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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 17, 2007
Philippines teeters on brink of total war
By Simon Roughneen

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have launched a new military campaign against radical Muslim insurgents in its southern regions, an offensive nominally aimed at finishing off the hobbled 300-member Abu Sayyaf terror group, but one that also threatens to widen the conflict with two ceasefire groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Manila recently ramped up its military deployment to the restive region, where estimates of soldiers on the ground ranging widely



from 5,000-12,000. Army chief General Romeo Tolentino recently announced that he had temporary moved army headquarters from Manila to Zamboanga City on the southern island of Mindanao while the campaign is conducted. Fighting on the southern island of Jolo this month saw 50 people - including 25 army soldiers - killed in armed exchanges, and thousands of civilians have since evacuated the area.

Significantly, the MNLF has claimed responsibility for certain recent attacks. The Philippine military first launched Operation Endgame against the radical group back in 2002, but failed to live up to its billing without foreign assistance. Since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Washington has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of military assistance to the Philippine Army specifically to combat the Abu Sayyaf, which Manila claims is responsible for more than 400 civilian deaths since 2000, including the bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that killed 116 people.

The US has accused Abu Sayyaf of having links to global terror group al-Qaeda and Indonesia-based radical group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - but until now has remained mum on the MNLF while negotiations with Manila were ongoing. Nonetheless, the new assault on the MNLF, which stands accused of harboring Abu Sayyaf and JI operatives, would appear to jibe with broad US counter-terrorism objectives in the region. In an effort to win Filipino hearts and minds, the US Agency for International Development has pumped more than US$230 million in development and humanitarian assistance into Mindanao since 2002.

While American soldiers are prohibited from engaging in military operations, an unknown number of American military advisers provide tactical and operational advice. With that support, the Philippine Army has scored some important military successes against the rebel group over the past 18 months, including the apparent killing last September of the group's leader Khadafy Janjalani and, in January, of his apparent successor Abu Sulaiman (Jainal Antel Sali Jr).

The Abu Sayyaf has reportedly been flushed out of territories it used to control and by some assessments is fighting a rag-tag hit-and-run campaign hobbled by a broken command chain and leadership crisis. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said this year that the conflict with the Abu Sayyaf had reached a "mortal turning point" in the government's favor. This month, she said the new assault is aimed at "terrorist cells", without naming Abu Sayyaf by name.

Notably, the army's new offensive comes at a time that the US- and Australia-backed Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit in Indonesia has turned the screws on JI, including the June arrest of two of its alleged leaders. As Indonesia tightens its grip, some security analysts speculate that JI operatives have fled to the southern Philippines in remote jungle areas controlled by the Abu Sayyaf.

Army Chief of Staff General Hermogenes Esperon said on Monday that troops identified senior JI members and 2002 Bali bombing suspects Dulmatin and Umar Patek with the Abu Sayyaf during recent armed engagements in the town of Indanan, Sulu province. The accuracy of such reports cannot be independently verified, but the claims put the army's national security and the United States' global counter-terrorism interests in lockstep.

Breaking the peace
At the same time, the risk is that the army's expanding assault could spark a wider destabilizing conflict. The MILF, which signed a ceasefire with Manila in 1996 and is active in the Basilan Island area, has in recent years allowed the army passage through territories it controls to pursue the Abu Sayyaf. However, the MILF and the army clashed violently on July 10, when a handful of rebels and 14 army regulars were killed in an armed exchange.

MILF said government troops violated a standing truce agreement when they passed through an MILF-controlled area on Basilan in search of a kidnapped Italian priest. The army claims 10 of the killed soldiers were posthumously mutilated or beheaded, a practice associated with the more radical Abu Sayyaf. Military officials have repeatedly alleged that the MILF has in certain instances provided sanctuary to Abu Sayyaf insurgents - charges the MILF's leadership has denied.

Those hostilities and recriminations have since cooled, but the potential for confrontation remains high as long as the MILF and army are in close proximity. Formal peace talks between the two sides have stalled since last September, but are scheduled to reopen this month. A new deal between Manila and the MILF could formalize army access to the territories it controls, allowing the government a more stable footing to launch its assault against Abu Sayyaf.

Meanwhile, the MNLF, from which the Abu Sayyaf split in 1991, is a less radical outfit. The government struck a peace deal with the group back in 1976, but it now appears that the MNLF is back in the military's sights. The MNLF is still the dominant force in the region's so-called Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindinao, but a final peace in the impoverished area has not been accomplished because the deal fell short of guaranteeing the ethnic Moro the ancestral homeland they sought.

Certain MNLF factions, it now appears, consider that past deal null and void, as certain elements have publicly admitted to involvement in recent fighting involving the army and Abu Sayyaf. Former MNLF leader Nur Misuari recently lost a gubernatorial-election bid in Sulu province to the US-aid-propped incumbent Ben Loong. MNLF elements still linked to Misuari have often been fingered by the army for having links to Abu Sayyaf, and some analysts speculate that his electoral loss may have put them on a more aggressive footing.

A similar analysis could apply to Manila's suddenly more aggressive war posture. Arroyo's government lost significant electoral support to the opposition at recent mid-term elections, continuing the roller-coaster nature of her scandal-plagued tenure. Former presidents Fidel Ramos and Corazon Aquino have both recently criticized Arroyo's government, with influential Catholic bishops lending support to the public denouncements against her.
Some Manila-based political analysts believe a new, high-profile military campaign could, apart from fighting terrorism, serve the purpose of deflecting national attention from the Arroyo government's political woes. The move could backfire badly, however. Arroyo has not established firm control over the AFP, witnessed by the series of foiled coup attempts against her now-six-year-old administration.

To ease tensions, she has given the military carte blanche to deal with perceived threats to national security, resulting in the so-far-successful campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, but also apparently responsible for the extraordinary number of unexplained extrajudicial killings of left-leaning social activists. The government has unconvincingly attributed the killings to the world's longest ongoing Maoist insurgency, led by the communist New People's Army (NPA) - itself designated a terrorist group by both the US and the European Union.

At the same time, a recently enacted counter-terrorism law has given the government controversial wide-ranging powers to deal with what it deems internal security threats, including armed insurgent groups. That legislation will, among other things, provide new impetus and legal protection to the army as it launches its new armed campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and perhaps other groups.

While Philippine guns will be trained heavily on restive southern territories, the NPA has already said the new legislation is grounds for launching undefined "tactical offensives" against the government. With troops on the move and rebel groups crying foul, expect more violence and perhaps a widened conflict across the Philippine archipelago in the months ahead.

Simon Roughneen reports from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and East Timor, with his journalistic work regularly appearing in the Irish Times, Village Magazine and ISN Security Watch.

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