Neglect fuels Philippines conflict

By Simon Ingram, BBC News Online, Tuesday 16 May 2000, 03:50 GMT 04:50 UK

On the streets of Jolo town it isn't just the plight of foreign hostages that people worry about.

Fear and insecurity are never far below the surface here. And no wonder—because this is the undeclared front line in an insurrection that won't go away.

These beautiful islands are among the most neglected and deprived corners of the country.

It's the perfect breeding ground for crime, rebellion and antagonism towards the Manila government which is trying to suppress the separatist struggle between Muslims and Christians.

Despite winning limited autonomy in 1996, the Muslim community—a minority today in a land they once ruled as their own—complains of poverty, neglect and discrimination. Some want outright independence.

It's a social problem, says university teacher Neri Halani, People do not have the economy of living, they don't have the resources to feed their families, to clothe themselves. It's high time the Manila people looked into the real causes.

Failed promises

The 1996 autonomy accord was meant to bring development, even a measure of prosperity, to what has traditionally been one of the poorest regions of the Philippines.

It's a promise that even the government in Manila admits has not been honoured.

Instead, Manila has sent the army—and in great numbers. A force of some 80,000 men is trying to suppress the latest upsurge in Islamic separatist violence across the south. The casualties on both sides have been unusually high.

The government's often ruthless tactics may in turn be provoking further extremism, like the rash of recent mass kidnappings, not just of foreigners, but of Filipino Christians.

One group of schoolchildren were freed after being held hostage for weeks by guerrillas of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf.

Three of their teachers and a priest were brutally murdered. In the broader Christian community, such crimes have left feelings running high.

My faith teaches me to forgive, says a priest, but then my human dimension also is telling me, 'How can I forgive if they have already killed people, if they have already done injustices to the Christian communities?'.

And there are alarming signs of an altogether more dangerous response. Christian villages are setting up vigilante group to protect themselves. Revenge kidnaps have taken place, targeting known Muslim separatists.

Guerrilla activity fuels tension

The mounting sectarian tensions are becoming a hot topic of discussion on local media chat shows. At Radio Mindanao, journalists make regular contact with the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

They sense that the group's recent upsurge in activity could tear an already divided community apart.

That is what we're afraid of, says the station manager, Rey Bayoging, that there will be a division and a religious war between the Muslim and the Christian ... we hope it won't happen.

In Christian towns like Zamboanga, roadblocks are in place after a spate of bomb attacks blamed on Muslim guerrillas.

But security alone won't halt the current flare-up in violence. A long-term answer to the Philippines' most intractable problem is more sorely needed than ever.