Philippines: The Americans Return


Dr R.J. May

Before the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, the Philippines was already negotiating with the United States government over the presence of US forces in the Philippines to assist in counter-terrorist operations, specifically against the Abu Sayyaf.

The Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim renegade group based in northwest Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, has called for a separate Islamic state in the Southern Philippines, but is generally regarded, even by other Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines, as being concerned more with ‘commercial insurgency’ than with Islamic ideals. It has recently come to international notice following an escalation of its kidnapping-for-ransom activities. In May 2001 Abu Sayyaf kidnapped twenty people from a resort in Palawan, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. There is little doubt that America’s involvement was motivated at least in part by the inability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to secure the release of the hostages.

In June, AFP Scout Rangers caught up with the kidnappers. Tragically, Mr Burnham and a Philippine nurse were killed in the encounter, reportedly being caught in the crossfire by AFP troops. Mrs Burnham was wounded but released.

At the time, some 1200 US troops, including 160 Special Forces personnel, were conducting an exercise with the Philippines military on nearby Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf now appears to be based. There have since been moves to extend and expand joint military exercises in ‘the fight against terrorism’.

Because of the publicity that has surrounded the hunt for the captors of the Burnhams, however, there is a danger of losing sight of the larger picture.

Over recent years the mainstream – and much larger – Muslim militant movements in the southern Philippines, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have denounced the activities of the Abu Sayyaf and dissociated themselves from it. However, when air strikes began against the Taliban in October, a protest rally was held in the Islamic City of Marawi during which crowds burned an American flag and shouted ‘Death to America and Long Live Osama bin-Laden’. Increasingly, Philippine Muslims have accused the Macapagal-Arroyo government of joining the US in a war against Islam.

But opposition to the US troops’ presence comes not just from Muslims. The demand for withdrawal of US military bases was a defining issue for leftist and nationalist groups during the Marcos regime and the early years of the Aquino presidency. Initially, offers from President Macapagal-Arroyo of Philippine assistance to the US after September 11 elicited surprisingly little domestic opposition. But this has changed, especially after riot police blocked a planned protest march in front of the US embassy and arrested several protesters.

One wonders if, in the emotion of the Burnham kidnapping and in the larger context of the global war against terrorism, the American government is aware of the extent to which its actions are stirring up two of the major threats to successive Philippine presidents – the Left and the Muslim insurgency – and in the process threatening the stability of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration.

WATCHPOINT: The build-up of US troop numbers in the Philippines could prove destabilizing for the government.


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