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Professor Mark Turner
Prayer has been added to military action and negotiation as the latest weapon in the struggle to resolve the problems affecting Mindanao. First there were the 'prayer warriors' of the Jesus Miracle Crusade (JMC) who, on 1 July, went to the camp of the hostage-holding Abu Sayyaf to engage in 40 days of fasting and prayer. Then on 6 August came the nationwide prayers for peace on Mindanao led by Archbishop Sin and former President Corazon Aquino. Like the JMC evangelists their hope was for a 'miracle'.
In the midst of this prayer assault, President Estrada returned 'victorious' from a 10-day visit to the USA. Pledges of aid, investment, defence cooperation and the personal attention of President Clinton were the manifestations of this victory. However, President Estrada announced that his priority would now be Mindanao. He was going to fulfill an election promise of being the first Philippine president to set up office in Mindanao. It would be a one-month stay, starting almost immediately, but he would return to Manila at weekends to perform ceremonial functions.
There is much for the President to do in Mindanao. The capture of the headquarters of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has not brought an end to armed hostilities. Most MILF fighters escaped and dispersed across the neighbouring provinces. Several massacres of Christian civilians have followed with the military blaming the MILF and the latter denying responsibility. At least four Muslim clerics and scholars have also been murdered. Christian vigilante groups have been reported to be emerging in response to the massacres. While the military have indicated that vigilantes carrying unlicensed firearms would be arrested, they have supported the government's decision to reestablish the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs). While the official line on such groups is that they are simply communities that wish to arm themselves against the rebels, in previous times the CAFGUs have been guilty of widespread human rights abuses.
Arriving back in the country a week before the President was Nur Misuari, Governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). During his two-month absence he angered the Philippine government by apparently accusing it of failing to grant 'meaningful autonomy' in Mindanao. Some legislators have meanwhile pointed to Misuari's alleged failure to account for 10 billion pesos granted to the ARMM for developmental purposes. Furthermore, the Vice-Governor of ARMM claimed to have found 5,000 'ghost employees' on the regional government's payroll. Such revelations provide ready ammunition for the chorus of critics keen to see Misuari replaced.
On the island of Sulu the hostage crisis grinds on, three months after the holidaymakers were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf from a Malaysian island resort. In mid-August the kidnappers still held fourteen of their original, mainly foreign, hostages plus three French journalists and three construction workers abducted along the way. The infusion of ransom money for the released hostages has led to an explosion in the numbers of armed men seeking Abu Sayyaf membership. In June the military estimated the Abu Sayyaf group to number 460 persons. In mid-August the figure was 3,000. The new members are allegedly keen to share the kidnapping loot, estimated at anything between US$5 million and US$9.3 million. Of special concern to the Philippine government are reports that some of this money is being used for the purchase of heavy arms. A confident Commander Robot, the kidnap leader, announced that he now had the money, men and guns to meet the military head on.
This is the sort of message the government and the majority of Mindanao's residents do not want to hear. They want peace and development. However, given recent developments it appears that only a miracle can make this vision a short-term reality.
WATCHPOINT: Will Estrada's stay in Mindanao hasten peace and development?
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