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<< 1. Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement on the "War Against Terrorism"3. From the National Office >>

Questioning the Anti-Terrorist War in the Philippines

By Orlando Tizon

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There are now more than 600 U.S. Special Forces troops stationed in the central and southern Philippines, particularly in the island of Basilan near Zamboanga in Mindanao. Ostensibly they are there to train Filipino forces to fight the Abu Sayyaf, a local bandit group that the Philippine government says has ties with Osama bin Ladin's Al Qaeda. The Bush administration describes this latest deployment of troops as the second phase of the anti-terrorist war after the successful operations in Afghanistan. Lately the administration has claimed this to be a model for military involvement in Yemen, where U.S. forces will train and give technical support to the local military without involvement in the actual fighting.

A deeper analysis of the situation, however, reveals the real political motives of both the Bush administration and the Arroyo administration of the Philippines. First, it is important to remember that this is not the first time U.S. military forces have gone to Mindanao to fight Muslim Filipinos or Moros, as Filipinos call them. The United States fought a long war of pacification against the Moros in Mindanao, Basilan and Sulu from 1902 to 1913 after declaring the area a Moro province with General Leonard Wood as first governor. The United States used superior firepower, deception and divide-and-conquer tactics to prevail against an ill-equipped enemy. Thousands of Moros were massacred and large numbers displaced. The lessons of the Moro wars and the entire Philippine American war are not lost to Filipinos.

Who are the Abu Sayyaf and why have they attracted the interest of the reigning superpower in the world today? Even Filipino military officials admit that the Abu Sayyaf is mainly a bandit gang involved in piracy, kidnapping and other forms of banditry. This part of Mindanao, like many areas of Southeast Asia, has a long history of piracy and banditry dating back centuries to the times of Spanish colonization in the 1600s. The Moro people do not believe that the Abu Sayyaf are mujahideen like the Taliban and do not support them. They have been reduced from six hundred three years ago to about sixty as a result of Philippine military operations.

There is evidence that the group is a creation of the Philippine army as a tool in its war against the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the 1990s (Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria, "Under the Crescent Moon"). Investigators of the Boston Globe and Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat revealed the collusion between the Abu Sayyaf and certain military and civilian officials in what is known as the "Lamitan Incident." Last June the Philippine army had a chance to wipe out the entire leadership of the Abu Sayyaf. About 35 Abu Sayyaf members and their hostages were encircled by the Philippine army in a walled hospital and church compound in Lamitan on Basilan island. Intense fighting ensued and at least twelve soldiers and civilians were killed. The commanding officer called for backup from more than a thousand soldiers on the island that day. But some generals reversed the order. As a result the Abu Sayyaf leadership escaped through the back door of the hospital, bringing along with them most of their hostages, including Guillermo Sobero of California and Martin Burnham of Kansas. (They beheaded Sobero a few months later.) Eight hours after they escaped, reinforcements arrived.

But before the group left, they released three captives during a lull in the fighting: Reghis Romero, a millionaire construction magnate; his girlfriend; and an eight-year-old boy. A friend of Mr. Romero disclosed that $500,000 was paid for Romero's release. The whistle-blower of the fiasco, Father Cirilo Nacorda, parish priest of Lamitan, himself a former hostage of the Abu Sayyaf, believes that a group of army officers, Abu Sayyaf members and Basilan governor Wahab Akbar split the ransom money. Local people have no doubt about the ransom payment and the collusion between the Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine military.

The Arroyo government has quashed investigations of the incident. Some see this as a sign of the power of the military establishment and the helplessness of Mrs. Arroyo, who became president through people power and the support of the military. In other words, she is beholden to the military.

Given this background, it appears that the Philippine military forces are fully capable of wiping out the Abu Sayyaf gang if they had the political will to do so. The presence of the gang, however, serves the purposes of the military and political establishment in the Philippines. The Abu Sayyaf is the goose with the golden egg for military officials. For President Arroyo it is the best way to keep the military establishment happy and to shore up her flagging presidency. She did this when she jumped on the anti-terrorism bandwagon of the Bush administration, offered the use of Philippine bases, accepted President Bush's offer to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf gang, and got $100 million in fresh military aid.

The Bush administration has its own motives for joining this war in Basilan Island. By going after the Abu Sayyaf, it can present to the international community a test case of expanding the anti-terrorist war and winning in a new front. That is, if the combined Philippine forces and U.S. Special Forces are able to wipe out this small band of criminals cleanly and quickly. The danger, however, is that the war could spread. It is possible that the Abu Sayyaf, adept and familiar with the territory could escape to other places. It is also possible that the war could spark clashes with the nearby forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is far stronger and better-organized than the Abu Sayyaf. Presently it has signed a peace treaty with the Philippine government. Meanwhile, for the past two years human rights monitors have reported an escalation of human rights abuses against the Moro people and growing numbers of displaced people in the Mindanao Sulu area.

The joint military operations with the Philippines also gives the United States the chance to beef up its defense role in Southeast Asia. It should be able to organize an efficient "reconditioning and logistic support" network in the Philippines during the six-month joint operations against the Abu Sayyaf. This will allow U.S. forces to deploy efficiently between the Arabian Gulf and the western coast of the United States.

The presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines has met with protests from nationalist groups. Former Senator Wigberto Tañada has expressed alarm over the lack of transparency of the Philippine government about the reasons for inviting U.S. forces. He further claims that government officials have given inconsistent answers on whether U.S. forces are there for joint exercises or for direct participation in combat. According to him the invitation to U.S. forces to engage in direct combat is unconstitutional and goes against the legal parameters of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. and the Mutual Defense Treaty.

In Southeast Asia, many analysts dispute the claim by the Bush administration of a coordinated terrorist organization in the region linked to the Al Qaeda. There are growing popular movements in Southeast Asia, some of them with Islamic inspiration (Singapore and Malaysia), and a number of ethnic groups demanding self-determination (Indonesia). Most of these are poor peoples' movements. These can hardly be called part of an international terrorist network. Yet some governments in the region have used the anti-terrorist war as an excuse to clamp down on opposition to their policies.

To summarize, U.S. military forces are not needed in the Philippines to destroy the Abu Sayyaf bandit group. Their presence there will only be used by the Philippine military establishment and the Arroyo administration to further their own political objectives. The Bush administration is also using the Abu Sayyaf to expand its anti-terrorist war to Southeast Asia and in this way secure its military hold in the region.


Dr. Orlando "Dong" Tizon is a Filipino activist and member of VVAW.
He currently works for the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Committee (TASSC),
an organization committed to helping end torture and to aiding survivors of torture.

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