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  May 6, 2000  

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What's happening in the Philippines?!

A first answer was given the other day by army spokesman Col Rafael Romero: ''The whole thing has turned into a circus.'' By that, we take it, he didn't mean the whole of the actor-president (president-actor?) Joseph ''Erap'' Estrada-run republic or its administration, but the multiple hostage dramas playing out in the southern-most parts of the island nation and the media hype surrounding those affairs. Still, there are the obvious links between the bungling performance of a central government bordering on the ridiculous and renewed unrest in the Muslim south with rebels thumbing their noses (and pointing their guns) at a weakened central authority.

Muslim rebellion on the island of Mindanao and groups of islands to the south and west of it are nothing new. The Philippines' one-time Spanish colonial masters fought the Moro Wars there. During his 1899-1903 and 1909-13 stints in the Philippines, US General ''Black Jack'' Pershing attempted to put down Moro rebellions in Mindanao to no great avail - except invention of the Colt 45, whose considerable stopping power alone would keep Moro fighters, even when severely wounded, from charging American soldiers. More recently, the Moro National Liberation Front, founded and led by Nur Misuari, renewed hostilities with Manila in the early 1970s. The fighting finally came to an end with a 1996 peace agreement. But a group of radical MLNF members, led by Hashim Salamat, rejected the agreement and establishment of an autonomous region, founded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and now has renewed the fight for an independent Moroland under shariah (Islamic law) rule. Of a yet more radical and violent bent is the Abu Sayyaf (''Bearer of the Sword''), the mishmash of bandits and extremist Islamists that engineered the recent kidnappings of schoolchildren, teachers, and foreign tourists.

Nur Misuari, now the governor of the (semi-)autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao and the government-appointed negotiator to free the hostages, says the negotiations are difficult because ''the people [of Mindanao and the Sulu Islands] aren't sure if they have a future''. Well, that's a rotten, lame and false excuse if we've ever heard one. It appears that, on the contrary, a whole bunch of rebels and criminals of all stripes now have new hope for winning any number of concessions (not to speak of the ransom the kidnappers are demanding) from Manila as the entire country is thrown into turmoil by gross Estrada administration misrule.

With the present calamities unfolding, the president and his advisors are talking tough. Asked about a cease-fire call by the MILF, press secretary Ricardo Puno said that, ''At this point in time, the MILF's call for cessation aims simply to consolidate its troops and not resolve the problem by peace'' - and he's probably right. Estrada himself says military force has to be used because if it isn't, foreign investors will lose confidence about investing in the Philippines - which is pathetic nonsense. That confidence went out the window some time ago, not due to MILF or Abu Sayyaf activities, but his own administration's incompetence and corruption.

As pathetic as the president's get-tough posturing are the handwringing and calls for peace, peace plans and what have you emanating from a motley variety of senators and congressmen. As we wrote a few weeks back, the legislators' first and foremost task is to hold a failing national administration accountable for its failures and misdeeds and to seize the initiative in righting perceived wrongs rather than carping from the sidelines. But that, of course, doesn't get the media attention they so avidly crave.

The reason the Muslim south is once again on fire is because the nation as a whole is in disarray and without direction. No macho acts will change that. Short of early and dramatic policy changes and legislators attending to their appointed tasks of running the country rather than just complaining about its being run into the ground, banditry and Muslim separatism will fester and even communist rebels will get a new lease on life and join the fray. As for Estrada, he has proved to anyone's satisfaction that he can't run the country. He should resign and turn the job over to Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

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