Hidden US hand in Philippine
election By Noel Tarrazona
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines - A highly
anticipated gubernatorial election in the southern
Philippines' insurgency-prone Sulu province set
for mid-May is being viewed as a rare democratic
referendum on the US-led "war on terror" in
The polls will pit
US-linked incumbent Governor Ben Loong against a
prominent rebel leader, Nur Misuari, founding
chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front
(MNLF), an insurgent group created in the early
1970s with the aim of establishing an
independent ethnic Moro state
from minority Muslim areas in the region.
The MNLF signed a ceasefire with the
government in 1996 and loosely controls
territories included in the Autonomous Region in
Muslim Mindanao. However, there is one crucial
catch that some contend gives Loong a competitive
edge over his rebel rival: Misuari is under house
arrest in faraway Manila.
rebellion charges in connection with a November
2001 MNLF attack on a military detachment in the
town of Jolo in Sulu province, which resulted in
the deaths of several government soldiers. In the
wake of the attack, Misuari fled to Malaysia but
was tracked down and arrested by Malaysian
authorities and extradited back to the
If convicted, he could be
sentenced to 20 years in prison. A judge allowed
him to file his candidacy on March 20 while his
case is still in trial. He is believed to have
strong grassroots resonance in conflict-ridden
Sulu, but is hardly the sort of candidate Manila
and Washington would like to see preside over the
region's transition toward more democracy.
In contrast, Loong arguably cuts a more
conciliatory profile. A devout Muslim, Loong has
worked hand in hand with US military advisers and
aid agencies since Washington first sent military
personnel to the southern Philippines to combat
terrorism in 2002. During Loong's first term in
office, the US allocated more than US$100 million
to conflict-torn areas in Sulu to develop
infrastructure, economic development and
He has campaigned
on a peace ticket, promising if re-elected to
transform Sulu from a battlefield to a
marketplace. His initiatives have included a "One
Town, One Product Program", similar to Thailand's
populist program designed to promote
entrepreneurship, create jobs and stoke economic
activity at the grassroots level.
for Farms" program, funded by the US, encourages
rebels to exchange their firearms for small grants
of agricultural land. According to statistics
supplied by the Office of the President, as many
as 25,000 former MNLF rebels have signed on to the
program and taken up civilian livelihoods in
agriculture and fisheries.
contrast Loong's record arguably cuts a
stark contrast with Misuari's candidacy.
Previously a professor of political science at the
University of the Philippines, Misuari is not
affiliated with any registered Philippine
political party, meaning he has no organized group
to advance his candidacy while under arrest. As
the founding father of the MNLF, he is known to
have widespread grassroots support across the
He first signed a peace
deal, brokered by Libya, with the government in
1976. However, Misuari resumed his armed struggle
for nearly two decades when Manila lawmakers
refused to honor autonomy measures included in the
original deal. In 1996, he signed a new peace deal
with the government, which granted local Muslims
more autonomy and significantly did not require
the MNLF to disarm.
Misuari served as
governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim
Mindanao, which included Sulu, from 1996 to 2001.
He lost a re-election bid in 2001 when he was
removed by his own MNLF's 15-man executive council
on accusations of "ineffective governance" and
"abuse of power". In protest, his loyalists soon
thereafter attacked military detachments in Sulu
and later held 100 civilian hostages in Zamboanga
His lawyer, Ombra Jainal, told Asia
Times Online: "Misuari does not need to campaign
because he can win without campaigning."
Abdurahman Jamasali, a member of the MNLF's
leadership council who is likewise vying for
elective office in Sulu's first congressional
district, predicts that the "silent majority" will
deliver the votes Misuari needs to win.
The Muslim-dominated Sulu province is home
to 18 town municipalities, each headed by an
elected mayor who represents an average population
of 650,000. But democracy has shallow roots in
this violence-prone area of the country.
Sulu is best known as a breeding and
recruiting ground for heavily armed separatist
groups, including the MNLF, the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF, an offshoot of the MNLF),
which signed a shaky peace deal with the
government in 2003, and the smaller Abu Sayyaf
terror group, which the US has linked to the
global al-Qaeda terrorist network.
administration has played along with the
Philippine government theory that poverty is the
root cause of terrorism in the region, not
resentment against central-government policies
viewed as insensitive to local customs or years of
alleged abuses perpetuated against the local
population by the Philippine military. The
United States pointedly does not include the MNLF
on its list of international terror organizations.
Meanwhile, US military training, technical
assistance and logistical support has in recent
months helped the Philippine military mop up the
Abu Sayyaf group, including the recent killing of
the radical group's elusive leader Kaddafy
Janjalani and other top commanders.
official statistics are an accurate measure - and
in an election season such figures should be taken
with a big grain of salt - US-funded aid programs
are providing new economic hope across Mindanao.
According to the Mindanao Economic Development
Council, poverty across the historically restive
region has fallen from 67% to 47% since Loong took
office in 2004 and started implementing various
US-financed poverty-alleviation schemes.
Loong is clearly trying to capitalize on
those spending programs at the ballot box. At a
recent press briefing after officially filing his
candidacy, Loong linked the continuation of
US-backed economic initiatives to his re-election.
Assuming the government's recent offer of more
autonomy and self-determination to the offshoot
MILF was sincere, whoever wins Sulu's
gubernatorial race could have huge discretion over
the development and exploitation of the island's
various untapped natural resources.
economy is still highly reliant on foreign aid.
The US has not indicated whether it plans to
continue pouring substantial development
assistance into the region if Misuari is elected
over Loong, but the US Embassy in Manila has
insisted that it will respect the results of
Sulu's democratic process. Yet it's clear to many
voters that hundreds of millions of dollars' worth
of aid programs lie in the electoral balance.
Noel T Tarrazona is a journalist
based in Zamboanga City and works part-time with a
non-governmental organization providing financial
literacy seminars to poverty-stricken communities.