Philippines Braces For Escalation: Report

August 16, 2007 at 11:08 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MANILA, Philippines – A major military escalation on Jolo island in the southern Philippines threatens to undermine fragile relations with major insurgent groups and contribute to rising regional inter-faith tensions.

A decision to end the policy of rapprochement with the rebels could unravel earlier post-peace deal achievements, and as such, planned August peace talks in Malaysia should be welcomed and encouraged by all stakeholders.

Filipino troops are poised to launch a major offensive on the island of Jolo following the deaths of over 20 soldiers in clashes with insurgents last week. In all, over 50 people have been killed in the recent series of clashes between insurgents and government troops.

Thousands of civilians are reportedly fleeing the area as the military moves around 6,000 troops into position on Jolo ahead of an assault on radical Islamist group Abu Sayyaf and allied militias operating in the island’s mountainous interior.

Muslim militants have been fighting for autonomy or full independence from Manila since the 1970s. In the early years, the insurgency was led by the loose-knit Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and its charismatic leaders. From the late 1970s, the MNLF began fragmenting into myriad small factions.

There is confusion regarding which group perpetrated the attack on government forces last week, with a breakaway MNLF faction loyal to jailed MLNF founder Nur Misuari, claiming responsibility for the 9 August ambush of a military convoy, which triggered the clashes. The ambush was in apparent retaliation for the death of four MNLF members in a recent government operation.

Misuari – who served as the regional governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – established in a peace deal with Manila in 1996, but was jailed after leading an uprising in 2001. ARMM governs two mainland provinces and the southwestern Sulu Islands and enjoys a significant degree of independence from the central government.

Misuari supporters clashed again with government troops on Jolo in 2005, in an eruption of violence reportedly related to the launching of an earlier government offensive against Abu Sayyaf, with which the breakaway MNLF faction allegedly shares close ties.

MLNF faction commanders on Jolo have warned the army against launching attacks close to their bases on the island. In the meantime, Misuari is reportedly sending a seven-man delegation to Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono asking him to organize a long-delayed peace conference with Philippine military commanders in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The players

For its part, the radical Islamic Abu Sayyaf is keen to see a significant escalation of its ongoing low-scale insurrection against the Arroyo government in order to present itself as an effective opponent of both Manila and the US. The group has been responsible for a series of kidnappings, assassinations and bombings including an attack on a passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 in which 100 people died.

Another player in the Muslim independence struggle is the theocratic Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which split with the MNLF in 1977 and had around 12,000 men under arms, according to a 2003 intelligence estimate cited by the BBC.

The government and MILF have looked close to a peace deal in recent years, though the beheading of 10 of 14 soldiers killed in an apparent MILF attack in July may have played a significant role in the decision to respond more aggressively to last week’s Jolo attack.

As with the other offshoots of the MNLF, Abu Sayyaf seeks the secession of areas in the southern islands and Mindanao from the Philippines, though the envisaged state would be based on more fundamentalist schools of Sharia than the MILF.

Abu Sayyaf has recently undergone a leadership change with Yasser Igasan reportedly replacing Khadafi Janjalani who was killed by government forces last September.

The head of the police’s Intelligence Group, Romeo Ricardo, claimed that Janjalani and fellow Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Sulaiman, who was also killed recently, were the group’s primary contacts with other regional movements and its overseas financiers, the AP reports.

Speculation is growing that the movement’s greatly reduced strength in recent years could signal its imminent demise. Abu Sayyaf’s purported involvement in last week’s violence could well be an effort on the part of Igasan to end this decline through seizing the initiative, thereby cementing his leadership.

It is Abu Sayyaf’s radical leanings – the US alleges the group has ties to global al-Qaida and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiah – and involvement in kidnappings that have seen the government label it a criminal group and refuse contacts.

Dangerous US interference

The pending military operation on Jolo has drawn attention again to the role of US special forces in training and advising Filipino units involved in counter-insurgency operations. Filipino forces had failed until recently to make significant inroads in decades of operations against Abu Sayyaf and other groups. Though reduced in numbers from a high of 1,000-2,000 to 300-400 fighters, Abu Sayyaf has never been successfully cornered.

Two of three kidnapped American tourists were killed in a botched raid by US-trained Filipino special forces on an Abu Sayyaf camp in 2004. Although an ongoing military push, started in August 2006, appears to have succeeded in maintaining significant pressure, the planned massive expansion of these operations may well prove counter-productive, endangering fragile government relations with the MILF and some MNLF factions.

The US involvement is both delimited to non-combat operations and profoundly ill-advised given the country’s past role as colonial ruler and the impression the presence of US military advisers and trainers gives regarding the independence of government decision-making and the wider regional role of the US.

It feeds the impression that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 2001 overthrow of Joseph Estrada was a victory for the traditional US-backed elite over the upstart people’s president, and that Arroyo’s close relationship with both the Filipino military and Washington significantly delimits her freedom of action in the south.

Arroyo has championed moves to introduce a federal unicameral system and peace talks with the MILF, while promising to crack down hard on insurgents.

In 2006, a State of Emergency was declared after a coup plot by right-wing military officers was exposed. Subsequent anti-terror legislation gives security forces the right to hold suspects for up to three days without charge, to seize their assets and use wiretaps.

Political Islam, coming of age

From a geo-strategic standpoint, the reinvigoration of the Filipino conflict threatens to spread a wave of instability through a region where political Islam is coming of age.

This is particularly true in Indonesia where calls for the electoral overthrow of the secular state are drawing increasing numbers of adherents. The rising tensions in the archipelago have been underlined by Jemaah Islamiyeh bombings and clashes between Christian and Muslim villagers, allegedly backed by Islamist fighters drawn from across the region, which killed hundreds in several eastern islands from 1999-2002.

The Jolo clashes also come amidst growing unrest in nearby Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern provinces where alleged army atrocities against insurgents and civilians have raised popular resentment against the government.

The interplay between these various conflicts and the fundamentalist organizations involved was further demonstrated by military claims that two Indonesian militants were involved in last week’s clashes on Jolo. The pair, Umar Patek and Dulmatin, have been implicated in Jemaah Islamiyeh’s 2002 bombing attacks in Bali.

However, despite its purported links to regional movements and al-Qaida, the threat posed by Abu Sayyaf with its territorially delimited support base and lack of numbers should not be conflated into a more general threat to the sovereign integrity of the Philippines. Nor should it signal the further expansion of radical Islam in Southeast Asia.

A large-scale offensive on Jolo threatens to build intense pressure on the MILF to join the fight or attenuate their relations with Manila if only to protect its more prominent role in the separatist movement.

The 1996 agreement came with the recognition that the persistent insurgency requires a diplomatic response that, while flawed, appears to have led to a gradual decline in support for the various armed insurgencies.

Should the Arroyo government decide to end its policy of rapprochement with rebel groups, under pressure from the military, this could swiftly unravel the achievements of the post-peace deal era.

In light of this, news on 14 August that the government and MILF are to resume peace talks in Malaysia on 22 August should be welcomed and encouraged by all stakeholders. (ISA is a nonprofit, independent consultancy that specializes in providing analysis of developing issues in international relations to NGOs. This article was originally published by ISA on 15 August 2007 and can be accessed on this URL http://www.isaintel.com)

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