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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 6, 2008
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US plays both sides in the Philippines
By Herbert Docena

MANILA - Three weeks ago, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stood on the verge of signing a breakthrough agreement that could have moved both sides closer to the closure of a three-decade-long war.

The Moros, minority Muslims who have been marginalized since being incorporated into the country, have been fighting the central government for greater self-rule since the 1970s. Pushed to a stalemate, both sides have since 1976 struggled for a settlement through peace negotiations punctuated by bouts of bloodshed. Over 120,000 people have died.

With previous agreements having failed to end the conflict, the


latest deal, called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), proposed the establishment of a "sub-state" for Moros in an "associative relationship" of "shared sovereignty" with the Philippines. This proposal falls short of the MILF's original goal of independence but is farther than anything the government had previously accepted.

Though endorsed by both negotiating panels, the agreement drew widespread condemnation. Opponents saw the agreement as dismembering the country or as a ploy to extend the term of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The government has since junked the agreement and both sides now totter on the precipice of full-scale fighting. Between the MILF and the Philippine government has stood the United States. In light of the controversy generated by the MOA-AD, its role, interests, and strategy has come under renewed scrutiny. Is the US abandoning a traditional ally in the Philippine government in order to support the Moro movement for self-determination?

Advancing US interests
US involvement in the peace process between the two sides dates from 2003, ostensibly as part of the so-called global war on terror. US officials have tagged Mindanao, the region in the southern Philippines where most Moros live, as the "next Afghanistan." It is where the Abu Sayyaf Group, designated a terrorist organization by Washington, operates. Members of the regional terror grouping Jemaah Islamiyah have also been reported to be training in or transiting through the region, supposedly with links to the MILF.

With the consent of both MILF and the Philippine government, the US State Department deployed the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to facilitate the peace talks. In the last five years, USIP staff met frequently with both negotiating panels, providing them technical expertise, engaging the public on the talks, and extending other forms of assistance to the process. Not unrelated to the USIP's work, as the institute makes clear, has been the expanding and deepening US military presence in the country, including in Mindanao.

Since 2001, the US has quietly but steadily established new forms of US military basing in the country through more frequent exercises and warship visits, assured access to facilities, and the stationing of US Special Forces in the south. Alongside this has been the increased infusion of US development and humanitarian assistance to Mindanao, in the form of schools, roads, water wells, and other infrastructure.

In reporting on its work, the USIP openly boasts of its unique capacity to be "an instrument for advancing US interests". The institute is special, according to its report, because while it can claim to be separate from the U.S. government, it plays a role in the US government's internal division of labor that no other government agency can. Thanks to its "quasi-governmental" status, the institute supposedly succeeded in earning the confidence of local actors so much so that even members of the Philippine government panel reported inside information about cabinet discussions to them. The USIP "offered a new policy instrument of the US government" which could be "incorporated more frequently into the toolkit of US foreign policy", notes the report.

But what interests have the USIP, the US military, and the other US government agencies been advancing? Analysts have advanced two possibilities. The US is now supporting moves toward the creation of a more autonomous - or even an independent - pro-US Bangsamoro state as a hedge against a more pro-China Philippines. Or the United States has only been manipulating the peace talks to deliberately foment and prolong conflict between Filipinos and Moros in order to justify its sustained intervention in Mindanao. Both assume common underlying geostrategic objectives: access to natural resources, including potential oil reserves, as well as military basing.

Selective support
The US has had a very mixed set of attitudes toward self-determination. For instance, it has crushed or has sought to crush movements of self-determination in some places through invasion and occupation - the Philippines in the early 20th century, Iraq, and Afghanistan today. At the same time, the US government has had no problems supporting or not actively opposing movements against regimes it doesn't like, such as Kosovars against the Serbian state, Tibetans against the Chinese state, and Kurds against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

But if the US government values the stability of a state and its support of US goals, then it will oppose movements of self-determination and back Georgia over South Ossetia, Thailand over the Malays of Southern Thailand, Indonesia over the West Papuans, Turkey over the Kurds, and Marcos over the Moros in the 1970s.

That last example is particularly instructive. From 1972-1976, when the poorly armed and poorly trained Moro fighters took on the might of Marcos' military, the United States provided the Philippine dictator with over $500 million in military assistance, helping tip the balance against the Moro fighters. Despite this, the Moros - poorly armed and trained - managed to bring the war to a stalemate and forced Marcos to the negotiating table.

Now the question is: which side is the US on? Last week, when a US military-contracted helicopter went to evacuate injured fighters in an encounter in Basilan, they came to the assistance of Filipino soldiers - not Moro rebels. This week, in the latest proof that US troops are not only "training" Filipino soldiers, American soldiers were spotted helping Filipino troops recover unexploded bombs during a lull in hostilities in North Cotabato.

Since 2002, 300-500 US Special Forces have stayed on indefinitely in Mindanao to help Filipino troops in their day-to-day operations. Their target: the alleged members of the Abu Sayyaf, the more politicized factions of which continue to espouse the original goal of the MILF, which is Bangsamoro independence. On several occasions, members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the other Moro movement that has a peace agreement with the government, have been targeted in operations assisted by the US. In at least one documented case, even Moro civilians, including children, were among those killed.

In short, the US military is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Filipino soldiers, not Moro fighters. From 2002-2006 alone, the US has given around $250 million not to the MILF but to the armed forces of the Philippines. This has been equivalent to nearly 10% of the Philippine military budget. On top of this, the $260 million worth of "development" aid that the US has poured into Mindanao in the last six years is designed to legitimize the national government in the eyes of Muslims - and, hence, to douse support for Moro self-determination movements.

In other words, the US has been quite clear in its support of the Philippine government. Does support for the new agreement between the Moros and the government in Manila signal a change in this policy? Although US support for a Bangsamoro state is not inconceivable, Washington would only embrace this option if three conditions are met. First, the Philippine state can no longer be counted on to provide the US what it needs. Second, a newly autonomous or an independent Bangsamoro state will turn out to be pro-US. And third, the potential benefits of abandoning an old ally in favor of a newly created one outweigh the potential costs.

Ever since the Philippine Senate voted to close down US military bases in the country in 1992, the Philippines has emerged as an unpredictable ally of the US. Since 1992, the US has sought to recover its ability to use Philippine territory for its purposes. Yet only under the current Arroyo government has the US managed to make significant inroads. President Arroyo has gone out of her way - arguably farther than her predecessors - to accommodate

Continued 1 2 

Secret pacts spoil Philippine peace
(Aug 29, '08)

Peace falls to pieces in the Philippines
(Aug 16, '08)

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