PLOWSHARES INTO SWORDS : Estrada's Tough-Guy Act Stirs Up Fighting on Mindanao

Article excerpt

President Joseph Estrada has taken on the Muslim rebels of Mindanao as perhaps only a former action-movie hero could. On the eve of peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front earlier this month the actor turned politician blustered, "If they want war, we'll give them war." Unfortunately, the Army mistook the president's offhand bravado as a cue to attack, leading to pitched battles that shattered a 1997 ceasefire. By the time quiet was restored, there were 32 soldiers dead on both sides, and 80,000 civilians had fled their homes on Mindanao. "Let's admit it," says presidential adviser Robert Aventajado, who does not share his boss's flair for overstatement. "A certain amount of good will was lost because of the fighting."

Estrada hopes to repair the damage this week in his first face-to-face meetings with the reclusive MILF leader, Salamat Hashim. First he'll have to win some respect. Only seven months into his six-year term, Estrada's Mindanao policy has been to make each blooper bigger than the last. He has called off peace talks one day only to reverse himself the next, boasted at one point that the 22-year-old rebellion would end "within a week" and vowed that the rebels would achieve their goal of an independent Mindanao "over my dead body." Just last week Estrada suggested, incorrectly, that Hashim was leader not only of the rebels but also of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. "They are all his men, anyway," said Estrada on his radio program. "They are all Muslims, anyway."

It will fall to Hashim, an Islamic scholar and graduate of Cairo's Al Azhar University, to explain the harsh realities of his movement. …