History rerun in the Philippines – ISN

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Monument for Peace and Unity in Davao City, Mindanao, Philippines (ISN)

Monument for Peace and Unity in Davao City, Mindanao, Philippines (ISN)

Fear pervades that just as certain politicians in Manila have used the southern conflict for their own ends, so too will Islamist extremists, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came through a fourth impeachment attempt last week in a rerun of previous initiatives by opposition lawmakers seeking to tie her to allegations of vote-rigging after her 2004 re-election.

Shaky administrations and opposition heaves against the incumbent are nothing new to Manila, long a sort of quasi-metonymy for colorful political strife. Arroyo herself came to power from the vice-presidency after unseating Joseph Estrada, a former movie star whose tenure was overshadowed by allegations of graft, troubles that tarnished his cinema image of a folksy anti-illustrado (Philippine elite) archetype.

One diversion used by Erap – to give the still-popular Estrada his nickname – was to intensify war against Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines, and attempt to focus public and media attention away from the controversies surrounding his government.

It did not work, and in the Philippines’ aggressive and cantankerous political discourse was soon seen for the ruse it was, and Estrada was driven from office in 2001 after thousands took to the streets in protest (though in a somewhat contrived rehash of the 1986 Peoples Power Revolution) and ending with a Supreme Court decision stripping Estrada of his office.

The 1986 revolution took down the long-running klepto-dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who in his day used the south as an excuse to beef up the army, creating a culture of patronage that ensured it took until it was deposed. Arroyo too has been accused of manipulating the southern conflict for her ulterior political ends, firstly to take attention away from the impeachment controversies.

The southern Philippine islands were the last to succumb to the US forces, which claimed the Asian archipelago after the Spanish-American War at the start of the 20th Century. These islands are partly inhabited by Moros – the name derived from the Spanish word for Moors, or Muslims, when Spain first reached the Philippines in 1521 – just a few decades after expelling the Moors from Spain. The Moros received Islam from traders and missionaries crossing the sea from modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia, around a century or so before the Spaniards brought Christianity to the rest of what became the Philippines.

The southern Philippines has been a battleground for most of the archipelago’s post-independence history. Moros, resentful of Christian rule and migration into the south, launched a series of guerrilla wars starting the late 1960s, which various Manila administrations struggled to deal with.

A long-running peace process, or series of peace processes, have failed to bring real reconciliation or political stability in the south. While the oldest Moro resistance group – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has long-signed on to the autonomy offered by Manila, but MILF split-off to form its own militia in the early 1980s, becoming the main Moro insurgent group after the MNLF signed a 1996 on autonomy for some regions of Mindanao.

Regional turmoil enabled al-Qaida affiliates to gain a foothold in the region in the guise of a small but brutal group known as Abu Sayyaf, whose most notable exploits include kidnappings of western tourists and terror attacks on Manila and other large cities.

Rumors have abounded – although sometimes peddled by the army – that Abu Sayyaf receives, now and again, at least tacit support from rogue elements in MILF. A series of arrests and assassinations by the army have left Abu Sayyaf weakened of late, but what MILFs own leadership deems rogue elements rampaged through a number of Christian towns in August, after the latest attempt at a political settlement between MILF and Manila failed.

These attacks were led by three MILF commanders, and along with the army counter-attacks, displaced over half a million people in matter of weeks. The brutality of the MILF assault – including the now-notorious murder of a toddler girl called Love-Love, shocked the nation. With local militias being formed as a defense against the MILF – or its rogue commanders – the situation on the ground in flashpoint areas may be slipping out of control, in parallel with the apparent collapse of the macro-level peace process between the government and the MILF top brass.

The latest attempt at political settlement gave Moros far more than what had previously been offered by Manila in a deal brokered by Malaysia. The Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain [MOA-AD], signed by the Filipino Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in August 2008 would have given control of around 700 additional towns and villages on Mindanao to Bangsamoros (r Moros for short). Moros currently has some self-government under the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), granted under older, half-implemented or stillborn peace deals between Manila and various Muslim groups from the southern islands, which lie close to Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Supreme Court shot down the US-backed agreement saying, “The furtive process by which the [deal] was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise thereof.”

Local non-Moro politicians lobbied hard against the deal, but implementation might have required the altering of the Philippine Constitution, a precedent that some analysts feel would have then facilitated Arroyo enabling herself to run for a third term.

Malaysia last week announced that it was withdrawing the last of its peace-monitoring troops from Mindanao, but did not comment on whether it would retain its role as peace broker after the MOA-AD was shot down. With trust between the government and the rebels almost bottomed-out, international mediation will be vital to any revived peace process, and the withdrawal of the Muslim Malaysian interlocutors and soldiers leaves what will hopefully be only a temporary gap.

But the fear pervades that just as certain politicians in Manila have used the southern conflict for their own ends, so too will Islamist extremists. A revived Abu Sayyaf could relaunch more terror on urban centers, while Jemaah Islamiyah and other al-Qaida allies – weakened in Indonesia, but vengeful after the recent Bali bomber executions – could seek and find sanctuary in the south, where a renewed war would facilitate terrorist operations.

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