Fri, 22 Sep 2000

Firepower won't quell unrest in restive Mindanao

By Phar Kim Beng

SINGAPORE: When the Abu Sayyaf abducted three Malaysian hostages from Pandanan island on Sept. 11, one day after receiving their ransom, their action energized the Philippine government to go on the offensive.

In the words of a top Philippine government negotiator: "It was the straw that broke the camel's back."

The military operations now under way in Jolo aim to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf. The larger issue, however, is whether a military solution alone will suffice? It appears not.

To begin with, the situation in Mindanao has festered for 300 years, since the times of the Spanish colonial government. Western Mindanao, the center of Abu Sayyaf activities, is one of the Philippines' poorest regions. It scores low on all development indicators.

In the 1994 Philippines Human Development Report, western Mindanao had the lowest index for overall human development.

According to it, "out of the country's 13 regions, it is ranked 11th in poverty incidence, 13th in life expectancy and 13th in literacy".

Its underdevelopment rate for 1987-1991 averaged 36 percent -- well above the national figure (22 percent). Further, 52 percent of western Mindanao's 311,700 families live below the poverty line. Only 9 percent of the region's population earn above 5,000 pesos (S$192) per month.

The situation in Basilan, another area of Abu Sayyaf operations, is also dreadful.

Fifty-eight percent of the population fall on or below the poverty line. And, there is only one doctor for every 17,000 people.

The Philippine government's current military campaigns correspond well with the political objectives of Governor Nur Misuari of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

For one thing, the operations are restoring much of the credibility which Misuari is believed to have lost when the Abu Sayyaf refused to negotiate with him during the Sipadan kidnappings in April.

To bolster his sagging position vis-a-vis the Abu Sayyaf and other rebel groups, Misuari even took to lobbying the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) last June, on two goals: That the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), led by him, be declared a full member of the OIC; and that support be granted to the MNLF to re-declare Mindanao's independence from the Philippines.

Although Misuari eventually backed away from both goals, had either of the objectives been fulfilled by the OIC then, his earlier Davao Consensus with then president Fidel Ramos would have collapsed.

Under the Davao Consensus, Misuari had agreed to make Mindanao a part of the Philippines -- a major gesture of peace and reconciliation with Manila.

On hindsight, the MNLF chieftain's OIC gambit was not based on the group's inherent strength, nor on his position as governor of ARMM. Rather, it was to forestall the MNLF's political fortunes from being further undermined by the hostage abductions pulled off by the Abu Sayyaf over the last three months.

By holding the hostages indefinitely, then ransoming them, the Abu Sayyaf has garnered international attention.

More recently, due to the windfall from Libyan payoffs, rumored to range between US$18 million (S$31.4 million) and $24 million, the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf have swelled from a ragtag army of a mere 300 men to a 1,000-strong guerrilla force, according to one intelligence estimate,.

Further, the Abu Sayyaf's bold tactics have also catapulted them to the top of the pecking order in Mindanao politics.

By removing Misuari at an early phase of the "Sipadan" negotiations, the Abu Sayyaf undermined his stature in the eyes of the Moro people. Such a move is consistent with the Abu Sayyaf's tacit aim of monopolizing the allegiance of the Bangsamoro, the people of Moro.

After all, since the signing of the Davao Consensus, Misuari has repeatedly been accused of having betrayed the original Moro objective of a separate Islamic state.

The 1996 Davao Consensus is not a bad agreement. In it, Ramos and Misuari agreed to the establishment of a Special Zone of Peace and Development in the Southern Philippines (Zopad).

This area has a population of approximately 10 million inhabitants with a Christian/Muslim ratio of 6:4.

The agreement, in effect, provides for the establishment of the so-called Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD).

The SPCPD, which is composed of 81 members, including 44 nominated by MNLF, was tasked with the responsibility of promoting, monitoring and coordinating peace and development projects within Zopad.

The idea behind SPCPD and Zopad was to grant Mindanao a certain degree of autonomy so as to allow relative peace to prevail in order for economic development to take root.

It was hoped that economic development could once and for all break the cycle of violence that had run wide and deep in this part of the Philippines.

The Abu Sayyaf has never been reconciled to the Davao Consensus. It has, instead, endeavored to be the spoiler, and with a vengeance.

Ostensibly, the Abu Sayyaf's goal is to reject autonomy and gain full independence for Mindanao. But it is not the only splinter group opposed to the Davao Consensus.

Groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Organization and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are also against it.

Unless sustainable economic development can take place, the wretched living conditions in Mindanao will spawn more violent rebellions and uprisings in future.

They will even have repercussions for neighboring countries such as Malaysia.

For now, it appears that all the remaining hostages are caught in a very volatile political situation, where religious identity, economic deprivation and separatist causes are all mixed in one. In any case, for the cycle of kidnappings to break, military solutions are not enough. Nor, for that matter, economic ones.

Rather, an accountable provincial government has to be fostered by Misuari himself, bringing the separate factions together.

In essence, there must be genuine peace between the competing groups in Mindanao before there can be permanent truce with Manila.

Whether Misuari will succeed in this endeavor hinges also on an accounting of about 18 billion pesos which he received from the Philippines federal government to resuscitate the Mindanao economy.

Thus, Misuari is well-advised to spruce up his own administration, before turning to the OIC or anyone else to strengthen his position.

Insofar as the Mindanao problem is concerned, it is a truism that bombs can never do as much as an efficient government determined to raise the living standards of the poor.

The writer is a senior correspondent of The Straits Times based in Cambridge, Massachusetts (

-- The Straits Times / Asia News Network