No End in Sight for Philippine Conflict

Article excerpt

Hostage crisis spotlights fissures between Christians, marginalized Muslims

On April 23 vacationers at a diving resort in Sipadan, Malaysia, swam too close to waters haunted by a bitter and violent history.

That Easter Sunday, a band of Muslim guerrillas raided the resort, seized 21 people -- including 10 tourists from Germany, France, Finland, Lebanon and South Africa -- and took them as hostages to a hideout in one of the Philippines' southernmost islands.

The cross-border raid put a ragtag band of terrorists on the map. It also spotlighted gaping fissures between the Philippines' Christian majority and its marginalized Muslim minorities, fault lines deepened by centuries of stigmatization and prejudice, resistance and retaliation.

Whatever happens to the hostages, there is no end in sight for this bigger tragedy. President Joseph Estrada's administration, torn by scandal and controversy, is incapable of grappling with it. Meanwhile, the hearts and minds of many Filipinos harden each time blood is spilled in the name of "Moro liberation."

"Moro" is the collective name for 5 million people belonging to 13 ethnolinguistic Muslim tribes that constitute a quarter of the population of Mindanao, Southern Philippines. The largely Catholic nation's poorest provinces are in Mindanao, just a few hundred miles from the Malaysian resort.

The kidnappers belong to the 200-member Abu Sayyaf, the second extremist group to break off from the main rebel organization, the Moro National Liberation Front. The National Liberation Front made peace with the central government in 1996. Its leader Nut Misuari is now governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Formed in 1991, Abu Sayyaf is fighting for a "pure" Islamic state, but it is better known for its brutal rampages and shadowy links with rogue cops and paramilitary gangs.

A larger splinter group, the 15,000-strong fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in 1977 broke with the Moro National Liberation Front because of its secularism.

Many of the rebel groups' founders were educated in Islamic countries -- the Moro National Liberation Front was for years headquartered in Tripoli, Libya -- and both the Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf claim to have ties with Osama Bin Laden's international jihad network. Abu Sayyaf's demand for the release of imprisoned New York World Trade Center bombers in exchange for the hostages is clearly a bid for recognition from Islamic radicals.

Following the recent spate of Abu Sayyaf actions, the Islamic Liberation Front scuttled its stop-and-go peace talks with Manila and resumed terrorist bombings. Military officials are bent on armed face-offs as a way to end not only the hostage crisis, but also the longstanding conflict in the region.

Unfortunately, this "gunpowder mentality" also afflicts the Estrada administration. The president, a former action film star, has resisted the idea of mediation by foreign governments. Instead, he alternates tough talk with conciliatory offers -- a simplistic approach to a problem rooted in nearly 500 years of conflict.

When the Spanish began to colonize the Philippines in earnest in the 1560s, they had little difficulty taking the archipelago's scattered native settlements except Mindanao, where Islam was an established cultural, economic and political force. Arab traders and missionaries had brought Islam as a way of life starting in the 14th century.

With thriving commerce and complex social organizations, the Muslim territories were virtually impermeable to Spanish power, so the Catholic conquerors demonized the Muslims as they had the Spanish Moors, hence the term Moros.

Over time the Moros' fierce resistance contributed to their economic isolation, and the endless defense of their territories and way of life drained their accumulated wealth.

ANALYSIS

Some of their bloodiest battles would be against Americans. …