Southeast Asia

The evolution of Philippine Muslim insurgency
By Marco Garrido

MANILA - A contingent of nearly 2,000 US troops will arrive in the Philippines next month to take part in joint US-Philippine military exercises. The American soldiers will find themselves with an opportunity to help Filipinos combat a plague of banditry and terror posing as Muslim activism. Or, if the Americans fail to appreciate the historical, cultural, political and religious bases for the troubles in the southern Philippines - and how the United States itself helped foster those troubles over the past century - the troops will make matters even worse.

Balikatan 03-1 will be the newest in a series of at least 17 military exercises planned between the United States and the Philippines for 2003. Like its predecessor, last year's Balikatan 02-1, this year's exercises will involve a sizable deployment of US troops to Muslim areas in Mindanao. The Balikatan exercises are aimed at extirpating the Abu Sayyaf bandits, a group that both the United States and the Philippines consider terrorists.

This will not be the first time that American soldiers have forayed into Mindanao to combat Muslims. While the current exercises no doubt find their justification in the ongoing international war on terror, another, more traditional war waged a century ago occasioned a similar influx of US troops to the region. US incursion then played a part in fostering the conflict justifying US incursion now.

The US role in shaping Moro identity
The Philippine-American War lasted from 1899 to 1902, although the Americans kept fighting Muslims in Mindanao until 1914. "Pious paternalism and brutal pacification" marked US policy toward the Philippines, with the latter predominating. Between 1903 and 1906, American soldiers killed more than 3,000 Muslims in Mindanao. After hostilities, the Americans sought to reinvent themselves as a paternal power under whose tutelage progress and prosperity for the Muslims would be brought about.

Heretofore, Philippine Muslims had remained largely divided along ethnolinguistic clan lines. Spanish conquistadors had arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, but were unable to subjugate the Muslims in Mindanao. While nationalist history, both Muslim and Christian, tends to depict a unified Muslim resistance primarily motivated by religion, more recent scholarly work suggests that Spanish incursions into Muslim territory did not succeed in fostering in the various ethnic groups an overarching identification as Muslim. Instead, traditional inter-clan rivalries were pursued, often with Spanish help.

As Thomas McKenna argues in his book, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, it was the Americans who set about to unify the disparate Muslim clans. Ironically, the chief instrument of Muslim ideological subordination proved to be religion.

Najeeb Saleeby, a Christian, Syrian-born doctor who had come to Mindanao as part of the US colonial apparatus, took an interest in the "Moros" - which was the derogation the Spanish had used to refer to the Muslims (after "Moors"). He noted that these Muslims "have so little religion in their heart that it is impossible for them to get enthusiastic and fanatic on this ground". Nevertheless, Saleeby believed that religion could be "encouraged and promoted" as a way to bind the Muslims to their leaders. Doing so, he reasoned, would render the naturally fierce Muslims more amenable to US administration, as conducted through their datus (chiefs). A united and obedient Muslim populace would be more receptive to civilizing (modernizing) and nationalizing influences.

In general, Saleeby's prescriptions were taken to heart by the colonial administration. The historical evidence is illustrative: Writing in regard to a young Muslim princess he had sent to the States to be educated, Frank Carpenter, the governor of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu, instructs "that she not be encouraged or permitted to abandon her at least nominal profession of the Mohammedan religion, as she would become outcast among the Sulu people and consequently her special education purposeless were she to become Christian". Likewise, Edward Kuder, the superintendent of schools for three Muslim provinces - Cotabato, Lanao, and Sulu - sought to "inculcate in [Filipino Muslims] the value of cooperating with the leaders of Christian Filipinos in working for the common welfare of the country" (McKenna). One index of his success was the pride with which one datu, a student of his, displayed a cherished gift Kuder had made to him: a Richard Burton translation of the Arabic classic A Thousand and One Nights.

The evolution of separatism: Grievance ...
History remade what the Americans had worked so intently to cultivate. Three events in particular - Christian immigration to Mindanao, sectarian violence, and martial law - transformed the kind of pliable, sanitized Islam the colonial administration had propagated into a basis for discrimination and, eventually, rebellion.

A trickle of Christian Filipinos was encouraged southward under a homesteader program initiated by the Americans. It was not until after Philippine independence in 1946, however, that the trickle approached a flood. The new homesteaders were largely tenant farmers in search of their own land, as well as resettled Huks (former communist insurgents). The rate of Christian immigration was sufficiently intense and unrelenting that, as Jacques Bertrand notes in Pacific Affairs (Spring 2000), whereas "in 1912 the Moros owned most of the land in Mindanao and Sulu, [by] 1972 only 30 percent had land in their name, [and by] 1982 the Moros represented only 17 percent of total landowners". At the same time, Filipino Muslims became subject to increasing discrimination and marginalization.

A number of violent incidents, perceived at least to be motivated by religious discrimination, likewise fostered a growing sense of grievance among Filipino Muslims. Two events in particular do well to represent a series of violent outbreaks during the late 1960s and throughout the '70s. In 1968, 14 to as many as 28 Muslim military trainees were executed on the island of Jabidah. It soon came out that they were part of a secret military operation to invade the Malaysian island of Sabah. While the reasons behind their execution remain unclear, the Jabidah Massacre became for Muslims "both a provocation and metaphor" (McKenna). It figured centrally in an emerging Moro oppositional consciousness.

The emergence of the Ilaga ("rats"), a Christian group that terrorized Muslims, also fueled Muslim grievance. Ilaga violence reached its bloodiest in June 1971 with the massacre of 65 men, women, and children in a mosque.

Martial law provided a third and more sustained source of grievance. President Ferdinand Marcos justified declaring martial law on September 21, 1972, by purporting that the Muslim secessionist movement threatened the country's stability. However, as McKenna argues, martial law turned out to be more a cause of the separatist movement than its consequence. The brutality of the military under martial law fomented resentment among the Muslim populace. As the government military campaign intensified, ordinary Muslim solidarity with the rebellion solidified.

... and opportunity
Certain opportunities provided growing Muslim grievance an outlet. By so doing, they enabled the emergence of the Filipino Muslim insurgency movement.

Educational opportunities in the form of scholarships positioned the leaders of the Moro separatist movement by enabling them to articulate the frustrations of the larger Muslim community. Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), was awarded a scholarship from the Commission on National Integration, which, ironically, was created to incorporate young Muslims into the larger Christian nation. The University of the Philippines in the late '60s no doubt also provided Misuari an education in political activism, especially since the Jabidah Massacre had become a rallying point for protest.

Hashim Salamat was similarly molded by his educational experience. Salamat received a scholarship from Al Azhar University in Cairo as part of Egyptian president Gamel Abdul Nasser's program to promote pan-Islamism. In Salamat's case, the scholarship seemed to have worked as intended. First collaborating with Misuari in the founding of the MNLF, Salamat later split to form the Islamic-oriented Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1982.

A specific political opportunity allowed for the development of the MNLF. In 1968 Datu Udtug Matalam founded the Mindanao Independence Movement. The MIM was originally intended as a form of retaliation against establishment political powers that had sidestepped Matalam in his re-election bid for governor of Mindanao and had personally insulted him by failing to pay him condolences after the killing of his son by a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agent. Publicly, however, the MIM was represented as a direct response to the Jabidah Massacre. Despite Matalam's intentions, the MIM, which only someone with Matalam's political cachet could have founded, became a lightning rod and platform for young, disenchanted Muslims. Both Misuari and Salamat associated with it in various capacities.

Finally, a number of resource opportunities, mostly through international connections, enabled the emergence of the various Moro rebel groups. Malaysia, furious at Marcos for having tried to invade Sabah, readily lent its support to rebel groups. An MIM detachment trained for guerrilla warfare in Sabah. After the Jabidah Massacre, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi provided weapons to the rebels through Sabah. Cigarette smugglers with a bone to pick with Marcos provided financial, logistical, and military support to the rebels. And, of course, the war in Afghanistan spawned Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajack Janjalani, providing him with a supply of weapons and perhaps even a funding source in Osama bin Laden.

The value of insurgency
While the combination of grievance and opportunity may explain the emergence of Muslim rebel groups, other factors account for their staying power. After all, the Muslim secessionist movement has persisted in one form or another for the better part of three decades. It would seem that while Muslim insurgency may be a way of expressing grievance, it is also a means of capitalizing on and creating opportunities. This is how insurgency sustains itself.

Muslim insurgency can be seen as an innovative way of continuing patrimonial politics on a local level. The emergence of the rebel movement had created an elite to counter-balance the datu (chieftain) establishment. Traditional datu politicking could now be contrasted with a politics "employing Islamic renewal as a cultural frame for political behavior" (McKenna). In this vein, the MILF has proved to be particularly effective, exerting its influence through an underground "shadow government" and, above ground, through a body of clerics, the ulama. Religious identity has become a source of political power for the MILF.

This dynamic was amply displayed in the elections of 1986, the first "free" elections since martial law had been declared. While the MILF officially boycotted the elections, its network was nonetheless utilized. Rebels doubled as party representatives for UNIDO (the United National Democratic Organization), a coalition organized around Corazon Aquino, and voting Cory suddenly became Islamic. This also allowed the rebels to reap the political payoff of having supported the winning candidate. The MILF also levied its religious cachet to win political recognition. Feeling snubbed by the newly-elected Cory administration, Hashim Salamat called for a "prayer rally", which successfully tapped the root of Islamic populism in order to prop Salamat as a serious political force.

As the case of the Abu Sayyaf illustrates, Muslim insurgency can also be used as a cover for banditry. The Abu Sayyaf make a point of gesturing toward an oppositional Moro identity, by, for instance, demanding that crosses be removed from public view or by interpreting one method in their arsenal of terror-decapitation as rooted in Islam. But their modus operandi - kidnapping for ransom - suggests that profit, rather than Islam, is the predominant motivation for their activities.

On the one hand, the MNLF and MILF seem to acknowledge this. They try to distance themselves from the Abu Sayyaf and have even pledged to cooperate with the government in its pursuit of the group's eradication. Still, the links among the groups remain unclear. Considered a "lost command" of the MILF, the Abu Sayyaf may not be lost at all. There has been speculation that the group merely provides a cover for "legitimate" rebels moonlighting for profit. Moreover, charges of military collaboration with the Abu Sayyaf - that the military is being paid a part of the ransom money to allow the Abu Sayyaf to continue their operations - have delegitimized the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in a way that conflict with the "legitimate" rebels, the MILF and MNLF, never has.

Thus American soldiers have been brought in under the Balikatan agreements to do what the AFP has been unable to do: neutralize a nettlesome band of no more than a few hundred brigands.

A larger problem
The first round of Balikatan military exercises (02-1) was somewhat of a success. While the Abu Sayyaf remained at large, they also ended up largely decimated, with one of their top commanders, Abu Sabaya, left to the crocodiles. The joint operations managed to kick the Abu Sayyaf out of Basilan, their former base. More important, thanks to the civic and humanitarian projects that accompanied the operations, a sense not only of peace but of order was re-established on the island.

However, even if continued Balikatan operations succeed in wiping out the Abu Sayyaf, what is to stop another group from taking its place? There is certainly no shortage of groups whose activities and connections could get them labeled "terrorist". The Pentagon Gang is one such group. Like the Abu Sayyaf, it appears to have splintered from the MILF. The real question, therefore, is whether terrorist activity can be substantially reduced without addressing the Muslim insurgency movement.

While the MILF may remain a "legitimate" insurgency group, its membership is particularly volatile. A string of attacks in the past week illustrate this point. The explosion of a car bomb outside an airport, the massacre of 14 villagers in a farming community, another bomb attack in an open-air market, and the destruction (through rocket-propelled grenades) of two power-transmission towers and five power pylons all took place in areas of traditional MILF activity. And on Tuesday, a blast ripped through Davao airport, killing at least 21. Since the attacks followed the military bombardment of an MILF stronghold in Pikit, Cotabato, which left close to 200 rebels dead, the military has fingered the MILF for the rampage. However, the group has denied responsibility for the attacks.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu has alleged that the attacks were the work of "other interested groups". Datu Norodin Alonto Lucman, chairman of the Muslim Multi-Sectoral Movement for Peace and Development, claims that the attack on Pikit severed the rebel chain of command. "The MILF leadership has already lost control over its guerrilla fronts; the government is now dealing with hundreds of independent guerrilla fronts."

A limited role for the US
So far the administration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has resisted US pressure to brand the MILF a terrorist organization. The administration fears, quite rightly, that a terror tag will only drive the rebel group from the peace table and incite retaliatory attacks. More significant, the MILF is not only broad-based, with a fighting force about 12,000 strong, but it has succeeded in establishing deep roots within Filipino Muslim communities. This reality limits the utility of a strictly military approach.

Unlike the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF cannot be extirpated without enormous, perhaps unbearable, cost: the upheaval of numerous Muslim communities and the alienation of innumerable others that sympathize, if not identify, with the aspirations the group represents. The Balikatan operations will be more effective against groups that do not enjoy such popular legitimacy - such as the Abu Sayyaf.

The history of the Bangsamoro separatist movement suggests that a better way to contain the rebel groups may be by targeting the political and economic opportunity structures that sustain them. This means putting the squeeze on the insurgency's financing by identifying its international backers, thwarting its local fundraising rackets such as smuggling and extortion, and making sure that the tremendous quantity of humanitarian and development aid being poured into the region is not being diverted to the insurgency's coffers.

The Americans can help with this. They should not, however, be permitted to engage in direct combat with the MILF or other insurgency groups. Moro nationalism has replaced the history of America's role as one of the movement's inadvertent founding fathers with its current image as an inveterate enemy of Islam. Anti-Americanism has become one basis of a new pan-Islamic solidarity. If the Balikatan operations are expanded to include the MILF, the Americans will only find themselves with a war they cannot win. Victory would only encourage further resentment and lay the groundwork for future conflict.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
 
Mar 6, 2003



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