From Sun Jun 11 10:29:39 2000
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 00:20:28 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: POLITICS-PHILIPPINES: Unrest in Muslim South Has Economic Roots
Article: 98004
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Unrest in Muslim South Has Economic Roots

IPS, 8 June 2000

MANILA, Jun 8 (IPS)—When the Philippine government unveiled in January a peace and development plan for the country's twin insurgencies, it was under no delusion that the blueprint would put an instant end to the communist and Muslim rebellions.

But it could not have foreseen that the unrest in the country's south, where the Muslim insurgency is being fought, would take a turn for the worse just a few months after.

It also could have not expected that the elected Muslim governor of the autonomous region there would later denounce Manila before the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and announce the revival of his group's fight for an independent Muslim Mindanao.

Misuari's camp denies this, but the OIC meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia last week called on the Philippines to halt immediately its military offensive against the Bangsamoro (Muslim) people and reach a peaceful solution to the problem in Mindanao.

Today, the government of this mainly Roman Catholic country not only has to try to win the freedom of almost 30 hostages held by the extremist Abu Sayyaf group in two areas in Mindanao, in southernmost Philippines, while pursuing all-out war against the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

It also has to deal with a suddenly combative Nur Misuari, governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and founder of another Muslim-based group, the now moribund Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The three—the Abu Sayyaf, MILF and MNLF—are Muslim-based groups that seek greater self-rule for Filipino Muslims, which number some 6 million in this country of 80 million people.

The Abu Sayyaf, which means 'bearer of the sword', was organised in 1992 by young Muslims who attended Islamic schools in the Middle East and are believed to have fought with the Afghan 'mujahideen' against the Soviet Union.

The bigger MILF, estimates of whose strength range from 15,000 to 40,000 members, began as a breakaway group from the MNLF. It wants a separate Islamic state in the south and an East-Timor type referendum there.

The MNLF was the first secessionist group to take up arms against the government and led a violent rebellion that peaked in the seventies, but reached a peace accord with the government in 1996.

Officials in Manila have been livid following reports that Misuari last week told the OIC that his group would revive its campaign for an independent Mindanao because the government had not been true to the provisions of the peace accord it signed with the MNLF.

Some officials are now calling for Misuari to step down as governor of the autonomous region of Mindanao, and account for some 20 billion pesos (470 million U.S. dollars) meant for the development of the still- backward area.

Yet while others say Misuari's MNLF can no longer launch an effective armed campaign, they note that a rethink may be in order in the way the government implements the economic part of its solution to the Mindanao conflict.

They say the experience of the Mindanao autonomous region—meant to address decades-long demands for self-rule by Filipino Muslims and which consists of four provinces—shows that Manila cannot simply channel funds into Mindanao and assume they would be used in the way they were intended.

It has not been lost to Manila that part of the reason why the rebellion persists in the south is because of the grinding poverty there, as well as the marginalisation of minorities, including Muslims.

The anti-insurgency plan introduced by the government in January, in fact, called for a two-pronged approach to the communist and Muslim insurgencies that have been taking place simultaneously.

It said that aside from strong military action against the rebels, socio-economic development was also vital in the areas where they operate.

Sulu province, where the Abu Sayyaf is holding the 19 foreign and two Filipino hostages it kidnapped in April, has the lowest human development ranking, lowest education index and lowest income index in the Philippines.

The autonomous Mindanao region also has the lowest literacy rate in the country, with 73.5 percent compared to 98.8 percent for the capital Manila.

Victor Corpus, who presided over the committee that drafted the counter-insuregency plan, says the problem in Mindanao is rooted in poverty ignorance, disease and graft and corruption.

Corpus, a soldier-turned-communist rebel during the Marcos regime, added that while the military approach was needed to subdue an armed group, the bigger job lies on the civilian agencies to deliver basic services.

There is no military solution to the problem in Mindanao, he said. For many years now, it's always the military approach that was given the emphasis in resolving the problems in Mindanao. Now is the time to push the civilian agencies to the frontlines.

Corpus added: You cannot convince the rebels to give up fighting unless they see economic development on the ground. If the rebels remain hungry, they will continue to fight, but if they are satisfied, they would never carry a gun.

He pointed out that neighbouring South-east Asian states like Thailand and Malaysia were able to address their insurgency problems by pouring more resources into troubled areas.

The Philippines under President Fidel Ramos tried to make Mindanao a gateway for tourism and investment by pursuing a peace deal with the MNLF and by pouring billions of pesos in the region afterwards, but the country now finds that these were not enough.

Analysts agree that one reason why even an extremist group like the Abu Sayyaf manages to get recruits is the usually desperate and dismal lives its members have in their hometowns.

They say it is really economics rather than ideology that motivates the Abu Sayyaf to kidnap people and then demand money for the board and lodging of their captives—which critics say is a euphemism for ransom.

So far, not only has the group been collecting fees from journalists who visit the Sipadan hostages. Last week it held some reporters captive before releasing them for 25,000 dollars.

In contrast, the Abu Sayyaf has gotten only bullets and bad press for the Filipino schoolchildren, teachers and a priest it had kidnapped earlier. It killed the priest and three of the teachers.

The Abu Sayyaf was seen initially as an ideological group seeking to create an Islamic state. But shortly after its birth, it embarked on a kidnapping and extortion spree that alienated even Muslim Filipinos.

Authorities thought they had it licked when its charismatic founder, Islamic scholar Abdurajak Janjalani was killed in 1998. But it has since resurfaced under Khaddafy Janjalani, Abdurajak's younger brother, who at one time complained of being unable to get a livelihood loan because of his last name.

Still, a development campaign may no longer be enough to end the Muslim unrest—and economic improvement in the South is no guarantee that the more ideologically minded would not continue to take up arms against Manila.

In fact, journalist Rigoberto Tiglao, who has written extensively on the Muslim rebellion, argues that it should be remembered that the MILF in particular considers its insurgency a 'jihad', a holy war to re- establish after several centuries an Islamic caliphate in Muslim-dominated areas in Mindanao.

Tiglao also says in an article this week in the 'Philippine Daily Inquirer' newspaper: According to the MILF's medieval version of Islam and the core belief of Muslim fundamentalism, it is against the Word of Allah for a secular state to govern over Muslims.

Manila's mistake, say some analysts, is that it failed to take the MILF seriously, assuming that it would die a natural death after the MNLF-Manila peace pact and the creation of the Mindanao autonomous region.

But the MILF has only grown stronger. Although it was the Abu Sayyaf's recent moves that had incensed it, the government has also declared an all-out war against the MILF.

Meantime however, it is also focusing on speeding up infrastructure and other projects in Mindanao. President Joseph Estrada on Tuesday pledged an 'immediate, comprehensive effort to rebuild houses, roads, schools and mosques destroyed in the conflict with the MILF.

We should not focus only on the military spending, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said. The President's instruction is to give the Mindanao operation full support.