Philippines: Islam In 2002


Dr R.J. May

It was always clear to informed observers that the 1996 Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was a fragile arrangement. Specifically, the Agreement provided for a plebiscite on whether the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM, covering four provinces and no cities), should be expanded to include the entire area (now covering fifteen provinces and fourteen cities) claimed by the MNLF and referred to in the Tripoli Agreement of 1976. However it was always obvious, given the demographics of the area, that when that plebiscite was held there would be a substantial negative vote, and that when that happened many Muslims would feel they had been cheated under the Agreement. The required plebiscite was postponed several times, but when it was held in August 2001 it yielded the predictable result: apart from the four members of the existing ARMM only one additional province and one city voted to join.

This outcome further undermined the position of ARMM governor and MNLF chairman Nur Misuari, whose leadership was already under challenge from within the MNLF, and when in December 2001 elections were held for the new ARMM, President Macapagal-Arroyo gave her backing to another gubernatorial candidate, Parouk Hussin, and Misuari did not stand. Hussin was duly elected.

Misuari had, for some time, been saying that if the 1996 Agreement did not deliver an acceptable outcome to Philippine Muslims, disgruntled elements would return to the hills. But most observers were nonetheless surprised when in December Misuari himself led a group of mostly former MNLF guerillas in an attack on a Philippine military post. He subsequently fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested. He has recently been repatriated to the Philippines and awaits trial. These events have further destabilised the situation in Muslim Mindanao.

Meanwhile, even before 11 September 2001, the Philippines had accepted a United States offer of 'technical assistance' in dealing with the extremist Abu Sayyaf group, which attracted international attention after its hostage-taking of foreigners, including Americans. After 11 September, the Philippines was one of the first countries to offer support to the US in its campaign against international terrorism. Considering the salience of the issue of US bases in the Philippines during the Marcos and early Aquino years, there was at the time surprisingly little opposition to the Philippine government's support of the US.

As the US widens its global war on terrorism, however, debate about the American presence in the Philippines is hotting up. On the one hand, Filipino nationalists, especially those on the Left, are questioning what they see as a resurgence of US influence in Philippine domestic affairs. On the other hand, many Philippine Muslims object to what they see as Philippine support for the US attack on Islam. There are suggestions that these sentiments are being translated into support for Abu Sayyaf.

WATCHPOINT: Domestically-generated and outside-influenced tensions in Muslim Mindanao are adding to the problems of an administration already battling to keep the Philippines on a path to political and economic recovery.


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