May 19, 2000

Roots of Philippine Hostage Crisis Too Deep, Too Old For Purely Military Solutions

EDITOR'S NOTE: There's still no end in sight to the suffering of hostages seized by a band of Muslim guerrillas in Southern Philippines. The government of President Joseph Estrada hesitates to invite foreign diplomatic mediation and is still drawn to a military solution — an approach that sadly resonates among many Filipinos blinded by centuries-old prejudices.

By Rene Ciria-Cruz

On April 23 vacationers at a diving resort in Sipadan, Malaysia swam too close to waters haunted by a bitter and violent history.

That Easter Sunday, a band of Muslim guerrillas raided the resort, seized 21 people — including 10 tourists from Germany, France, Finland, Lebanon and South Africa — and took them as hostages to a hideout in one of the Philippines' southernmost islands.

The cross-border raid put a ragtag band of terrorists on the map. It also spotlighted gaping fissures between the Philippines' Christian majority and its marginalized Muslim minorities, faultlines deepened by centuries of stigmatization and prejudice, resistance and retaliation.

Whatever happens to the hostages, there is no end in sight for this bigger tragedy. President Joseph Estrada's administration, torn by scandal and controversy, is incapable of grappling with it. Meanwhile, the hearts and minds of many Filipinos harden each time blood is spilled in the name of "Moro liberation."

"Moro" is the collective name for five million people belonging to 13 ethnolinguistic Muslim tribes, who constitute a quarter of the population of Mindanao, Southern Philippines. The largely Catholic nation's poorest provinces are in Mindanao, just a few hundred miles from the Malaysian resort.

The kidnappers belong to the 200-member Abu Sayyaf, the second extremist group to break off from the main rebel organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The MNLF made peace with the central government in 1996. Its leader Nur Misuari is now governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Formed in 1991, Abu Sayyaf is fighting for a "pure" Islamic state, but it is better known for its brutal rampages and shadowy links with rogue cops and paramilitary gangs.

A larger splinter group, the 15,000-strong fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in 1977 broke with the MNLF because of its secularism.

Many of the rebel groups' founders were educated in Islamic countries — the MNLF was for years headquartered in Tripoli, Libya — and both MILF and Abu Sayyaf claim to have ties with Osama Bin Laden's international jihad network. Abu Sayyaf's demand for the release of imprisoned New York World Trade Center bombers in exchange for the hostages is clearly a bid for recognition from Islamic radicals.

Following the recent spate of Abu Sayyaf actions, the MILF scuttled its stop-and-go peace talks with Manila and resumed terrorist bombings. Military officials are bent on armed face-offs as a way to end not only the hostage crisis, but also the longstanding conflict in the region.

Unfortunately, this "gunpowder mentality" also afflicts the Estrada administration. The president, a former action film star, has resisted the idea of mediation by foreign governments. Instead, he alternates tough talk with conciliatory offers — a simplistic approach to a problem rooted in nearly 500 years of conflict.

When the Spanish began to colonize the Philippines in earnest in the 1560s, they had little difficulty taking the archi-pelago's scattered native settlements except Mindanao, where Islam was an established cultural, economic and political force. Arab traders and missionaries had brought Islam as a way of life starting in the 14th century.

With thriving commerce and complex social organizations, the Muslim territories were virtually impermeable to Spanish power, so the Catholic conquerors demonized the Muslims as they had the Spanish Moors, hence the term Moros.

Over time the Moros' fierce resistance contributed to their economic isolation, and the endless defense of their territories and way of life drained their accumulated wealth.

Some of their bloodiest battles would be against Americans. In 1901, soon after U.S. forces defeated the Filipinos in the Philippine-American War, the United States sent troops under Gen. Adna Chaffee to subdue the Muslim South. Resistance was so tenacious the U.S. Army issued the .45-caliber automatic to replace the .38-caliber revolver which was not powerful enough to stop "amok" Moro warriors.

In 1906, Gen. Leonard Wood's troops killed 600 Muslims, including women and children. In 1913 Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing's troops wiped out 2,000 warriors and civilians — actions denounced by some critics at home as the darkest hours of America's imperial adventures.

The U.S. colonial administration then heaped kindling on the embers of Moro resentment by promoting Christian migration to the lush "frontiers" of Southern Philippines.

This set the stage for exploitation of the region's rich natural resources — first by settlers from the North, eventually by multinational corporations. Today, large-haul fishing trawlers from Japan and Taiwan further threaten the precarious livelihood of the region's indigenous communities.

More waves of Christian migrants came in the 1950s when the Philippine government promoted settler homesteads in Mindanao as a way to defuse the peasant-based Huk communist rebellion in Central Philippines.

The influx of migrants open-ed the Moros to landgrabbing and discrimination — while Christian settlers could rely on the central government for protection, the Moro natives had only their own weapons. In time, private armies of both Moros and Christians would turn areas of Mindanao into no-man's land, where religious prejudices fed on ethnic grievances.

The gathering storm of violence in Southern Philippines gained momentum in 1968 when the government of Ferdinand Marcos secretly recruited and trained Moro commandos as part of a plan to resolve the Philippines' historical claim to Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, by force of arms.

When the plan was aborted, nearly 70 recruits were executed to ensure secrecy. The crime was exposed, and hatred of Marcos so unified disparate Moro factions and clans that soon after he seized dictatorial powers in 1972, the South exploded in a full-fledged civil war.

The MNLF, a skilled fighting force, inflicted heavy casualties and for years tied down the majority of Philippines' armed forces. Tens of thousands of civilians and combatants died and hundreds of thousands of Moros became refugees in Sabah and in Mindanao's larger cities.

Diplomatic pressure from Islamic countries forced Marcos into formally signing the Tripoli Agreement with the MNLF in 1976, calling for an autonomous Moro region. Fighting erupted again when Marcos insisted on a plebiscite to approve the agreement.

By the time Marcos was deposed in 1986, many Islamic governments had lost their revolutionary fervor. Much of the MNLF's funding from abroad dried up and its mass base was weary of war. It settled for a peace pact with Manila in 1996, short of the goals of the Tripoli agreement.

The autonomous region of Mindanao, with Misuari as governor, faced the daunting task of reviving a war-ravaged, stagnant economy. Despite Manila's creaky bureaucracy, intrigues and corruption, small steps were taken to rehabilitate the war-torn provinces.

But new problems quashed any thought of peace dividends. The Asian financial crisis stalled integration into a regional trade triangle and the Philippines then-president Fidel Ramos, relieved by the existence of the peace pact with the MNLF, paid scant attention to the breakaway MILF, which rejected the peace process and was gathering force.

And while Ramos visited Mindanao hundreds of times, current president Joseph Estrada has sent mostly emissaries, often clueless political cronies, until the recent hostilities caught his attention.

There's still no light at the end of this tunnel. Nur Misuari has failed as a mediator in the hostage crisis and spent his welcome among his former comrades. In fact, he complains that his MNLF is losing members to the more radical MILF and Abu Sayyaf.

For his part, Estrada hesitates to invite foreign diplomatic mediation, refusing to "internationalize" the conflict even though the rebels have already done so by seizing foreign hostages.

Philippine government officials are still drawn to a military solution — an approach that sadly resonates among many Filipinos blinded by centuries-old prejudices.

Shortly after the Sipadan hostages were seized, a Manila newspaper columnist suggested a "better way" to flush out the Abu Sayyaf rebels from their hideouts without using tear gas: "Let loose many pigs into the tunnel. Those Moros would come running out in the open for they abhor pigs. By acting the way they do those stinking bastards are no better than the animals they detest."

There was no uproar against his message of hate.

Rene Ciria-Cruz is also a longtime editor of Filipinas Magazine.

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