Sulu fighting exposes Filipino government claims to want peace in Mindanao

Developing Just Leadership

Maulana M. Alonto

Safar 22, 1426 2005-04-01

South-East Asia

by Maulana M. Alonto (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 2, Safar, 1426)

Despite intensive efforts to reach an agreement between the Manila government and Bangsamoro mujahideen in Mindanao, renewed fighting broke out in Sulu in February. In a special report forCrescent International, MAULANA ALONTO explains the background and significance of the new conflict.

Well over a month after fighting began between Muslim guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the island-province of Sulu on February 7, there is no sign that the conflict is subsiding. The ferocious fighting now going on in the island that was once the seat of the Sulu Sultanate, south of mainland Mindanao, has turned for the worse and created the possibility of the armed conflict spreading to other Muslim provinces of the Bangsamoro homeland. This possibility increases as the days pass.

In the first few days of intense fighting, concentrated initially in the municipalities of Panamao, Patikol, Maimbong, Parang and Indanan, almost 200 casualties (killed and wounded) were inflicted on the AFP by Moro Muslim guerrillas. The guerrillas have the advantage of knowledge of the terrain, backed by battle experience from more than 30 years of warfare against the Filipino government. As the fighting intensified in the weeks that followed, the AFP's casualty figures continued to rise; on February 19, for instance, three soldiers were killed and scores wounded in an ambush.

After the reverses it has suffered on the battlefield, the AFP is pouring in reinforcements almost daily, including US-trained army units equipped with sophisticated gadgets, to add to the more than 5,000 government troops already in Sulu, engaged in battles against an estimated one thousand Moro Muslim fighters scattered in small units all over the island. Moro Muslim fighters from nearby islands and other areas of Mindanao have also reinforced the embattled guerrillas in Sulu, thus backing up the forces now facing the armed might of the government.

More than 800 Muslim civilians were killed by the relentless and indiscriminate bombardment, from land, air and sea, to which Sulu has been subjected by the AFP in the first week of fighting alone; this figure does not include deaths in succeeding weeks. No accurate civilian casualty figures have since filtered out of the battle zones, because the AFP has imposed strict censorship on any news coming out of Sulu, except for information that the government issues to the public and media.

Reports from Muslim refugees, however, are that people are being slaughtered as AFP troops vent their anger on civilians for the high casualties inflicted on government forces by the guerrillas. According to one horrifying report from an MNLF source, four Muslim families in each village were executed at random by AFP troops for every government soldier killed in combat. This was at the height of AFP counter-offensives to push the guerrillas out of the villages. Almost 3,000 Muslim families have fled the war-torn countryside and are now in the capital town of Jolo, where they are in makeshift shelters and school buildings, with little or no help from humanitarian organisations.

In the meantime, Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo continues to ignore the demands of Muslim civil society groups, even Muslim politicians and non-government organizations (NGOs) in Mindanao as well as in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, for a truce that would allow Bangsamoro Muslim civilians caught in the crossfire to evacuate to safety, and also for the MNLF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) to resolve the conflict at the negotiating table. Instead the Arroyo regime has given the AFP full authority to crush the resistance and exterminate the ‘terrorists' and ‘MNLF renegades' who dare challenge the GRP. Spurred on by the government in Manila, the AFP has turned Sulu into a killing ground, cut off by a military cordon to prevent the outside world from finding out the real situation inside.

However, as the Sulu war develops into a national crisis, investigations are now being demanded, even by members of the Philippine Congress, to look into the causes of the renewed fighting in Sulu. What aroused popular indignation – and embarrassment for GRP – at this turn of events is that the forces fighting the AFP in Sulu are not just the guerrilla-turned-bandit groups of "Abu Sayyaf" but the MNLF, which, under Nur Misuari, its chairman, signed the so-called Final Peace Agreement (FPA) in 1996 with the GRP. The FPA was supposed to have ended the 30-year war between the MNLF and the GRP in Mindanao and Sulu. The current fighting in Sulu demonstrates clearly that the FPA has failed completely, and therefore that mere autonomy under Philippine rule cannot resolve the conflict in Mindanao and Sulu.

It was this capitulation of the MNLF under Nur Misuari that prompted the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), under the leadership of the late Ustadz Salamat Hashim, to step into the vacuum left by the MNLF as the vanguard of the Bangsamoro jihad for freedom and independence. The MILF rejected autonomy under Philippine rule, but did not actively oppose the MNLF when it accepted it. The MILF waited to see the outcome of the ‘autonomy' experiment. When that failed and the MNLF was no longer on the scene, the MILF renewed the call for Bangsamoro independence. Its ranks grew to 180,000 fighting men, who now comprise the MILF's Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). Compared to the MNLF, the MILF is better armed and better organized, committed to Islam, and based in mainland Mindanao, unlike the MNLF, whose main force is confined to the island of Sulu, where Misuari and most of the other MNLF leaders come from.

The FPA co-opted the MNLF into the Philippine nation-state. Its leaders were given positions in both local and national government, and as many as 5,000 MNLF fighters were integrated into the AFP to become regular soldiers of the Philippine military. Misuari himself was ‘elected' to the position of regional governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1997, a position which he held until 2001. Then he urged his followers in Sulu to defy the government and return to the hills because of what he later admitted was the GRP's betrayal of the FPA, which rendered the ARMM (and, for that matter, Muslim autonomy under Philippine colonial rule) an utter failure.

However, many of Misuari's colleagues in the MNLF Central Committee, who were by then enjoying the perks and privileges of their government positions, did not agree with their chairman's argument that they should return to the hills. Instead, in collusion with the GRP, the most senior leaders of the MNLF formed themselves into the so-called MNLF Council of 15, which included Dr Parouk Hussin, the current ARMM governor, and removed Misuari from the chair of the MNLF Central Committee. Misuari, in turn, denounced his former colleagues as traitors and refused to accept his removal.

In September 2001 Misuari's loyal followers, who had gathered in a peaceful assembly in Sulu, were attacked by the AFP; a bloody fight ensued. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Misuari fled to Sabah, Malaysia, where he was eventually arrested by the Malaysian authorities, detained for a while and extradited in 2002 to the Philippines, where he has been incarcerated for almost three years in a closely guarded military camp in Santa Rosa, Laguna, a town outside Metro-Manila.

In the mean time, remnants of the MNLF who were loyal to Misuari dispersed to several areas in Mindanao after a brief uprising on November 1, 2001, at the MNLF's Kabatangan complex in Zamboanga City, in which they suffered heavy casualties in the hands of the AFP. Those who could went back to Sulu, where they laid low until the events that provoked the current fighting in Sulu compelled them to reappear.

It is these MNLF fighters in Sulu who have initiated the current fighting against the government's forces. This explains why the GRP has labeled them the "Misuari Breakaway Group" (MBG) or ‘MNLF renegades', to distinguish them from the "mainstream MNLF" (Council of 15) and other MNLF factions that emerged after the dismissal of Misuari from the MNLF Central Committee and his subsequent incarceration. But MNLF groups fighting in Sulu have repudiated this government propaganda and insist that they are the true MNLF. It is these groups of fighters, identified with Misuari, that have the numbers and the arms. Moreover, it is these groups that have been able to re-establish their influence with the Moro Muslims in Sulu during the almost two years that they have been lying low.

The GRP now claims that the current conflict was triggered by the demand of the MNLF for the GRP to free Misuari. This is an attempt to downplay the real cause of the fighting. An MNLF commander in Sulu, in statements to media people who have managed to sneak through the military cordon, has barely mentioned the continued detention of Misuari without trial. Ustadz Habier Malik, a religious teacher, hitherto the low-profile Moro guerrilla commander and now spokesman for the MNLF fighting groups in Sulu, cited the atrocities being committed by the AFP in Sulu as the inevitable result of the Arroyo regime's obsession with its local war against "terrorists".

From Ustadz Malik's own revelation – and this has been corroborated by Muslim refugees – Philippine Marines, ostensibly running after a group of ‘Abu Sayyaf terrorists', brutally massacred a Muslim family in the village of Kapuk Panggul in the municipality of Maimbong, Sulu, on February 1. The father was killed, and so was his pregnant wife, a 13-year-old son and a male relative. Another son, 7, was shot and left for dead, but survived.

The AFP grudgingly admitted the slaughter but explained that the family had been caught in the line of fire of the Marines, who were shooting at a fleeing group of Moro ‘terrorists'. This explanation was belied by the fact that the corpses were reported as the dead bodies of fleeing ‘terrorists.' The dead 13-year-old boy and his 7-year-old brother disprove the AFP's claim that they were ‘terrorists' simply by their ages.

This barbarity, according to Ustadz Malik, was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. There have been other atrocities and human-rights violations, just as horrible as this killing of a family in Maimbong. The frequent assassinations of Muslim religious teachers by military intelligence operatives, the mysterious kidnappings of young Muslims, and the wanton destruction of Moro Muslim communities by military operations against so-called terrorists, have all become daily routine in the Moro areas. The MNLF, he said, could no longer swallow the barbarity of the Philippine military. He has vowed that for as long as the AFP is occupying Sulu, the MNLF are going to fight to the last man.

Ustadz Malik's description of conditions in Sulu is not unusual. It is happening in all of the Moro Muslim provinces in mainland Mindanao; it is also happening to Muslims in Christian-occupied Filipino provinces in Mindanao with sizable Muslim populations; in fact it is even happening to a certain extent to Moro Muslim communities in Metro-Manila, the capital.

More than 800 Muslims are now imprisoned in a military camp in Bicutan, a suburb of Metro-Manila. They are accused of being members of ‘Islamic terrorist groups', yet have not been tried, nor been told what evidence there is against them (if any). If there is any evidence, it is likely to have been planted or fabricated, as is usually the case when the police or military arrest Muslims, often without warrant, to perpetuate the hysteria that the world is under constant threat from ‘Islamic terrorism'. Bicutan is only one detention camp; at others many more are held in the same inhuman conditions throughout Mindanao and Sulu.

On January 24 Francis Ricciardoni, the US ambassador to the Philippines, boasted during the annual meeting of the Foreign Correspondents of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Manila, that about "70 or so" US intelligence experts have been dispersed to AFP military camps in Mindanao. This, Ricciardoni elaborated, is in consonance with the new arrangement under the US-Philippine partnership in the fight against "global terror." This new arrangement, called "Intel-Ops Fusion", short for "Intelligence-Operations Fusion," proves that the US government is involved in the war in Mindanao. "Intel-Ops Fusion" means that the US government provides intelligence to the GRP about ‘terrorist groups' in Mindanao. It is on the basis of this information that the AFP makes plans and launches operations against "terrorist" groups. In other words, it is the US government that decides who the "terrorists" are, whom and what to target, and when and how AFP operations are to be conducted. So it is not mere speculation that it is this US-GRP "arrangement" that has emboldened the Arroyo regime to reject a ceasefire in Sulu, including the offer of the MILF, which is now engaged in peace negotiations with the GRP, to negotiate a truce between the MNLF and the Philippine government to prevent the conflagration from spreading to mainland Mindanao.

Arroyo is too subservient to the US and too afraid of the AFP to defy both and stop the fighting. The GRP, debilitated by excessive corruption, economic bankruptcy and political instability, is barely kept afloat by US financial aid; Arroyo has to keep the AFP busy fighting in Mindanao and Sulu in order to contain the ambitions of military cliques in the AFP from taking over the country.

The US's involvement in the war in Mindanao and Sulu underscores the determination of the US to control the Moro territories. Mindanao, whose untapped natural gas and oil deposits are concentrated in the Muslims areas, is the gateway to Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, also oil-producing countries and "breeding grounds" for "Islamic terrorists", as the US would like the world to believe. Under the pretext of fighting "terrorism" in Southeast Asia, Mindanao, like Iraq and Afghanistan, can be made a base from which the US can destabilise the governments of these Muslim countries and replace them with "democratic" regimes that are more willing to cooperate with the US. The clandestine support of the US for some Philippine groups to retake the Malaysian state of Sabah for the Philippines by force is a move in this direction. A conflict in Sabah would draw Malaysia into a war that could have serious consequences for its economy and political stability.

The US's military presence in Mindanao is also seen as a deterrent to the growing economic and political influence of the People's Republic of China in the region. China, in about fifteen years' time, will be a regional superpower at least, and therefore a serious rival to it. At present, however, it is the stubborn armed resistance of the Bangsamoro people that obstructs US imperialist designs.

The US and Philippine governments have already announced that twenty joint military exercises, mostly in Mindanao, are scheduled for this year. These are obviously intended to intimidate the Moro liberation fronts, especially the MILF, which the US and the GRP see as the most formidable force to reckon with in Mindanao. The US is inching into Mindanao through the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a quasi-NGO front of the US government, to penetrate and then control the peace negotiations between the MILF and the GRP. So far both the MILF and Malaysia (which is the international third-party facilitator of the peace process) have resisted this attempt. But how long they can go on doing so cannot be foretold. The US and its Philippine client-state have continued to accuse the MILF, and now even the MNLF fighting in Sulu, of having connections with "international terrorism", despite denials by both revolutionary groups.

Attempts to downgrade the fighting in Sulu to ‘terrorism' are now in train. On February 14, while the Filipinos were celebrating St Valentine's Day, three bombs were detonated in GeneralSantos City and Davao City, all in Mindanao, and in Makati City, the country's premier financial district in Metro-Manila. About a hundred people died or were injured. An alleged ‘Abu Sayyaf' spokesman known as Abu Solaiman (most probably an agent provocateur in the pay of the military) claimed responsibility for the bombings and stated that the attacks had been made in retaliation for the AFP's aggressions against the MNLF and the people of Sulu.

The reaction was swift. The GRP connected the MNLF's resistance in Sulu with ‘terrorism'; the US followed suit. Other countries allied to the US also condemned the bombings, even sending their bomb-experts to Manila to help the Philippine authorities hunt down the perpetrators, by then described as "Muslim terrorists" of the ‘Abu Sayyaf', allied with the MNLF. Anti-Muslim hysteria has gripped the country. Muslim communities, especially those in the big cities, are threatened by a new wave of police and military harassment and hostility, and live in fear.

While all this goes on, the conflict in Sulu rages and mainland Mindanao awaits another war. The AFP is trying to provoke the MILF into breaking the truce with the GRP andabandoning the peace process. The outbreak of war in Mindanao will justify the active intervention of US military against MILF forces. Only the presence of the International Monitoring Team (IMT), headed by Malaysia and composed of military contingents from Brunei and Libya, which has been deployed to monitor and prevent breaches of the MILF-GRP ceasefire agreement in the war zones of Mindanao, in accordance with the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001, prevents Mindanao from becoming another Sulu and falling into the trap set by the US.

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