From March 23 to 27, 2002 an International Peace Mission visited Basilan, Zamboanga City and Cotabato City in Southern Philippines. The following article is a compilation of edited extracts from "Basilan: the next Afghanistan?", the report of the peace mission.
The Next Afghanistan?
BASILAN IS A SMALL ISLAND PROVINCE that has not known peace for the past thirty years.
Part of the Mindanao region, Basilan has been host to a long-playing war waged between Muslim secessionist groups and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) since the 1970s. Then, beginning in the early 1990s, Basilan became the headquarters of the Abu Sayyaf, a group that started out as an extremist Islamic movement but which eventually resorted to kidnapping and beheading tourists. In February this year, American soldiers started landing on the island for joint military exercises with the Philippine military on actual combat zones.
The War in Mindanao
For the past few centuries, Mindanao, where Basilan is located, has carved a history and nurtured an identity that is markedly different from the rest of the country.(1) It is the only predominantly Muslim region in the Philippines, Asia's largest Christian country. While the rest of the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish for more than three hundred years, the Muslims in Mindanao consistently successfully resisted the colonizers' repeated attempts to establish sovereignty over their region.
When the Americans replaced the Spanish at the turn of the century, they began to implement policies that would later be followed and pursued more vigorously by successive Filipino regimes. They sponsored massive migration from the Christian regions in the north; huge corporate investments were poured into the region; and a non-Muslim bureaucracy was erected to administer the provinces.
As a result, the Muslims and the other indigenous communities in Mindanao were displaced and had ever since been marginalized economically and politically. At the turn of the previous century, Muslims comprised 80% of the total population of Mindanao. Now it has reversed in favor of the settlers. Before the coming of the Americans, Mindanao had a thriving economy more robust than the rest of the colony. Now the poorest provinces in the country are to be found in the Muslim provinces in Mindanao.
In the late 60s, terror squads widely believed to be backed by Christian politicians and companies that needed more lands for their operations began harassing Muslims systematically. In 1971, vigilantes attacked a mosque and left 65 men, women, and children dead. Two years before that, 28 Muslim army trainees were massacred in a military camp, thereby inciting widespread Muslim indignation.
What followed was the launching of an organized movement that waved the flag of war for the independence of Muslim Mindanao from the rest of the Philippines. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) took leadership of the movement and was able to gain the backing of the Organization of Islamic Countries. In 1984, a group of leaders disgruntled with the MNLF's secular orientation broke away and founded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a movement that espouses the creation of an Islamic state in Mindanao.
The last thirty years in Mindanao were marked by offensives and counter-offensives between the secessionist movements and the military, punctuated only by failed attempts to secure peace through negotiations. Through all that, Basilan became one of the war's battlegrounds and reliable source of fresh recruits for the rebels. Through it all, the fuel of war was not primarily religious intolerance but rather, political and economic injustice.
The Rise of the Abu Sayyaf
Then, in the early 1990s, just as things were beginning to quiet down - from weariness but not from resolution - Basilan became the ground base of the Abu Sayyaf, a group that initially fought for an Islamic state but which eventually resorted to regular and high profile and high profit kidnapping for ransom.
As a result, new battalions have been stationed in the island, new camps have opened, and more brigades have been sent in - ostensibly as part of a concerted effort to wipe out what has been dismissed by the national government as a small but savage bandit group. There are military checkpoints on the rough roads all over the island. Aside from the rebels and the bandits, there are militia groups such as the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUS) and the Civilian Volunteers Organizations (CVOs). Up to 12,000 of them are roaming all over the island, all armed with Armalites and Garands. At first glance, it is often difficult to distinguish the soldier from the militiaman, the police from the civilian, the bandit from the rebel.
And from the point of view of the soldier, it has often been difficult to distinguish the bandit from the civilian. In the intensified military operations against the Abu Sayyaf, it is often the innocent civilians who have borne the brunt of war.
The Coming of the Americans
For the most part, Basilan's perennial estrangement with peace has only been the intermittent concern of an insecure republic and the daily reality of its war-weary inhabitants. Before the Abu Sayyaf's well-covered kidnapping of European tourists, Basilan was virtually unknown to the rest of the world.
All these changed when, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States vowed to hunt and crush terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization wherever they may roam. In his State of the Nation address, President George W. Bush repeated the US' resolve to annihilate "breeding grounds of terrorism.(2)" The US identified the Abu Sayyaf as among the terrorist groups with links to bin Laden and Basilan as its breeding ground. Thus, even before the ultimate goal of arresting bin Laden was achieved in Afghanistan, the US had already targeted Basilan as the next battlefield of its endless war. Shortly after, American troops started landing on the island, to take part - or so the official line goes - in war games with the Philippine military.
In February this year, US Special Operations Forces have been landing in the country supposedly for war games or joint training exercises with the Philippine military. A fraction of them are stationed in Basilan - a strange case of a war game being conducted in actual combat zones. Unlike previous exercises which usually lasted for a maximum of three months, this one will be staged from six months to a year with open options for extension. It will be the longest "military exercises" undertaken by the Philippine military.
Because the arrival of US military personnel in the country has been the largest single deployment of US troops since the war in Afghanistan, the Philippines has been touted by the international media as the "second front" in the US' war against terrorism.(3) US Senator Sam Brownback who sits on the foreign relations committee was quoted as saying: "It appears the Philippines is going to be the next target after Afghanistan.(4)"
1. For more on the history of the conflict in Mindanao, see Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch (eds.) Rebels, Warlords, and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines, (Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, 2000)
2. "Bush pledges to wipe out RP terror cells" Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 31, 2000.
3. "The Philippines: War on terror's second front" in http://asia.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/southeast/04/16/phil.blair/
4. "US Senator says RP next Afghanistan" Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 18, 2000.