Philippines, Next Target of Bush's War
by Eric Margolis
The long-awaited second act of President George Bush's
worldwide 'war against terrorism' opened last week with the
official announcement that 650 US troops would conduct
'military exercises' in the southern Philippines against the
Muslim rebel movement, Abu Sayyaf.
In fact, it is learnt that the US troops have secretly
been conducting operations with the Philippine military
against Abu Sayyaf since last fall. Once again, the US is
getting embroiled in a complex region about which very
little is known.
This is the second time in just over 100 years that the
US troops are in action against the Moros, or the Muslims of
the southern Philippines. After the US ousted Spain from the
Philippines in 1901 and made the island nation an American
colony, the Moro sultanates of Mindanao and Sulu resisted
fiercely as they had fought the previous Spanish occupiers
for 350 years.
The famed Colt .45 pistol was invented specifically to
knock down sword-wielding Moro warriors whose courageous but
suicidal attacks gave us the Malay term, 'running amok.'
After heavy fighting and the massacre of large numbers of
Moro civilians, the US finally conquered the southern
Philippines. The American colonial government moved large
numbers of Christian settlers into the southern Philippines
in order to undermine Moro nationalism.
But the region, and its six million Muslims, remain
apart and distinct from the rest of the 71 million Christian
Filipinos. During the 1960s and 1970s, Christian settlers,
backed by the Manila government, began pushing into the
economically backward, long-neglected south, in many cases
stealing land and driving out its Muslim owners in a
campaign of ethnic cleansing. Civil war erupted and the
Muslim farmers fought back. During the regime of Ferdinand
Marcos, the Philippine army and the gangs of paramilitary
thugs killed an estimated 50,000 Muslims from 1969-1971 -
without a peep of protest from Marcos' American sponsors.
Two years later, the Moro National Liberation Front was
formed in response to Marco's imposition of martial law. The
MNLF, which was financed by Libya, called for an independent
Muslim state - Bangsomoro. Three years of heavy fighting
between the MNLF and the US-armed Manila regime left over
100,000 Muslims dead; 250,000 were driven from their homes.
The world again ignored this massacre.In the mid-1970s,
Libya brokered a peace between Manila, the MNLF, and a
breakaway group, the MILF. The MNLF leader, Nur Misuari,
joined the government, and rebel forces were integrated into
the national army. The Muslim regions of southern
Philippines were granted autonomy. But tensions simmered on.
Christian settlers continued to press the south; Moro
factions battled with one another and failed to develop
effective local government.
In 1996, a breakaway separatist faction, Abu Sayyaf,
rejected the peace accords with Manila and waged a guerrilla
war from the jungles of the southern islands. While
originally a militant Islamic group battling for
independence, in recent years, Abu Sayyaf, which numbered
only a few hundred fighters, turned increasingly to
banditry. Abu Sayyaf conducted kidnappings, bank robberies,
and executed hostages. It currently holds two American
missionaries - shades of the Taliban.
Abu Sayyaf is a criminal and not a terrorist. The
southern Philippines and the coastal regions around Malaysia
and Borneo have traditionally been the haunt of pirates and
But the president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo,
who, with the army, recently overthrew and jailed her
predecessor, the flamboyant ex-movie actor, Joseph Estrada,
went to Washington and claimed Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim
groups were 'linked to Osama bin Laden.' This, of course,
pushed Washington's hot button and immediately got Manila a
pledge of a billion dollars in the US aid and military
Osama's al-Qaida did have some supporters in the
Philippines and occasionally used safe houses in Manila. But
to claim that Abu Sayyaf or Nur Misuari's MNLF were close
allies of Osama is a stretch. Misuari did resume fighting
before Christmas, but this was due to murky factional
disputes within his organization provoked by Manila's
attempts to undermine his authority. He fled to Malaysia and
was promptly arrested.
The troubles in the southern Philippines are not what
the West terms terrorism, as President Arroyo claimed, but
the result of centuries of land disputes, the denial of
equal economic and political rights to the Bangsomoro
Muslims, and tribal disputes.
But in Washington's new world view, any Muslims seeking
independence - whether in Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, or
Mindanao - are ipso facto terrorists. However, in East Timor
- a case that much resembles Kashmir and the Mindanao - the
US and its allies aided the Christian majority in seceding
from Muslim Indonesia and winning independence. In short, a
clear double standard.
The billion plus dollars Washington is giving Manila to
fight 'terrorism' would be far better spent, were the US
truly concerned about the Philippines, on education and
economic improvement in the impoverished south. Instead, the
US aid will be stolen by the government and military
officials, or spent chasing a small number of Abu Sayyaf
bandits through the jungles of Basilan Island.
Interestingly, the US is ignoring the long-running
insurgency in the north by HUK communist guerrillas, who are
every bit as nasty as Abu Sayyaf. It seems terrorism, in
Bush's terms, applies only to Muslims.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist
and broadcaster, and author of War at the Top of the World -
The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was
reviewed in The Economist, May 13, 2000]
Copyright © 2002 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
1800 Cedar Street
Berkeley, California 94703
Telephone: (510) 841-4106
noon til six, Monday thru Saturday