zamboanga City in western Mindanao to take part in "training exercises" with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Mindanao is now the latest front in the US "war on terrorism".

The "exercises" involve US special forces units accompanying Philippines marines on their search and destroy operations against the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf on Basilian Island. "Exercise Balikatan 02-1" will run until June, but may be extended to the end of the year according to US and Filipino officials. US military advisors have helped the AFP in Mindanao since February 2000.

According to a Philippine Star report on January 16, Philippines defence secretary Angelo Reyes said it was likely that after destroying Abu Sayyaf, Filipino and US troops will train their sights on the communist New People's Army and the "Pentagon gang" operating in central and western Mindanao.

As the US troops arrived, 32 people died in a clash between the AFP and former governor Nur Misuari's supporters on Jolo on January 16. The pitched battle erupted at a rally protesting Misuari's detention. Two undercover marines, spotted with grenades in the crowd, attacked. A jeep-load of heavily armed marines then arrived and started firing into the rally. This drew return fire from police present at the protest, killing 10 marines.

The following day at Jolo markets, three elite Scout Rangers were dragged out of their jeep and hacked to death by local residents in retaliation for the killing of protesters the day before.

Co-option comes unstuck

The background to the conflict goes back to the Moro (Muslim) communities' resistance to Spanish colonisation and, after 1898, US colonisation. Moro society was organised as a sultanate that covered south-west Mindanao and the Sulu Archipeligo. It had a relatively independent economic life until Mindanao was drawn more rapidly into the Philippines economy through massive mining, logging and agri-business ventures after independence in 1946.

Resistance to land grabs by settlers and businesses from the Philippines in the 1950s and 1960s grew into pitched fighting with both the AFP and local private armies.

In 1972, a full-scale insurgency began after President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. The isolated but rapidly spreading uprisings resulted in the formation of a loosely unified organisation, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which fought for an independent and secular Moro state throughout the southern Philippines.

In 1976, talks between the government and the MNLF led to an agreement being signed that provided for Moro autonomy in the southern Philippines and a cease-fire. This deal split the movement and the truce broke down in 1977 amid charges that the government's autonomy plan only allowed for token self-rule.

After the overthrow of Marcos by a massive popular uprising in 1986, the new president, Corazon Aquino, initiated "national reconciliation" talks with the MNLF. While these talks broke down after an initial truce, the Aquino administration pressed ahead with plans to establish the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), based on four existing provinces in Mindanao.

The MNLF signed a peace agreement on September 2, 1996, in which it integrated many of its armed units into the AFP and became involved in the ARMM, renouncing the struggle for an independent Moro state. Nur Misuari, chairperson of the MNLF central committee, was elected governor of the ARMM.

The second largest Moro national liberation organisation, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), continued its armed struggle against the government and rejected the ARMM. With former MNLF units involved with the Philippines military and police, the local administration and the national government stepped up operations against the MILF throughout the late 1990s.

In February 2000, Philippines President Joseph Estrada, in an effort to whip up national chauvinism to boost his ailing political image, escalated the war in Mindanao. Using the pretext of combating Abu Sayyaf, the government launched a major offensive against MILF.

The government offensive wiped out 45 base camps in 10 months, including the central headquarters, but failed to win a decisive victory. This offensive in central and western Mindanao resulted in nearly 1 million internal refugees and thousands of people were killed in the fighting.

Despite a June 2001 peace agreement, skirmishes have continued between government troops and MILF combatants.

Despite high expectations toward it, the ARMM has been characterised by graft and has a poor record of bringing about local development. On August 14 last year, 10 other provinces in Mindanao held a government-initiated plebiscite to expand the ARMM. Voter turnout was low in many areas, with some constituencies failing to register a single ballot. Nine of 10 provinces and 12 of 14 cities — all predominantly Christian — voted against joining the ARMM.

On November 26, the first elections of the ARMM since 1996 were marked by a low voter turnout and a massive AFP presence. Reports indicate that only 20% of the Moro community voted and virtually no-one from the Filipino community. The apathy indicated that the government's political co-option tactic had lost credibility.

Prior to the vote, a pro-Manila faction of the MNLF in effect ousted Misuari as the front's leader, preventing him from being reelected ARMM governor.

On November 19, supporters of Misuari attempted to disrupt the poll through a dramatic attack on the Philippine army's 104th Infantry Brigade headquarters in central Jolo. Combatants from Misuari's MNLF faction also laid siege to military outposts throughout western Mindanao before being suppressed by massive air and land bombardments. In the November 19 Philippines Inquirer, Misuari's spokesperson declared that the rebellion was a return to the struggle for an independent Moro state. Sporadic fighting between Misuari's faction of the MNLF and government troops continues.

Abu Sayyaf

The Islamist group Abu Sayyaf has provided the Philippines government with a convenient justification to militarily crush Moro resistance.

Abu Sayyaf, its name meaning "Father of the Sword", split from the MNLF in 1991. Abdujarak Abubakar Janjalani, who led the group from its formation until his death in 1998, fought on the side of the US-backed, CIA-funded mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The group reportedly has 800 combatants, mostly based in the Sulu Archipeligo. It fights for the establishment of an Islamic state in the southern Philippines and has links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

After Janjalani's death, the group split into two factions, one headed by his brother Khadaffy based on Basilian Island and the other, headed by Ghalib Andang (known as "Commander Robot") based on Jolo Island.

Andang's faction rose to notoriety when it stormed a Malaysian diving resort in March 2000, capturing 21 people including divers from Germany, France and South Africa. They held the captives for months until the Libyan government paid an estimated US$25 million in ransom.

In May, Khadaffy Janjalani's faction kidnapped 20 people, including three Americans, a Palawan beach resort. One was beheaded in June. The group has also taken scores of Filipinos hostage.

US re-arms AFP

Despite a massive presence, the AFP has not been able to locate the hostages held on Basilian Island. Further, it still has not defeated the MILF or Misuari's faction of the MNLF. The inability of the government to defeat the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers and contain the conflict in Mindanao has become a source of political instability for the new administration of Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In November, as part of its bogus "war on terrorism", the US began supplying its struggling ally in Manila with military aid worth US$92.3 million. Economic aid that includes US$1 billion worth of trade concessions and conditional debt relief worth US$430 million was also provided.

The military equipment includes an AC-130 military cargo plane, a cyclone patrol boat worth US$15 million, 30,000 M-16 rifles, grenade launchers and mortars, 100 6x6 trucks and eight combat helicopters. Another US$150 million for AFP "modernisation" is being negotiated.

In return, Arroyo signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement in November, allowing the US access to the Philippines bases it was forced to give up in 1992. There is some doubt over the legality of the agreement given that the 1987 constitution bans the stationing of foreign troops or nuclear weapons in Philippines territory.

From Green Left Weekly, January 23, 2002.

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