While the Philippine armed forces were bombarding Muslim villages and towns in the south of the country, a large and powerful bomb exploded on March 4 at Davao airport in southern Philippines, killing dozens of foreigners.
On March 7 a bomb exploded near a girls’ school in Sultan Kudrat province, killing one man, in what authorities later claimed was a ‘suicide mission’ gone wrong. The incident followed a series of bombings in the Muslim-majority Mindanao. Such bombings are still relatively rare in the Philippines, despite the fact that the country has numerous armed groups, from the communists to nationalists and Muslim fighters who seek self-determination in the Muslim heartlands in the south.
The Abu Sayyaf, a tiny kidnap-for-ransom group operated by former military members and breakaway factions of armed rebellions, has claimed responsibility for the airport bombing and most of the others. The military, however, always claims that they were the work of Muslim fighters, namely the MILF and remnants of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The Philippines government has tried hard to link MILF with ‘terrorism’, including a car-bomb last month at Cotabato city airport in the south, as well as provoking military clashes with government troops. Like other legitimate armed Muslim groups, the MILF has been labelled a ‘terrorist organisation’. despite trying to convince Manila and the US that it is not linked to al-Qa’ida or Usama bin Ladin. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has recently re-launched her predecessors’ dirty war by bombing villages and towns in the south, despite a ceasefire and an impending peace conference between MILF and Manila officials, originally set for February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Last January, the stalled peace talks between MILF and Manila were postponed to February. Haj Murad Ibrahim, MILF’s chief negotiator, has said that the main reason for the delay was the inability of both parties to prepare properly for the talks. The talks were also marred by violations of the ceasefire agreement signed in 2001, mostly by Manila’s troops, as confirmed by Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), an independent international NGO, after a fact-finding mission.
Frustrated by ‘deficiencies’ in her country’s constitution, which prohibits any foreign troops from fighting on its territory even to combat rebels, Arroyo has used the tiny Abu Sayyaf group to seek US military cooperation to target the MILF, which has been taking and keeping ground despite being bombarded daily. The US has already stationed hundreds of special troops as part of its ‘war on terror’ in the Asia Pacific region. Last year more than 1,000 US troops were sent to Basilan and Zamboanga City to train and advise Philippine soldiers in combating threats posed by the Abu Sayyaf. On January 17 Donald Wurster, a US army general commander of the Hawaii-based Special Operations Command, led another reinforcement of 200 US troops to train Filipino soldiers to form light reaction units for combat missions; this time, the target was clearly spelt out: the MILF.
As suspected, the Philippine government’s "joint military exercise" with US troops, purportedly to help weed out kidnap groups, is a pretext to re-launch a large-scale military offensive against Muslims in the south, particularly the MILF. Since MILF’s stronghold at Camp Abu Bakar was annihilated by aerial bombardment in 2000, Manila and its armed forces have been hoping for a quick end to the Moro Muslims’ struggle. But this hope has proved vain: the Muslims regrouped and have been conducting successful operations against the army, despite being short of arms and ammunition.
The fall-out between Misuari and president Arroyo’s government also increased pressure on the Philippine government to work harder for peace, with many MNLF members now back in the jungle, fighting against Manila’s troops, although not alongside the MILF. During the last two years, the Philippine armed forces have suffered severe loss of life, in spite of being armed to the teeth by Washington, in numerous battles that they themselves provoked. This led to Manila agreeing to sit down with the MILF for peace talks, to be hosted by the Malaysian government, but (like now-jailed former president Joseph Estrada’s regime), Arroyo has been too impatient. With the US now solidly behind her, she hopes to end the fighting the way every other president would have wanted it.
Estrada tried to play the Catholic card by pitting the influential Church leaders and Christian masses against the Muslim community. His attempt failed: instead Church leaders called for Estrada to seek the "peaceful solution". Arroyo, for her part, may resurrect loose cannons in her administration during these desperate times. On March 7, for example, Rodrigo Duterte, Davao city’s mayor, openly called for an all-out war against the MILF, condemned the ongoing negotiations, and boasted: "The problem is, the government is always talking. Give me one year and I will finish off this problem."
Duterte, a former prosecutor, is known as a man who has no qualms about taking extrajudicial measures to find a solution he wants. Not long ago, he tried to tackle the drug-traficking menace by forming a deathsquad to kill suspects. Despite this, he has earned president Arroyo’s trust: she appointed him as adviser to the government’s anti-crime drive. Now, as a mayor of Davao, which has seen a spate of violence, Duterte has even suggested the introduction of martial laws and arrests without warrant.
Since Manila launched military offensives on February 11, hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the Philippines armed forces’ wrath. In the town of Pikit (North Cotabato) alone, more than 42,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, then forced by the military to return to their war-ravaged town. Troops have also worked with paramilitary forces to destroy mosques and loot or burn hundreds of Muslim houses, as happened in Maguindanao province on February 27.
In late February, however, the MILF began to inflict serious losses on government troops. However, whenever the MILF succeeded in their targets, the government would cry foul and accuse the Muslims of ‘terrorism’, despite the existence of another armed struggle in the Philippines: namely the Red Army, which is also locked in struggle against Manila. It attacked power-lines on February 26, causing a total blackout of Mindanao island.
Meanwhile, many Filipinos are uneasy that they are being made to pay for what seems to be an unending war. Analysts have warned that the Philippines’ economy is taking the turn for the worse, as the government concentrates more on military activity at the expense of the economy. To make matters worse, the government has a foreign debt of US$54.5 billion, making the Philippines one of the world’s most indebted countries. But as presidents come and go, the Muslim population in the south seem to be resigned to the fact that no regime in Manila can be trusted for a ceasefire agreement. Almost all incoming presidents vow to find a solution to the conflict; many leave with Muslim blood on their hands. Arroyo has already joined that dubious company.