Philippines: Held To Ransom

2000

Dr R.J. May

Recent events in the Philippines highlight, once again, the intractability of the problems in the country's Muslim south and the potential they have to destabilize Philippines politics and economy.

The multiple hostage situation created by the Abu Sayyaf group is now in its fifth month, without any concrete prospect of resolution. Abu Sayyaf's demands now include the release of three international terrorists held overseas, release of Abu Sayyaf supporters held in the Philippines and a Muslim Filipino held in Malaysia, banning of foreign fishing vessels from the seas around the Sulu Achipelago, a commission of enquiry into the treatment of Filipinos in Malaysia, and an independent Islamic state in Mindanao-Sulu.

While the Abu Sayyaf saga has been attracting international attention, however, a more serious confrontation has been taking place between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the MILF.

The MILF was not a party to the peace agreement negotiated between the Philippines government and MNLF leader Misuari in 1996, and vowed to continue the armed struggle for an independent Moro state. Attempts over several years to secure a ceasefire and make peace with the MILF have had little success. Following a series of clashes over recent months President Estrada was reported to have declared 'all out war' against the MILF and the AFP attacked MILF camps across Mindanao, culminating in the overrunning of the MILF's main base, Camp Abubakar, in July.

It is extremely doubtful, however, that this apparent military victory will bring an end to the conflict. The bulk of the MILF evacuated the camps ahead of military advances and will resume their guerilla activities from the countryside. Meanwhile terrorist attacks have escalated, with bombings and grenade attacks in several cities, towns and barrios, including General Santos City, Davao and Manila.

The Philippines government has meanwhile achieved a significant diplomatic victory, with the international Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) (which met in Malaysia in June) rejecting the MILF's request for OIC observer status, giving sympathetic hearing to the Philippines government, and offering to assist in the peace process.

As against this, Governor Misuari used an OIC meeting to publicly air his dissatisfaction with the Estrada government's efforts in Mindanao and reportedly to seek OIC support for Moro independence, and to press for a further postponement of the plebiscite on autonomy in Muslim Mindanao mandated under the 1996 agreement and of scheduled ARMM elections. Misuari's own position appears to be coming under increasing challenge from within the Muslim leadership. The ongoing hostage saga has also created some tensions in Malaysia-Philippines relations.

A further effect of the Mindanao conflict and hostage situation has been to set back the Philippines' economic recovery, both by diverting government funds away from non-defence expenditure and through the negative impact on foreign investment.

WATCHPOINT: The Mindanao conflict and the hostage affair are giving added ammunition to the growing band of critics of President Estrada's administration.

 

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