Magazine article The Spectator

A New Jihad in the Philippines

Magazine article The Spectator

A New Jihad in the Philippines

Article excerpt

Peter Oborne reports from the marshes of Mindanao on how a local war of independence is being exploited and transformed into a branch of the international war on terror

Very few outsiders ever venture into the Liguasan marshes, the remote inland sea which stretches across hundreds of square miles of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. These marshes, for the most part approachable only by jungle tracks and navigable by shallow-bottomed boats, form the perfect hiding place for criminal gangs which make a good living by kidnapping businessmen from nearby towns and cities.

The Liguasan marshes also provide a base for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgency which claims to speak for the native Bangsamoro people who were living in the Philippines long before the Spanish invasion in the 16th century.

Despite repeated assaults, which have intensified in recent years, the Bangsamoro have never been conquered. These Islamic rebels assert that they are affiliated to the rest of the Philippines neither by history, race, language, geography nor religion. Their implacable demand is for autonomy over what they call their ancestral domain.

Last summer the Bangsamoro almost achieved their ambition. President Arroyo, 700 miles to the north in Manila, was within hours of signing an agreement that would have granted self-government. At the last minute it was blocked in the constitutional court after a challenge from a group of wellconnected Christian settlers, many of who had travelled south to acquire Bangsamoro land after the second world war.

Fighting broke out at once. MILF commanders swept through Christian areas, wreaking widespread destruction.

Government forces responded in kind. In some districts the army recruited allies by arming militias as a bulwark against the Muslim raiders. According to human rights groups, 600,000 people have been displaced over the past 12 months. But nobody really knows. The world has turned a blind eye to the southern Philippines, mainly out of indifference and in part because reporting was too dangerous.

Then, at the end of July, the government and rebel forces agreed a ceasefire.

The resulting lull in the fighting gave director/cameraman George Waldrum and I the chance to penetrate the war zone. Travelling through the marshes and deep into the jungle, we found evidence of barbarity perpetrated by all sides. But we sensed something ominous.

The conflict in the southern Philippines is starting to mutate. For the last half century there have been many killings and much intercommunal violence. But essentially this has been a conflict about local issues: land, neighbourhood vendettas and clan disputes, all shaped by the ancient claim of the Bangsamoro people to self-determination.

Now the war is turning into a 21st-century war of religion. As it does so, the techniques of this long-standing insurgency have also become disturbingly contemporary. For decades the MILF, whose 12,000 fighting soldiers have been based in camps in the jungle or on islands in the Liguasan marshes, has been content to fight a conventional lowintensity civil war.

There is now reason to speculate that, driven by a new fanaticism, a cell structure is emerging in the urban areas. This year there has been an epidemic of roadside bombs, some aimed at conventional military targets, others intended to massacre civilians. Philippine army officers told us that the 'special operations group' of the MILF was receiving training and cooperation from Jemaah Islamiya, the al-Qa'eda-linked terror group blamed for the murder of 202 people in the Indonesian island of Bali seven years ago. If this connection is true, then the struggle in the southern Philippines may indeed be about to enter a new and terrifying stage.

We started our investigation, however, in the rural districts, where the bulk of the violence had reportedly taken place. Driving south from the regional capital of Cotabato City, we came across scenes of devastation, with burnt or destroyed houses by the side of the road. …

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