Follow us on


At the mouth of a volcano

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST



The Philippines as the next target in the 'war against terrorism'.

IN a key policy speech some 10 days after the September 11 events, George Bush Jr., the not-entirely-legally elected President of the United States, declared a "war against terrorism" that was to be global and perpetual: moving across some 60 countries, he said, in "a task that never ends". In his State of the Union address on January 20 this year he was at least on one count more explicit: "While the most visible military action is in Afghanistan," he said, "America is acting elsewhere. We now have troops in the Philippines..." The key operative word here was "visible", since no one had until then heard that U.S. troops had already arrived in that unfortunate country and the "visible" understanding even today is that they started arriving in Basilan and Zamboanga, in southern Philippines, only in February. Bush, however, was not the only one making such pronouncements at that point of time. U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, had been quoted already in the media as saying: "It appears the Philippines is going to be the next target after Afghanistan."

Considering that U.S. troops had already taken charge of four airfields in Pakistan and were fanning out across the northern regions of that country; considering also that the U.S. had swiftly secured bases and 'facilities' in a number of Central Asian countries so as to target their oil wealth; and considering, finally, that some of the highest U.S. officials and key policy pundits were at that time passionately arguing in favour of making Iraq the immediate target of a full-scale war and 'regime change', this avowed prominence of the Philippines as "the next target" in the war against the virtually mythical Osama bin Laden, and against what Bush had called "terrorism with a global reach", was at least very surprising. The justifications that the U.S. has been presenting for its military designs there have been paltry, implausible and deliberately misleading, as if a sovereign country whose Constitution forbids the deployment of foreign troops on its soil could be declared "the next target after Afghanistan" with the bald statement that "We [Americans] now have troops in the Philippines" on the pretext of a group of local "bandits" having taken two American hostages some months earlier.

Now, it is certainly true that the Abu Sayyaf, a kidnapping-for-ransom group, whom the Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself regards as not an Islamic extremist group but a "money-crazed gang of criminals", was holding two Americans hostages, Martin and Gracia Burnham, when "the next target" rhetoric first began. Those hostages had been taken almost a year earlier, however, and they were only the most recent of the many hostages, including earlier American hostages, that the Abu Sayyaf had taken over the years. The U.S. State Department put the group on its list of terrorist organisations only in 1997-98, some six years after its rather spectacular initial emergence, and no links with bin Laden had been asserted before September 11. Even after September 11, Rigoberto Tiglao, spokesperson for the Philippine President, had declared that while the Abu Sayyaf may have been funded by bin Laden in the early 1990s, "after 1995, or as early as 1995, there has been no bin Laden link with Abu Sayyaf". Tiglao then cited an intelligence report saying that "the bin Laden people thought the Abu Sayyaf were too ignorant and too mercenary". Only after the U.S. kept on insisting that it was going to extend its "war on terrorism" to the Philippines, and used the Abu Sayyaf as the excuse, did the national government stop referring to the group as mere "bandits" and "criminals".

Even so, and without presenting a shred of evidence, the U.S. proceeded to declare that an Al Qaeda cell was operating in the Philippines and that the immediate despatch of U.S. troops, including 160 of the elite Special Forces, was necessary. Its initial demand was that U.S. troops go into combat duty alongside the local forces. The Philippine Constitution forbids the deployment of foreign troops on the country's soil, however, and the fiction was therefore created that the U.S. troops would come only to "train and assist" the Philippine Army personnel through "joint exercises" and only in an advisory capacity during operations.

This too was surprising on several counts. For one thing, it was very odd indeed that foreign troops would be carrying out mere 'training' and 'exercises' in an actual war zone, and even during actual military operations, in an area that has not only the tiny Abu Sayyaf but also the much more substantial forces of the two major insurgent forces of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Furthermore, some 17,000 Filipino military and paramilitary personnel have been fighting against the Abu Sayyaf for a decade or so, while Major Salvador Calanoy of the Philippine Armed Forces stationed in Basilan told an international Peace Mission in March this year, in the presence of this writer, that the Abu Sayyaf had dwindled in strength to "at most 40 to 60 members". That gives you a ratio of about a thousand military personnel for every three or four of those "bandits".

Beyond this limited engagement, the whole of the Philippine military has been fighting the much more massive uprising of the indigenous Moros of Mindanao for some 30 years, as well as a countrywide Maoist insurgency for an even longer period. It is not at all clear why some 1,200 U.S. troops, including 160 of the Special Forces, should now be needed to supplement this massive Filipino force; nor is it clear what kind of "training" this experienced and battle-hardened force could get from the Americans, who know neither the topography nor the language nor the 'enemy' nor the population among whom this 'enemy' tends to melt. Roilo Golez, National Security Adviser to the Philippine President, was perhaps closer to the mark when he described the so-called exercises as "on the job training" for the Americans.

THAT, then, was the first excuse: the Abu Sayyaf was an extremist Islamic group and an Al Qaeda cell that had taken two American hostages, and U.S. Special Forces were needed to "train" the Philippine military and free the hostages. That there was a bin Laden connection was denied by the highest officials of the Philippine government, and the issue of the hostages eventually got resolved in a manner that was at once tragic and absurd. In early June, some five months after Bush had announced the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines, an advance party of the Philippine Army, which had not been trained by the U.S. troops and which was to try and locate but not engage the Abu Sayyaf, chanced upon the group, was detected, came under fire, returned fire, killed Martin Burnham as well as a Filipino nurse while wounding Gracia Burnham whom then the Abu Sayyaf abandoned as the group escaped. So much for the 'training' and the rescue! The irony of course is that U.S. officials declared the rescue mission 'most successful' and claimed that it was all owed to U.S. 'training', even as Gracia Burnham, the wounded (by Army fire) but 'rescued' hostage, called her abductors "common criminals" and declined to accept that they had anything to do with Islamic ideology. Being a missionary herself, she could obviously tell about other people's religious convictions and thus proved to be more truthful than the government of her country.

Alongside the official claims about the Abu Sayyaf that were soon shown to be implausible, an 'unofficial' media campaign also began - involving CNN, Time magazine, The New York Times and Far Eastern Economic Review - saying that the "real terrorist threat" in the Philippines came not from the little band of the Abu Sayyaf but the much larger MILF.

The first thing to be said in this regard is that when I met with some leaders of the MILF in March this year I had warned them that this targeting would soon begin, and that if the American strategic designs took root in Mindanao, a collision with them was inevitable regardless of how much the MILF itself wanted to avoid it. Only later did I realise that the international media campaign had already begun. The U.S. government is yet to take that position openly, but key elements in the Philippine government as well as local officials and notables, including Muslim notables, in those provinces of Mindanao where MILF operates would like to draw the U.S. into that battle, and with no one taking the "Islamic threat" of the Abu Sayyaf seriously, the U.S. needs a larger, more enduring reason to extend the engagement of its troops in the Philippines beyond July 31 when the "joint exercises" are scheduled to end.

In keeping with these other objectives, brisk campaigns are now under way seeking to link the MILF with the Abu Sayyaf, which is being portrayed as the unofficial arm of the MILF itself; with bin Laden, inevitably; and with Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional grouping operating across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and, allegedly, Mindanao. If the U.S. does decide to involve itself in the Manila government's on-again, off-again war against the MILF, this alleged connection with "international terrorism" can come very handy.

Before clarifying the origins and historical role of groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF, first to clarify the implausible character of the allegations against the MILF as well. As for its alleged secret parentage of the Abu Sayyaf group, much more plausible is the very detailed argument put forth by Marites Daguilan Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria, investigative journalists, in their definitive study of the Muslim rebellion in the Philippines, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (Ateneo Centre for Social Policy and Public Affairs, Quezon City, 2000), to the effect that at least one of the sources of the Abu Sayyaf's notorious success is that the Philippine military itself probably used the Abu Sayyaf against other Islamic groups, such as the MILF, in order to discredit them and to sow discord within the movements opposed to the Manila government. There is also considerable evidence that many civilian and military officials participated in, and materially benefited from, the kidnap-and-ransom operations of the group. Not only that. The Abu Sayyaf's kidnapping operations were always denounced in the most vociferous terms by the political leadership of the MILF and also on painstaking theological grounds by the ulema associated with it. Moreover, the MILF is a huge organisation and deeply entrenched in large sections of Muslim society in several provinces of southern Mindanao, unlike the Abu Sayyaf, and neither needs nor condones the raising of money through ransoms.

As for the Al Qaeda link, the fact of the matter is that the MILF is led by a core group whose opposition to successive Manila governments goes back to its members' student days in the late 1960s. Even the second-ranking leadership which now makes the operational military decisions has been active in these matters for roughly a quarter century, since well before bin Laden was even a gleam in the eyes of the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of their members did see action in Afghanistan in the early years of the American jehad against communism there and the MILF has never made any secret of the fact that it initially received some money from bin Laden when he was a foot-soldier of the U.S. But it has received none since the mid-1980s; no one has provided any evidence to the contrary. It raises its funds from its followers who number in scores of thousands. Corrupt officials of the Philippine Army are the main sources of its weapons, which it supplements by utilising the old smuggling networks that have been operating through the Saba province of Malaysia since the beginning of the insurgency some 30 years ago. It also makes many of its weapons, all the way up to rocket launchers, in its own camps. The MILF puts the number of its combatants at the inflated figure of 80,000; the Philippine military intelligence puts the figure at the much more modest but still impressive 15,000. Thinking of it as a "cell of Al Qaeda" is preposterous.

Meanwhile, it may have some informal links with Jemaah Islamiyah, a network that operates in the neighbouring countries, but there is a fundamental political disagreement between the two. The MILF formally wants an independent Islamic state in all of Mindanao but it is obviously willing to settle for full autonomy for those eight provinces of southern Philippines where Muslims have an impressive presence, within the context of a loose federation with the rest of Philippines. However, the Jemaah is more of a millenarian outfit, with dreams of a huge Islamic state encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Mindanao. And unlike the Jemaah, the MILF is not known to plan or carry out armed attacks beyond the territory where it has a substantial presence of its own.

Finally, the MILF would be perfectly happy to co-exist with a U.S. presence in the Philippines provided that the U.S. does not establish bases in southern Philippines - certainly no bases that threaten its own operational capacities. In order to avoid such a confrontation, the MILF has redoubled its efforts to resume peace talks with Manila, even as many elements in the upper echelons of Philippine society, in Manila as well as Mindanao, see in the U.S. military designs in their country a chance to encircle and smash the MILF, which they have not been able to do on their own. By the same token, any resumption of full-scale fighting and any U.S. participation in Manila's war against the MILF would necessarily produce a deeper, wider, much more prolonged conflict.

Under certain conditions, a functional coordination between the MILF and the even larger, more seasoned Maoist insurgency cannot be ruled out. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the Manila government has successfully split the other major, indeed older, movement of the Mindanao Muslims, the MNLF, which was headed by Nur Misuari whom the government is holding in a high-security prison near Manila. He still commands a large following and is recognised by the MILF as the real leader of the MNLF, not to speak of the fact that the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) recognises him as the sole representative of Moro Muslims. The OIC was directly involved in the peace agreement between his MNLF and the Manila government in 1996 which agreement broke down thereafter. Cornered by Manila, he and his followers, who include large numbers of armed combatants, may find it expedient to move closer to the MILF in case the latter too get cornered.

Nor is it a matter of the number of armed combatants in the various groups: ten thousand, or twenty, or thirty thousand. No matter how determined and seasoned, they are no match for American firepower and the 'automated battlefield'. Their strength lies elsewhere. Southern Philippines is classic guerilla country, and after the destruction of their main camp by the Philippine Army even the MILF must have learned to return to guerilla tactics in case of a real war. Even more than the topography, what mainly sustains each of the main insurgent groups - be it the MILF, the MNLF or the Maoists despite their depletion - is that they operate amid populations sympathetic to them, which is why the extremely well-experienced Philippine military has not been able to defeat them in 30 years. There are of course considerable sections of the Moro elite who are thoroughly compromised with Manila and who exercise much power in their own locales. However, the insurgent movements command widespread loyalty among the bulk of the population not only on the basis of social or cultural bonds but the deep-seated sense of a historical injury which keeps getting worse as the years and decades go by.

There is, first, the sense of the long past - part imagined, in larger part historically accurate - in which Spain ruled the northern and central regions of the Philippines, colonising and christianising the populations, while the southern zone remained substantially independent and almost wholly Muslim; even the word 'Moro', by which they are now known, was bestowed upon them by the Spaniards. Full occupation of their region came after the Americans evicted the Spaniards, took their place as colonisers - the only large American colony in Asia - and sent troops into the South which succumbed after a bitter, decade-old war, from 1903 to 1913.

Even then, the Americans had concluded that there was something called "the Mindanao problem" that was not going to go away easily. So, plans were hatched to bring settlers in large enough numbers to offset the indigenous population. There was a fleeting moment when European Zionists seriously considered establishing their colony in Mindanao, as they also considered Zimbabwe and Argentina; the British offered them Palestine, and the Mindanao Muslims were spared the wrath of the likes of Ariel Sharon. But settlers came anyway, from the northern and central zones, Luzon and the Visayas, whose political mission was summarised in the 1935 Organic Charter of Organised Land Settlement thus: "Land settlement activity is the only government activity that will furnish effective solution to the Mindanao problem." This 'activity' produced a mere trickle until 1948 but picked up substantially thereafter. It is the creation of this settler colony within the Philippine nation that lies behind the more recent insurgencies.

The population of southern Philippines stood at 2.5 million in 1948; by 1976 it had risen to 8.7 million, the settlers accounting for most of this virtually four-fold increase. Muslims had accounted for 98 per cent of the population in 1913 when the American military assault ended in success; they accounted for a mere 40 per cent by 1976. They owned all the land on the eve of colonisation; today they own roughly 15 per cent. To make matters much worse, the settlers were not only usurpers but also belonged to a different religion; if the indigenous population was Muslim, the settler population was wholly Christian. Of course, only a tiny fraction of some four million settlers came to own large-scale plantations, big businesses and so on; another few thousands were employed in the civil and military bureaucracies or were members of the professional and commercial petty bourgeoisie. All of these benefited greatly as multinational corporations moved in, profiteering from agribusiness, mining and lumber and timber concessions. At the bottom were the overwhelming majority that had come to eke out a living for themselves. Faced with the anger of the dispossessed, these too made a cross-class alliance with the propertied and privileged classes among their co-religionists. The situation was ripe for experiencing questions of class and internal colonisation, at the deep ideological and cultural levels, as a question of religion and culture.

It was from among the lower petty bourgeoisie and the pauperised masses among the Christian settlers and their descendants that there arose the quasi-fascist and criminalised vigilante gangs, home guards, paramilitary groups and so on when the insurgency began in the early 1970s, coinciding almost perfectly with the emergence of the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, a great favourite of Washington, who retaliated with a full-scale war.

The details of that war apart, two sets of statistics should illustrate the brutality which has so alienated so many of the Moros from the Philippine state. Between 1972 and 1976, military expenditure rose by 700 per cent and the number of military personnel grew from 60,000 to 250,000; by 1975, three-fourths of these personnel were deployed in the south. On the other hand, the government's own Department of Social Welfare reported 1.5 million refugees for 1972-73 alone; one out of every three Muslims had thus become homeless even before the war really peaked. There were many intricate developments in the later years. In short, the insurgency was defeated but the underlying problems were not resolved. The MNLF, which had come up in 1972 and had led the insurgency, was split into two factions, the more conservative of which is the MILF. But neither faction lost its capacity for combat or its social base. On the other hand, Abu Sayyaf, which announced itself only in 1991, was founded by Abdurrajak Janjalani Abubakar, a younger and former member of the MNLF who had seen action in Afghanistan during the 1980s. It has none of the social base of the MNLF or the MILF and was denounced by the larger, older groups. It recruited its members mainly from among the extremely young victims of war - most of whom had little experience of settled communities or entrenched ethics or modern education. Consequently, the step from Islamic exhortation to manipulation by the military, and finally to pure criminality, often in tandem with local elites and officials, proved to be a short one. This is the gang that is likely to be eliminated in the short run; without military patronage it cannot survive in any case, and the Americans shall probably succeed in turning off that patronage. The larger, socially and historically more rooted groups of the MNLF and the MILF, with their respective reservoirs of the social base, shall pose the real problem for the "war against terrorism".

IN other words, the Americans are sitting on the mouth of a volcano that is perhaps too exhausted to erupt powerfully but which does smoulder and simmer unremittingly. With the very last remnants of the Abu Sayyaf on the run and close to decimation, they have the choice of announcing victory and just walking away - which would be the sensible choice to make. If, however, they wish to stay on and deepen their presence, build new bases and recover the old ones, they must target a bigger, more recalcitrant enemy which shall not be so easy to defeat. This is their dilemma: they either cut back their strategic aims and let the Filipinos sort out their problems on their own, or they continue to pursue those aims, expand their presence in violation of the current legal and constitutional provisions prevailing in the host country, and take on a war that is unwinnable at least in the short run.

What, then, are the strategic aims? First, to recover in the Philippines, their former colony, the privileges they enjoyed before the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship: military bases, military 'facilities' of various sorts, extra-territorial rights for their troops stationed there, combined with the rolling back of the democratic movement there which has an anti-globalisation edge to it. All that would of course come in conflict with the 1987 Constitution which is itself the achievement of that movement and which forbids the re-colonisation of the Philippines, specifically the stationing of foreign troops on its soil. If a base - or bases - can be acquired in the South on the pretext of a "war against (Islamic) terrorism", which will itself require a re-reading, or at least a very substantial re-interpretation of the Constitution and the various bilateral agreements, then the recovery of the Clark and Subic Bay bases of yesteryear would be easy.

Second, the securing of the Philippines as a possible staging area for the region as a whole, not the little outfits like the Abu Sayyaf or the larger but local outfits like the MILF but the potential insurgencies in Malaysia and Indonesia - and the latter, the largest Muslim country in the world, of course brings up the question of oil quite centrally. South East Asia is a resource-rich area that sits astride the sea-lanes connecting the Pacific with the Indian Ocean and thus strategic for would-be competitors in China and even Japan; an area of historic and enduring interest to the United States, and an area, moreover, prone to revolutionary movements. One forgets that the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, which are currently said to be beset by so-called "Islamic fundamentalism" were, in recent memory, home to quite sizeable communist insurgencies. A powerful homing base in the region would be very important for controlling the region as a whole.

Then there is the question of China. We can fairly assume that China figures quite substantially in the new strategic design which requires the assimilation of Russia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) structure, the establishment of bases in several states of Central Asia, the return of U.S. military presence in northern Pakistan, and a far-reaching triangular military relationship among the United States, India and China to the extent that both Israeli and U.S. forces seem to be quite active in the Himalayan region. Major military bases in South East Asia, bringing up the rear to the forward bases in Taiwan, would neatly close the circle. The Philippines is where such bases are conceivable in that whole region.

The problem for the U.S. is that if it were to undertake seriously to build real and enduring military bases in the Philippines in the name of containing the so-called "Islamic terrorism", by identifying a substantial Muslim organisation against which it then actually goes to war, it will have ranged against it not only the Muslim organisations of the south but also those democratic forces in the central and northern zones which overthrew the Marcos dictatorship as well as the more recent Estrada regime in the streets. For those democratic forces, the Constitution itself would be a weapon, since the Constitution, as a product of the democratic movement itself, forbids such bases while the Philippines is at peace with its neighbours. It is over the next few months that the U.S. shall have to resolve this dilemma.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 06, 2002.)



Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment