American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
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Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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US "Advisors" in the Philippines--War Games or Precursors to the Real Thing?
Madge Kho, a native of Jolo, is a member of AFSC's Peace & Economic Security Committee and of Friends of the Filipino People.
Questions are being raised on the legality of the presence of US troops in Mindanao where a civil war has been raging for the past 30 years. Under the veil of an existing Philippine-US military agreement, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo allowed US troops into war-torn Mindanao, contrary to the provision of the Philippine Constitution which bans the presence of foreign troops on Philippine soil.
President Joseph Estrada signed a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US which provides for joint military exercises between the two countries. These joint exercises, dubbed "Balikatan" or "war games," began in 2000 but were limited to the northern parts of the country where there is no existing civil strife. The current moving of military exercises and US troops to Mindanao is a significant deviation from the provisions of the VFA.
In mid January 2002, 650 troops arrived to provide training and maintenance support to the Light Reaction Company, a Filipino elite counter-terrorist unit. The training will take place in Zamboanga, at the southern tip of the island of Mindanao. The US troops will play a rear guard to some 7000 Filipino troops assigned to the island of Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf, a tiny band of Muslim rebels, has been holding two US nationals and a Filipino hostage. The US has put the Abu Sayyaf on its list of terrorists affiliated to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. But "evidence of their link is sketchy" according to the New York Times.
Critics, including high officials in the Philippine government, charge that moving the Balikatan exercise to Basilan is a coverup for US involvement in a Philippine internal problem and is no longer a simple military exercise.
The Abu Sayyaf, which once fought for the creation of an Islamic state in Mindanao, has been reduced to a rag-tag bandit group of about 100 men. Why then would it be difficult to capture them, journalist Jim Lehrer asked the Philippine Ambassador to the US in an interview Jan. 16, 2002. The Ambassador replied that the Philippines needs sophisticated equipment such as night vision scopes, sniper rifles, and other military hardware to fight the Abu Sayyaf in the mountainous terrains of Basilan and Jolo. But Maritess Vitug and Glenda Gloria, two highly respected journalists who investigated this issue, concluded that it is because local police and military provide support to the Abu Sayyaf in return for a cut of the loot and ransom money the group gets.
This is not just about hostages. The case of the Abu Sayyaf has been blown out of proportion for several reasons. For the Philippine government, it provides an excuse to secure more money from the US, which has promised to aid allies in its "war against terrorism." Since September 11, the Philippines has received an infusion of $4.2 billion in security assistance. For the US, this is a pretext for unfolding new operations against Muslim insurgencies in Southeast Asia, Al Qaeda-linked or not.
The Mindanao rebellion has been festering for the past 30 years since Marcos declared martial rule in 1972. This region has long suffered impoverishment, with an average income of only a fifth of the national average. A 1996 peace accord did little to improve the economy, and animosities towards the government continued to mount. Despite the 1996 peace accord with the Moro National Liberation Front, the Philippine government has continued to face resistance from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which wants a share in the governance of Mindanao. Mindanao was the scene of heavy military bombardment in 2000 when President Estrada declared an all-out war against the MILF. Thousands of civilians were killed and millions of refugees created.
The military exercise, which is to last from six months to a year, marks the largest deployment of US military forces engaged in actual combat since the Moros fought the Americans from 1901-1913. The Moros had resisted Spanish colonization for over 300 years. It was during the American occupation that Mindanao was eventually made part of the Philippines.
Observers note that even if the Abu Sayyaf were eventually crushed, unless drastic change comes to Mindanao, continuing discontent with Manila will spawn the growth of new rebel groups--whether bandit, religious, or revolutionary, remains to be seen.