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In light of a series of deadly bomb blasts in recent months, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has described Davao City as being in 'a state of lawlessness'. The urgency ascribed to the situation is accentuated by US and Australian actions against the alleged perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 and 12 October 2002 Bali terrorist acts, to which the three main Islamic insurgent groups in Mindanao are said to be in some way 'linked'.
Some have alleged that the Abu Sayyaf (ASG), which is thought to have al-Qaeda connections, is responsible for bomb attacks in Manila and Mindanao over the past two years. More recent bomb blasts in Zamboanga in October 2002 and in Davao on 4 March and 2 April this year have been attributed to the MNLF and the MILF successionist groups. The latter are also believed to be connected with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the organisation blamed for the Bali bombing. Two Indonesians - alleged members of JI - are currently incarcerated in the Philippines for illegal possession of explosives and have been directly implicated in the bomb attacks in the region.
President Arroyo has been a staunch supporter of the US-led 'war on terror'. In February this year, her government ratified the second of two 'Balikatan' military exercises involving US Marines providing Filipino soldiers with counter-insurgency training against the ASG. After the US, Australia is the second largest provider of defence training to the Philippines. While specific information of a threat to the Australian Embassy in Manila led to its temporary closure in November 2002, recent months have seen more tangible collaboration between the two governments. A MOU on Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism was signed on 4 March 2003 (incidentally the same day as the bombing at the Davao Airport) during Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople’s visit to Canberra.
The 'lawlessness' that Arroyo invokes, however, may well be a description of the degree of collusion between three theoretically discrete Islamic insurgency groups in Mindanao (and, as some commentators have suggested, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) itself though this is harder to prove). On the ground, the distinction between these groups frequently become hazy, as their leaders form temporary, medial alliances in the face of a third common enemy (the US-backed AFP). It should be emphasised that these are more likely personal alliances rather than organisational or ideological 'links'. So called minimal alliance networks rarely number more than a score strong, with membership becoming increasingly vague at the edges as one network shades off into another. In this sense, the convolutions of Muslim Mindanao’s separatist conflicts often defy understanding in the bipolar terms of Washington’s 'War on Terror' ('you’re either with us or against us'). Observers would be well advised to tread carefully, lest a terrible new simplicity be imposed on what are complex and crosscutting local allegiances.
WATCHPOINT: Will 'Balikatan 03-1' be widened in scope beyond Sulu to involve other parts of western Mindanao, and even the Cotabato region, where hostilities have escalated dramatically since February?
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AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.
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