Philippines: A Clash Of Civilisations?


Alison Broinowski

In 1991, the United States Pentagon exulted that there was now only one super-power. In 1993, New York’s World Trade Centre was bombed by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an associate of the Afghan rebel leader Osama bin Laden. Ramzi in the following year contrived the bombing of a Philippine Airlines Plane over Japan, and is suspected of trying to assassinate Pope John Paul in Manila in 1995.

Taking his cue from hegemonic America’s incapacity to deal with such a man and such movements, Harvard academic Samuel Huntington wrote in 1993 that the post-Cold War world was seeing a clash of seven or eight civilisations, of which the most threatening to the one he called the ‘West’ were two others, the ‘Confucian’ and the ‘Islamic’ civilisations. Although his thesis - expanded into a book in 1996 - was greeted with widespread criticism of its over-simplification, its theme continues to haunt observers of inter-communal conflicts in Kosovo and Chechnya, Jaffna and Kashmir, Aceh, Ambon, and West Papua, and now in Mindanao.

In all of these hotspots, the ostensible argument is over cultural and religious difference. But the subtext is mistrust, exploitation, and economic inequality. In each case, the history of grudges and resentments goes back for decades if not centuries. In each, new generations of young men regularly come forward, willing to try new, violent strategies to get access to a better life.

Manila has for long had a reputation as the kidnap capital of Asia. Both kidnapping and piracy are endemic in the Southern Philippines, where a chain of small islands drags across the shallow Sulu Sea to Borneo. Just as endemic is religious separatism. The Muslim ancestors of today’s four million Moros were named, but never conquered or converted, by the Spanish or the Americans. Hopes for a Moro autonomous homeland were dashed after World War Two, and Christian Filipinos and foreign investors took up large land holdings. Land reform failed to eventuate, due to opposition by land-owners in Congress in Manila. Subsequent struggles, and some 120,000 deaths, led to agreements with the Marcos regime in 1972 and the Ramos government in 1996 that were soon broken.

Several Muslim organisations claim to speak for the people of the Southern Philippines, the main ones now being - in order of size and age - the Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and Abu Sayyaf. The leader of Abu Sayyaf, who had fought in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden and who declared a jihad in the Southern Philippines, made a specialty (until he was ambushed and killed by the Philippines military in 1998) of kidnapping and attacking Christians. His brother took over command, and Abu Sayyaf escalated into international prominence on 23 April by seizing 21 hostages from Sipadan, a Malaysian diving resort, and abducting them to Jolo in the Sulu archipelago. About half were Europeans. A month earlier, in Basilan, north-east of Jolo, Abu Sayyaf guerillas took hostage some 70 Filipinos, many of them school children, and were still holding nearly 30 of them at the end of April.

Ransom claims, made on local radio in Basilan, ranged from the simple to the outrageous, and had not been agreed to by Manila by the end of April. Abu Sayyaf variously demanded rice, sardines, medicine, and mediation; reversion to barter trade, curbs on foreign fishing in local waters, an Islamic State, a return to the 1976 agreement on a 13-province Muslim region, replacement of Nur Misuari (a former MNLF rebel leader) as official negotiator, and as governor of the semi-autonomous region; payment of 30 million pesos (US$720,000) or 10 million ringgit (US$2.6 million), and the release of Ramzi Yousef (the World Trade Centre bomber).

By the end of the month, the military were gearing up for a major military engagement, civilian militias were being armed, and the Philippines was preparing for yet another clash of civilisations in the south.

WATCHPOINT: President Estrada’s tough tactics are unlikely to solve the problems of the Southern Philippines in either the short or the long term.


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