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Professor Mark Turner
A decade after being thrown out of their Philippine bases the US military have returned to the Philippines. But this time only 600 troops are supposed to come. Their mission is to prosecute the latest stage of America’s global war against terrorism through Operation Balikatan 2002. The target is the Abu Sayyaf, the notorious, armed Islamic group which operates in the southern islands of Basilan and Sulu.
According to the Americans, the Abu Sayyaf has links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. Roilo Golez, the Philippines’ National Security Adviser, is not so sure. While acknowledging links back in the 1990s he has no ‘overt evidence’ of an Abu Sayyaf-al-Qaida partnership. Golez does, however, point to the Abu Sayyaf as the Philippines’ biggest security threat, ahead of communist guerrillas and criminal kidnap-for-ransom gangs.
The bigger Islamic groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are officially viewed as lesser threats and not terrorists. The MNLF forged a peace with the government in 1996 and is currently engaged in government through the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The MILF and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) locked horns in full-scale war in 2000 but eventually agreed on a ceasefire. More recently there have been peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government brokered by Malaysia.
The Americans are committing 160 troops to the front-line in Basilan. They will act as trainers and advisers, and will only fire their weapons in self-defence. The remaining 240 troops will deal with logistics. The Americans are also bringing hardware such as helicopters and a C-130 transport plane. The equipment-poor AFP is providing approximately 5 000 troops. This formidable force will be pursuing what Senator Biazon, former AFP chief, estimates as about 80 Abu Sayyaf men and their three hostages, two of whom are Americans. More Abu Sayyaf rebels are operating in Sulu where they have teamed up with the supporters of former ARMM and MNLF chief, Nur Misuari. He languishes in jail outside Manila awaiting trial on charges of rebellion.
Public support for the returning Americans appears to be strong. A Social Weather Station poll found that 84 per cent of respondents approved of US military assistance in the Philippines. But not everybody agrees. Leftist and Muslim organisations have demonstrated in Manila and Mindanao against the deployment of US forces while some MILF spokesmen have warned of possible trouble for the Americans. Even the Vice President has expressed some reservations. President Arroyo has reacted angrily against any criticism saying ‘You are not a Filipino if you are against the peace and progress being offered by the Operation Balikatan 2002’. She branded those who oppose American military intervention as ‘terrorist lovers’. Supporters and ‘terrorist lovers’ alike now await the results of Operation Balikatan to see whether the Abu Sayyaf can be eliminated in Basilan.
WATCHPOINT: Will Operation Balikatan neutralise the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist force?
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