Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Setback in the Philippines

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Setback in the Philippines

Article excerpt


John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available through the AET Book Club.

The conflict between Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines and the central government began in 1972 and remains unresolved. It seemed to be edging toward a settlement of sorts when the main rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), negotiated with the government and finally concluded terms for peace in September 1996. The accord provided for the establishment of a Special Zone of Peace and Development in the southern Philippines, in an area where 40 percent of the population is Muslim. A regional council in which MNLF nominees would form a majority was to promote and monitor development projects in the region. The deal was supported by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, but not by all the Moro political forces. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has about 15,000 fighters, and the Abu Sayyaf group, with around 300, rejected it and called for an independent Muslim state.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2000, moves were made (helped along by Libya) to re-open negotiations between the MILF and the Philippine government. An upsurge of fighting in March derailed those efforts: an MILF local offensive was followed by the escalation of clashes and the suspension of scheduled talks. By mid-April, 100,000 people had fled their homes to escape the intensified conflict.

Two aggravating factors have intruded. President Joseph Estrada badly needs a success: his public approval rating is dismal. This makes him a man in a hurry to achieve a "solution" in the south. Then there is the Abu Sayyaf problem.

Under its founder, Aburajak Janjalani, the Abu Sayyaf group proclaimed its goal to be an independent Islamic state. It deliberately targeted Christian civilians, many of whom were comparatively recent arrivals from the more densely populated island of Luzo, and who were seen as a threat to the Muslim areas. The Abu Sayyaf group has killed over 200 people since 1992.

Since Aburajak Janjalani was killed in 1998, the group has fractured, without formally splitting, and degenerated into simple banditry. It made world headlines by seizing a group of foreign tourists on the resort island of Sipadan (disputed between Indonesia and Malaysia, but controlled by the latter), but these were not the first people it had taken hostage. In 1998, it kidnapped an old Italian priest named Luciano Benedetti and only released him after the Philippine government paid a ransom that was dressed up as reimbursement for "board and lodging expenses." On March 20 of this year, it seized 53 Christians, including schoolchildren, teachers and a Catholic priest; some were killed and injured when the army closed in and sought to release them.

The Abu Sayyaf group is small and enjoys only localized support, chiefly in the smaller islands of the southwest. These are areas of great poverty, even by Philippine standards. In Basilan, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, 58 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Many do not see any reason why the group should not extract money from those regarded as outsiders, whether they are companies ready to buy illegally logged wood or people who want to secure the release of abducted relatives.

As of this writing, the hostage issue had not been resolved, but the kidnappings had spurred the Philippine military to greater efforts. With 60 percent of the army concentrated in Mindanao and the rest of the south, a determined drive was undertaken to capture the MILF camps and crush the Abu Sayyaf group. The MILF now appears ready to accept a settlement based on expanded autonomy. It remains to be seen, however, whether the government will see this as an opportunity to strike an acceptable compromise or be tempted instead, following its successes on the battlefield, to go for a military solution. …

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