KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 3 / July-August-September 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Poverty and Power in Basilan: The USA'S Second Front in the War on Terror
by Lee Rhiannon, Greens MP, New South Wales Parliament
LEE RHIANNON WAS A MEMBER OF THE INTERNATIONAL PEACE MISSION THAT VISITED BASILAN, ZAMBOANGA CITY AND COTABATO CITY IN SOUTHERN PHILIPPINES FROM MARCH 23 TO 27 THIS YEAR.
THE CHILDREN were crying incessantly. The woman spoke quietly in a pained voice. She was heavily pregnant. Sula (not her real name) was telling myself and other members of the International Peace Mission what happened when members of the Philippine Armed Forces raided her village on Basilan, a small island in the southern Philippines. This is the area targeted by President George W. Bush as the second front in the war against terror.
This was turning out to be a harrowing day. Earlier we had heard from residents of Basilan who had been victims of the Abu Sayyaf, the bandit group, notorious for kidnapping locals and overseas tourists. Now we were with women from central Basilan, populated in the main by people of the Muslim faith.
Sula explained how the previous Sunday between 4 and 5 a.m. her husband woke up and went to wash in preparation for morning prayers. Suddenly members of the Philippine military appeared and people fled. At sometime in the chaotic situation that ensued Sula said her husband was taken away by members of the Philippine army. She has not seen him since and has been told that he was killed.
Dusk descends quickly near the equator and as we sat in a small gloomy room with Sula, two of her children, and two other women from the same village, I came to appreciate why it was so important that the International Peace Mission had come to Basilan. Fear and uncertainty dominates this island.
The dynamic leader of Focus on the Global South, Professor Walden Bello, had assembled 14 people from seven countries to participate in the International Peace Mission. Our brief was not to collect forensic evidence or take down detailed testimony. We were there to investigate reports of civilian causalities, arbitrary arrests and displacement of affected communities in Basilan and Zamboanga, in southern Mindanao.
The International Peace Mission commenced its work in March with the clear perspective that military solutions promoted by the US administration in Afghanistan and now in the southern Philippines would worsen any local conflict. While members of the peace mission and our Filipino hosts held these ideas we did meet a number of local people who were pleased that US armed forces had arrived.
Mr Rubio Biel, the Mayor of Basilan's capital Isabela, is a strong backer of the US forces. He proudly stated "We welcome the US with open arms, open legs, open everything", a message that reinforced our growing concerns that Filipino women would bear the brunt of much of the US operations. This outrageous statement was matched by Mayor Biel's support for using nuclear weapons "if that's what it takes" to bring "peace" to Basilan. As the fans whirled and the sweat poured off us, our sense of unease grew.
Under other circumstances Basilan could have been one of those idyllic tropical islands. But years of colonisation and neglect by far distant Manila administrations has left this little speck in the Sulu Sea largely a place of hardship and misery for the majority of its citizens. Only one in every four families in Basilan has access to health facilities and safe drinking water. The National Statistics Office ranks Basilan as the poorest region in the Philippines. Basilan is of interest to the USA because of its strategic location in southeast Asia.
When President Bush needed another frontier to eliminate what he described in his January 30 State of the Nation address as the "breeding grounds of terrorism" Basilan had all the ingredients to allow the White House spin doctors to justify the invasion and occupation of another foreign land. In the early 1990s Basilan had became the ground base for the Abu Sayyaf, a group that initially fought for an Islamic state but which in more recent years has become a criminal operation specialising in kidnapping as a means to illicit monetary ransoms.
With talk of links between the Al Quaeda and Abu Sayyaf fuelling White House global scare tactics the justification was in place for the US military to move into southern Philippines. The formalisation of the Balikatan Agreement, the name for the joint US and AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) military 'exercises', has been the cover for the 660 US troops based on Mindanao and Basilan to undertake military operations. Latest reports suggest that around 5000 US troops are now stationed in the Philippines.
The return of US troops, 11 years after their last military base in the Philippines was shut down, has been met with protest rallies and demonstrations. But there are some Filipinos keen to tell myself and other members of the International Peace Mission that they support the arrival of US troops. This is not surprising. People are desperate for a circuit breaker to end the decades of violence and hardship. Death and deprivation have left a palpable atmosphere of fear and uncertainty throughout southern Philippines.
Much of the evidence assembled by the International Peace Mission points to the direct involvement of the AFP in human rights abuses. The Basilan Provincial Gaol provided clear proof of the violation of human rights. Of its 113 detainees, all squeezed into five small cells, 62 said they had been arrested without warrants.
A pregnant woman, children and a man more than 65 years old were among the prisoners. Most of those detained had been held on suspicion of being Abu Sayyaf members for seven months, without any charges being filed. Some of the prisoners explained that electric shock torture has been used to extract confessions.
One of the most disturbing events for the Mission was when we "bumped" into US and Philippine soldiers on patrol. This was on our last day on the island of Mindanao. We were visiting the Subanens, a local indigenous people, who are strongly opposed to US and Philippine Government plans to occupy 50 hectares of their land for jungle warfare exercises. While the members of the Mission were meeting with about 50 Subanens a seven-person patrol moved through the village. Made up of four Filipino and three US soldiers the exercise was highly intimidatory. When we asked villagers if this had happened before they said it was the third such incident where the troops suddenly arrived, walked through their village and at no time would they speak to anyone.
According to Subanen Chief, Navo Lambo, 17 families will be forced to evacuate if the military are granted their land. This would mean the loss of their livelihood from working the land and violation of their traditional burial grounds and prayer areas.
Evidence of human rights abuses has continued to come in since our Mission visited Basilan. The Philippine Government's Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights in April sent three Senators to this region to investigate. The stories of torture, arbitrary arrests and involuntary disappearances relayed by local people to this parliamentary inquiry still have not been followed up. During one hearing an elderly Muslim woman testified how she found her son dead three days after he had been arrested last September by the Philippine Marines on suspicion of being part of the Abu Sayyaf. She said, "I found where my son was buried. Half of his body was buried in the ground. His sex organ was cut off, his tongue was cut off, his bones were broken," Mrs Anisa Anggulo stated.
Many believe that the findings of the International Peace Mission and of the Senate Inquiry are only the tip of the iceberg. Fact-finding missions can only interview so many people and few of these come from the isolated areas of Basilan.
Tragically Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sees the presence of US forces as a means to achieve her objectives. She is pushing for constitutional reversion in the Philippines to a federalist structure with guarantees for foreign ownership and for US military presence to be legitimised. And there are growing indications that President Arroyo's enthusiastic support for the US is about to extend to a call for the US to lead a Christian alliance in the Philipines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. The island of Basilan is located between Malaysia and Indonesia; so providing an excellent strategic position for US operations in this region.
While the US-led Christian alliance is yet to develop, President Arroyo's dependence on US interests for her survival is worrying many Filipinos. The former Mayor of New York City, Rudolf Guiliani has been hired as President Arroyo's "consultant on peace and security" for what is reported to be a fee of millions of US dollars. This appointment plus the establishment of a Board of International Advisers on economic affairs suggests that the direction and management of the Philippines is being taken over by overseas interests.
Despite the millions of dollars spent by the Philippines Government on public relations, disillusionment with the US solution has grown since the botched rescue mission of Abu Sayyaf kidnap victims. After months of training with US forces the Philippine military in June killed two kidnap victims, injured one and failed to capture any of the Abu Sayyaf leaders. While US officials maintain that their involvement was limited to providing intelligence and communication support, some Filipino officials said that US operatives directed the action.
While this initially looked like the botched end to one chapter of the US war on terror the White House administration has not made any moves to wind up their operations in the Philippines. Their proof of Abu Sayyaf terror connections have always been tenuous. Even Philippine government sources have never asserted that the Abu Sayyaf are large in numbers. Prior to President Arroyo signing up with the war on terror her own officials acknowledged that the Abu Sayyaf were fewer than 200 and she insisted on calling them bandits rather than rebels. But now the President is making the most of the war on terror for her own domestic agenda, the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang has been reclassified as being an Osama bin Laden cell to help justify a heavy US presence that includes US surveillance aircraft flying all over the Philippines building up intelligence on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the New Peoples Army (NPA).
Progressive forces in the Philippines are now concerned that the MILF and NPA will be the focus of US operations as they have always been high on President Arroyo's hit list. The US is also out to reassert its power in southeast Asia.
Meanwhile the majority of people living on Basilan live in poverty, many fearing for their personal safety. While officially there is no curfew nor a state of emergency on the island, nobody dares to venture out of their homes when it is dark. Basilan, including the capital city of Isabela, is like a 'no go' zone by 8 p.m. In the suburb of Tabuk, in Isabela city, at least 45 residents have been picked up by military operatives in ski masks without arrest warrants. Some had been brought to Manila, while others are languishing at the provincial gaol without any lawyers.
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 US troops would further heighten the tension and escalate the conflict in the region. We were concerned that Basilan would become, in the words of a US senator, "the next Afghanistan." We were even more worried at the end of our visit.
The International Peace Mission in its final report called on international institutions and organisations, parliaments, multilateral agencies, and civil society movements to contribute in any meaningful way to the alleviation of the condition of a people caught in the crossfire of a war not of their own making. Previous conflicts in many other parts of the world have been resolved through the committed mediation of third parties dedicated to dialogue and reconciliation. This is the kind of mediation urgently needed in Basilan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: While still at school in the 60s, LEE RHIANNON was already active in the peace movement. In the 70s she took part in anti-apartheid protests and got involved in the women's movement. She graduated from the University of New South Wales with Science Honours. In the 80s she was an organiser of the Pine Gap women's peace camp, and founded the Coalition for Gun Control. Lee has been a member of The Greens Party since 1991. She was elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 1999. Her term expires in March 2007.
For more information about Lee and about The Greens Party, visit her web site at http://www.lee.greens.org.au/
IN THE APRIL/JUNE 2002 ISSUE OF "KASAMA" WE REPRINTED EXTRACTS FROM THE INTERNATIONAL PEACE MISSION REPORT "BASILAN: The Next Afghanistan?" The full report is available from the Focus On The Global South web site at http://www.focusweb.org/ or request an email copy from firstname.lastname@example.org