Fri, 30 Nov 2001

Rebels test Arroyo's strength

The Strait Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The situation in the southern Philippines is a threat, for both Manila's national calm and its implications for Southeast Asia during a delicate confluence of international security and economic uncertainties. On Wednesday some 100 hostages were released by forces of a rebel wing of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which had fought government forces in a sharp battle the day before.

This was a rare negotiated ending, in exchange for the rebels' safe passage out of Zamboanga where the fighting had taken place. Philippine military and political chiefs are rightly thankful no hostage was harmed, but they should not be congratulating themselves. They should be alarmed at how and why the dynamic of armed insurrection is playing out all over again.

In the space of a week, Nur Misuari's disaffected MNLF followers staged two bloody strikes, with about 180 rebels and government troops killed. What should set the Manila establishment thinking is that the second attack on Tuesday happened when Misuari was nowhere near to direct operations.

He had been traced to Sabah in East Malaysia on Saturday, days after the first battle on Jolo island. Misuari, the elected governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a fugitive and a traitor, according to the authorities. His faction of the MNLF is a patchwork force with no known command structure.

But look at how it was able to stage the second strike, and the damage it did to the local population and the central government's standing in the south. As if the Abu Sayyaf and its persistent kidnap forays were not bad enough, the splintered MNLF's taking up of arms will almost certainly return the Philippines to another warring period.

This cannot be helpful for the ASEAN region battling, at the same time, a decline in economic vitality and poor notices internationally for its security vulnerabilities.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government is faced with a two-in-one conundrum. It will take the right strategy and a definable political option to surmount the challenge to her authority.

Militarily, there is no escaping the fact her army will have to fight the guerrillas with more professionalism than has been shown. Admittedly, this is not easy. Thousands of MNLF rebels went "legit" under the terms of the 1996 agreement between Misuari and the Fidel Ramos government setting up the ARMM.

They joined the national army and police. It would cross the minds of the armed forces brass that the allegiance of these men would be under stress now that the MNLF-Misuari has crossed over to the other side. This is only one imponderable.

There are operational oddities too. The freedom for MNLF rebels to leave Zamboanga unmolested yesterday was effected with the brigands going out with their guns. Why were they not disarmed?

The other challenge is the more critical political one. The compact with the Muslim south under the 1996 agreement should be rescued, and not abandoned as a failure. Misuari is damaged goods, as he is deemed to have failed both the people and Manila as governor of the ARMM. A new governor was elected on Monday, one endorsed by Manila.

The central authorities need to take a hand in getting the new ARMM administration organized, and ensure audits are made of the development projects and the billions of pesos funneled to the south for reconstruction. Autonomy cannot mean hands-off totally. Avoiding a repeat of the Misuari failure is key to resolving a large part of the Mindanao problem.