A Timebomb in the Philippines

“Is it safe for me to be here?” I asked one of the police commanders. He smiled. “If you stay over here.” “Over here” meant the area behind the scores of Philippine National Police (PNP) in full riot gear. I asked him what the angry crowd was protesting against—America in general or the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines?

Again he smiled and responded diplomatically: “Well, let me put it this way.” He paused. “They are not representative. They are from the Left.”

I crossed the police line to see for myself. Hundreds of young people stood glaring cautiously at the police. From the top of a van, a woman wearing a Muslim head scarf shrieked into a microphone. A crude model of the Statue of Liberty wore a placard with the words “Statue of Puppetry” painted across it. Hanging below it was a sign that read, “U.S. Troops Go Home!”

As the Manila heat and humidity bore down on the crowd, their numbers began to thin out. Soon, they dispersed completely, disappointed that the police wouldn’t let them march to the U.S. embassy.

The police commander had been at least half-right: The protesters were clearly from the Left. But it was hard to know how many of their fellow countrymen they represented.

It feels like a beginning. A new contingent of U.S. troops was recently sent to the Philippines to rescue Americans held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf—a Muslim separatist group. After the events of September 11, there’s also concern that the southern islands off of Mindanao could become home to al-Qaeda operatives. And with bombs exploding across the Philippines and the rest of Asia, the stability of the entire region is in jeopardy.

But terrorism is nothing new to the Philippines.

During the 15th century, Islam found its way to the island with the arrival of Arab traders. From the time of their arrival through the period of Spanish rule, Muslims in the south lived in independent sultanates. It wasn’t until the U.S. colonial period that these areas were fully incorporated into the Philippines. Today, 4.6 percent of the population is Muslim, and there are three predominantly Muslim areas—Mindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi—each of which has its own Imam. In Manila itself, there are close to 500,000 Muslims.

Of course, not all Muslims pose a threat to the national security of the Philippines. The real problems began in the 1960s when certain extremist groups were organized to oppose democratic reform and vitally important economic development. Philippine-Malaysian tensions over the region of Sabah led to covert Malaysian support for Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines.

In Muslim Rulers and Rebels (1998), Thomas M. McKenna describes how the modern movement for Muslim separatism originated among a small set of students and intellectuals. From this movement emerged three main groups, two of which continue to thrive today.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed in 1968. Its leader, Nur Misuari, had received training in the Middle East. The organization itself received significant backing from Muslims in Libya and Malaysia. Jane’s Security News estimates that at the height of its power, the group had some 15,000 armed fighters waging a brutal guerrilla war against the government.

In 1996 Misuari and the Philippine government negotiated a peace settlement (called the ARMM agreement), and Misuari was elected governor of a newly formed Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The 28-year conflict between the Philippine government and the MNLF’s armed wing, the Bangsa Moro Army, had cost tens of thousands of lives. And then, after a couple years of peace under the new agreement, Misuari went back to his old ways. Afraid that he would be stripped of his governorship after charges of corruption, he undertook another armed rebellion in November 2001. The uprising failed, and he fled to Malaysia where officials arrested and extradited him. Misuari now sits in prison awaiting trial.

The ARMM agreement wasn’t the first attempt by the Philippine government to negotiate with the MNLF. After a cease-fire in 1977, the government and the MNLF signed the Tripoli Agreement, which was to grant autonomy to 13 provinces. Dissatisfied with MNLF’s conciliatory approach to the government, the then vice-chairman of MNLF, Salamat Hashim, broke off and formed the radical Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

According to Mohagher Iqbal, chief information officer of the MILF, the organization’s goal is clear: a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines. “Mindanao and Sulu is our historical homeland, where the Moros, also known as the Bangsamoro people, are concentrated,” he told me. “This region had been independent even prior to the coming of the European conquistadors in 1521.”

But the extremist group that has garnered the most attention is the Abu Sayyaf (“Bearer of the Sword”). The most violent and radical of the separatist groups, it became a household name after kidnapping American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. Abu Sayyaf split away from the MILF in the early 1990s. It is said to have had 4,000 members at its peak. But the Philippine military has been aggressively pursuing the group, and many say Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are now on the run.

The conflict in the Philippines has lately been complicated by the reemergence of Communist guerrillas funded by the Chinese drug trade. In early August, the exiled Communist leader Jose Maria Sison called on the New People’s Army (NPA) to launch “new kinds of special operations” that would raze parts of the country’s infrastructure and to “deliver telling blows to the regime in terms of calculated economic disruption,” the Inquirer News Service reported. Sison also called on the MNLF and MILF to “simultaneously launch attacks on the government in a tactical alliance.”

Terrorism isn’t the only force working to destabilize democracy and economic development in the Philippines: The country is also plagued with corruption at nearly every level of government. Here, at least, the propaganda of the guerrilla groups is not far off the mark. When Frank Ricciadone, the American ambassador to the Philippines, recently suggested that corruption was costing the country foreign investment, he was roundly rebuked by members of the Philippine government. Archbishop Oscar Cruz of Lingayen-Dagupan came to his defense, saying that corruption was “endemic in the government structure and is inherited from administration to administration.”

During my time in the Philippines, I got a firsthand glimpse of low-level corruption. I was in a cab headed for the Central Market in Manila. Traffic had been moving at a fast clip, when it suddenly came to a long standstill. When I asked my driver what was going on, he replied, “There is a policeman at the light.” A policeman but no accident. Seeing that I was puzzled, the driver smiled and pointed to the street vendors selling small towels for cleaning windows. They seemed to be doing a brisk business, and yet the windows of all the jeepneys were still filthy.

“The police stand at the intersection and check the jeepney drivers to see if they have the towel,” the driver explained. “If they don’t, they risk getting a ticket. The vendors sell the towels for twice their real value. They keep half and the other half goes to the police officer.”

The Philippine Republic is a Catholic country and one of the only Christian countries in Asia (newly independent East Timor is another). Catholicism first came to this island nation with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. When Magellan discovered the Philippines, he was mainly interested in expanding the spice trade, but he soon became “mesmerized by the vision of converting the people to Christianity,” as Stanley Karnow writes in his book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (1989). Magellan believed that missionaries would find a ready audience in the Philippines. And he was right. Today, Catholics make up between 85 and 89 percent of the population.

From jeepneys bearing the sign “Christ Is King” to the man on the street with eight children who told me he “could never get the timing right on the natural family planning,” Catholicism is part of everyday life for the average Filipino. Every Wednesday night, people throughout the country gather in churches for veneration of the Virgin Mary.

As Catholics, we share a faith with the Philippines. As Americans, we share a long history. On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey was ordered to sink a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, and U.S. troops soon took control of Manila. President William McKinley eventually annexed the Philippines after a brutal three-year campaign against the nascent Philippine Republic under Emilio Aquinaldo. McKinley later revealed that God had instructed him to “bear the white man’s burden.” This was the beginning of our complicated relationship with the Philippines.

Over time, the United States allowed its colony more and more independence. Karnow writes that the United States was quite “liberal by colonial standards.” In 1935, it granted the Philippines partial autonomy under a commonwealth arrangement, and even earlier the U.S. government began implementing democratic institutions. It sent teachers who taught American English with an almost missionary enthusiasm. Within a single generation, literacy rates more than doubled. U.S. engineers built roads, bridges, and dams; they laid railroad tracks and opened airports. Officials implemented a tax system, helped to develop markets, and built Manila’s first sewage system.

Most Philippine institutions are modeled on the American system. The Philippine Constitution, for example, is based on ours. Its parliamentary system is a mirror image of the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The Philippine judicial system is based largely on American jurisprudence, about which its attorneys know a great deal. Look at any branch of the military in the Philippines, and the similarity to the American counterpart is unmistakable.

In almost every major war in the last century, Filipinos fought and died with American soldiers. During World War II, about 80,000 American and Filipino troops and civilians were captured by the Japanese and suffered in what was called the Bataan Death March. During the march and afterward at Camp Cabanatuan, tens of thousands died. By the time American and Filipino guerrilla forces liberated the camp, only 513 of the prisoners were still living.

Today the Philippines is our most important ally in Southeast Asia. Located about 700 miles southeast of Hong Kong and due east of Vietnam, the Philippines gives the United States a strong strategic foothold in the region.

In the mid-1990s, the Philippine government uncovered an amazing conspiracy headed by Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center garage bombing and a known associate of Osama bin Laden. Yousef was asked by bin Laden himself to train members of Abu Sayyaf in high explosives. In The New Jackals (1999), Simon Reeve writes that American investigators believed that the “Abu Sayyaf was nothing more than a collection of amateur guerillas until bin Laden’s money (and Yousef’s training) made them a more efficient fighting force.”

In what is known as the Bojinka plot, Yousef planned to blow up eleven jumbo jets in mid-flight. He also planned to have a plane flown into CIA headquarters. Some have speculated that Yousef’s plot was the seed of an idea finally realized on September 11. The Philippine government also discovered a plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II during a visit to Manila in 1995. All of this planning was foiled when Yousef accidentally set fire to his apartment.

After the September 11 attacks, Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was the first Asian leader to offer unconditional support to President George W. Bush and the American people. The Philippines opened up its air space and coordinated intelligence with counterparts here in the States. It immediately passed an anti-money laundering bill to prevent terrorists from funneling money through the Philippines.

The Philippines was once a major tourist destination, but because of the recent political upheaval and the highly publicized kidnappings of foreigners, the country has been seeing fewer and fewer visitors each year. A large part of the Philippine economy has depended on revenue from the tourism industry for development and infrastructure, and as a result of the falloff, both are suffering.

The guerrilla war being waged by such groups as the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf also discourages foreign investment. The rebels believe the solution to the abject poverty of the south is total independence; and in the name of independence, they are willing to kidnap, bomb, and generally terrorize their opponents.

But while the leaders of these groups speak of independence, the rank-and-file members—those who execute the orders, those with the guns—are simply trying to feed their families. Most MILF recruits are young, unemployed Muslims from economically depressed towns and villages. For them, the MILF is a job opportunity.

And so the problem continues to spiral: High unemployment fills the ranks of the terrorist groups, while terrorism undermines the economy, leading to more unemployment. The economic explanation is partial, to be sure; it would be a mistake to think that religion is only a sham pretext in this conflict. Nor does the economic situation provide terrorists at any level with an excuse. But to wave off the connection between poverty and terrorism in the Philippines is simply to turn away from the facts. The tuna fishing industry in Mindanao is one of the only industries left in the south. Down on the docks, one hears that many of the men who unload and prepare the tuna for market are former members of these extremist groups. As soon as they were able to find employment here, they put their guns down and picked up a paycheck.

So how should the Philippines respond to the ongoing rhetoric and real danger posed by these rogue groups, each attempting to carve out a piece of this island nation for itself? It is a tremendously complex situation, with Muslim extremists, Communist insurgents, and corrupt government officials all undermining the country’s political and economic stability.

The first step toward reform has already been taken. President Arroyo is a strong and honest executive administrator—something the country needs desperately. Including Marcos and Estrada, the Philippines saw several unreliable, self-enriching leaders who have fleeced the country and left it vulnerable to corruption and revolt.

President Arroyo has committed herself to reducing poverty in the Philippines. But she cannot do this alone. America’s first instinct has been to help struggling economies by sending foreign aid in the form of loans and grants, and this approach has its place. While in Manila I had a chance to learn about a recent program set up by the U.S. government to provide financial assistance for Muslims in Mindanao. Administered through USAID, the program is designed to build up a sustainable economy for the region by focusing on agriculture and infrastructure. But such programs are not by themselves a permanent solution. Grants only go so far, and the developing countries that receive big loans often end up crushed under a mountain of debt. What the Philippines needs above all is more foreign investment—and the jobs that this provides.

What does the Philippines have to offer foreign companies looking for a new base of operations? More than you might think. For all the country’s recent troubles, it is still the most vibrant democratic system in Southeast Asia. The Philippines has the freest press in the region, and it is remarkably open to the West. Already a number of U.S. companies have moved to the Philippines. United Parcel Service has stationed its intra-Asia hub there. Companies like American Express and America Online (AOL) have built call centers there. When you call AOL customer service, there’s a good chance that you will reach a representative in the Philippines. Why? Because it’s good business: Reduced operating costs and less restrictive tax codes improve these companies’ profit margins.

As the United States looks for ways to counter terrorist movements in the Philippines and elsewhere, it must not hesitate to address the economic dimension of the problem. No one believes that Muslim rebels despise the West only because they are poor—the postcolonial antipathy goes very deep, right to the core of the Muslim minority’s culture. But if groups like the Abu Sayyaf have gained ground in recent years, it is partly because they have appealed to the desperation of an underclass that has nothing to lose. People with homes and good jobs—people who think they have something to live for and something to live on—will not long tolerate groups that threaten the safety and welfare of everyone, Christian and Muslim alike.

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