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 MEMBERS of the international peace mission went to Basilan alarmed by reports that its citizens were being subjected to military abuses and afraid that the presence of American troops would further heighten the tension and escalate the conflict in the region. The members of the mission disembarked on the island concerned that it would become, in the words of a US senator, "the next Afghanistan."
They were even more worried when they came out.
First, the evidence of human rights violations perpetrated by the military cannot be conveniently and convincingly brushed aside.
Despite the vehement denial of the government, the mission actually met and talked with people who claimed to have been arrested without warrants or tortured while in detention. The mission interviewed widows who said their husbands were extra-judicially executed. The mission talked with families who will be evicted from their lands. The last thing that the mission can say after having returned from Basilan is that reports of human rights violations there proved to be unfounded.
The peace mission is worried that with its blanket denial policy, the government will not only turn a blind eye to the victims, it will also do nothing to alleviate their condition and do nothing to prevent more violations. With this, the mission is worried that the Abu Sayyaf will grow even larger in numbers as human rights abuse victims eventually sign up for membership. For every civilian that the military arbitrarily arrests or tortures there are several more fresh recruits for the Abu Sayyaf.
Second, allegations of close cooperation between the hunter and the hunted were backed up by the testimonies of dozens of witnesses with nothing to gain by coming out except serious threats to their lives. They narrated a clear tale of connivance between the military, the local government, and the Abu Sayyaf. Military officers and local politicians are said to be supplying guns to the Abu Sayyaf, informing them of attack details, ignoring them when they pass through checkpoints, and ensuring that they escape whenever they are cornered.
With this, the mission members look at the possibility of military solutions resolving what is apparently a complicated political problem with reinforced skepticism. What is needed in Basilan are not more troops, more firepower, and more cutting edge equipment. What is needed there is a determined political will to weed out corrupt elements in the military and the government.
The peace mission is worried that the government's refusal to seriously look into and act on these allegations of corruption will ultimately be the reason why 5,000 soldiers have failed and may still fail to capture a band of 60 kidnappers. The government's penchant for looking the other way, by sending a signal of tacit approval, can only embolden corrupt officials to continue in their wayward ways. In the end, the civilian government's passive endorsement of the military's active complicity is more atrocious than the gruesome acts which they indirectly allow the Abu Sayyaf to perpetrate.
Third, all of the United States' avowed reasons for deploying troops in Basilan are groundless. They are not there to train soldiers that are more experienced in combat and more familiar with the terrain than them. They are not there to exterminate an Al Qaeda cell because the Abu Sayaff's supposed links to bin Laden have proven to be unsubstantiated. They are not there to rescue their hostages because the Philippine military, if it only stops informing the Abu Sayyaf of its attack schedule, could very well do that for them. In other words, the Americans are not in Basilan for any of the above reasons.
Because of these well-justified doubts about their motives, the peace mission is inclined to believe that US forces are seeing action in Basilan for reasons more strategic. The peace mission is worried that the US may be laying the groundwork for establishing and expanding a more direct military presence in southern Philippines to ward off Muslim revivalist movements in Southeast Asia. The peace mission is worried that the Philippines' sovereignty will be impaired not only by relying on an external actor to solve its own domestic woes; but more so, by allowing itself to be used in advancing national interests that it does not share. The peace mission is troubled by the increased possibility of renewed and reinvigorated fighting stoked by the presence of the United States on the islands.
It did not help to assuage the mission's anxieties that, despite assurances to the contrary, the national and local government made it more difficult for the peace mission to conduct its investigation. The provincial governor prevented the mission from entering a jail housing the strongest collective proof of human rights violations in the province. There was evidently a deliberate effort to prevent victims from coming out in a congressional hearing. Ranking officers of the Philippine and US military who had made commitments to dialogue with the mission members were nowhere to be found on the appointed time.
It seemed as though the Philippine government was intent on giving the impression that there is something that it did not want the mission to see. It kept saying that there is nothing to hide but it did not want the mission to see this for themselves.
Despite the limited time and the lack of cooperation from the government, however, a broad picture of abuse, corruption, and looming escalation emerged and stories that have to be told were heard and will now be retold again.
In light of the Philippine government's policy of denial and inaction regarding these disturbing findings, the international peace mission issues a strong call to action to the United Nations, the European Parliament, the US Congress, Amnesty International and all other international organizations committed to upholding the human rights of people everywhere to take up the plight of the people of Basilan. We specifically recommend:
Unless we act now, the rights of the helpless people of Basilan will continue to be abused. More and more human rights victims will be compelled to become fresh recruits for the Abu Sayyaf and the conflict will only heighten. Unless we act now, the collusion between the military and the Abu Sayyaf will remain unchecked. Innocent civilians as well as honest soldiers will continue to be the victims. Unless we act now, the US presence in southern Philippines may ignite a conflict wider and graver than the one raging now.
Unless we act now, Basilan may yet really become, in a sense, "the next Afghanistan."
The International Peace Mission to Basilan was made possible by the generous support of Inter Pares, Novib, Oxfam Solidarity, Oxfam Hong Kong and 11-11-11 (NCOS).