Wed, 21 Jun 2000

RP's Muslims fight for 'usurped' homeland

By Girlie Linao

MANILA (DPA): A marine proudly waved the Philippine flag, while other jubilant troops gathered for a photo in front of a bombed-out mosque after capturing a key camp of separatist rebels in the southern Philippines.

Military officials quickly apologized for the mosque's destruction and lamented the incident was an "unintended and unfortunate consequence" of the continuing offensive against the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado ordered the reconstruction of the mosque in Camp Bushra, the MILF's second-largest training base, "to prove that Muslims are not our enemies but our friends".

"We are going to bind wounds," Mercado said.

But analysts warned it would take more than rebuilding a destroyed mosque to heal the wounds of more than three decades of a violent struggle waged by mujahideens, or freedom fighters for an independent Islamic homeland.

They also cautioned the government against pursuing the military blitzkrieg in the southern region of Mindanao, warning the approach will only bring about "periods of relative peace, but things will irreversibly end up in an unending war of attrition."

"You can kill all the mujahideens, but you can't kill the cause," one Islamic scholar said. "A new generation of fighters will always take their place and the conflict will last for generations and generations to come until the Muslims are freed."

But the Philippine government does not recognize the Muslims' belief that the national government colonized their land and usurped their freedom, resulting in years of deprivation, neglect and abuse, grinding poverty and rampant discrimination.

Once the dominant ethnic group in Mindanao, Muslims now only own 17 percent of the total land in the area due to the intrusion of Christian settlers from northern and central Philippines. They are also among the poorest in the predominantly Catholic country.

In 1994, poverty incidence in Mindanao was 44 percent, compared with 24 percent in the northern region of Luzon and 38 percent in the central region of Visayas. Average literacy rate was 88 percent, compared with 95 percent in Luzon.

President Joseph Estrada has vowed to fix the disparity and turn Mindanao into what is it often called -- the land of promise. But he stressed economic progress and social development can only take place after peace is ensured.

Three months after the MILF and the government opened formal peace talks in January, the military launched a large-scale assault in a bid to contain the rebels in a single area -- Camp Abubakar, the group's main headquarters covering 300,000 hectares.

More than 20 key and satellite camps have already been captured, including Camp Bushra, in the fighting described as the worst in years. More than 400 people have been killed and at least 300,000 displaced in the hostilities.

Estrada has ignored mounting calls for him to declare a cease- fire, saying he would only order a halt in the offensive if the 15,000-strong MILF gives up its bid for independence.

While the MILF has agreed to study a proposal that would grant them autonomy, there is no guarantee the settlement would be accepted. Estrada has given the rebels until June 30 to make up their minds.

The MILF has been fighting for a separate Islamic state since 1978 when it split from the rival Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a landmark peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996.

MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim revealed in a 1999 interview that the split "was a tactical move" to ensure that if the MNLF failed, "we stay behind to continue the struggle for our rights."

"What we want is for the Philippine government to give way to the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people to regain their freedom and self-determination, which were illegally and immorally usurped," Salamat said.

"Almost all people in the world now are free," he added. "It is only the Bangsamoro people who are not free until now."

One year after the MNLF was granted self-rule under the four- province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, many former MNLF fighters were so disgruntled over the peace pact's failure to uplift their lives and defected to the MILF.

Others joined the extremists Abu Sayyaf group, now holding 21 Western and Asian hostages in the jungles of Jolo island, Sulu province, the MNLF's former stronghold.

The government has refused to open peace talks with the Abu Sayyaf, or "Bearer of the Sword", arguing the group is nothing but a rag-tag gang of bandits engaged in kidnapping-for-ransom, extortion and other criminal activities.

The Abu Sayyaf, however, insists it is continuing the MNLF's struggle. Its leaders defend their terrorist activities as "instruments in our jihad (holy war) for an independent Islamic state".

Hamasali Jawali, president of the Sulu State College, warned the conflict can only be resolved if the Muslims "are given freely the Islamic state where the Koran is the basis for fundamental law."

"The problem in Mindanao is ideology that is rooted in history," he said. "The solution to the problem is the establishment of an experimental state under the Republic of the Philippines where the Koran is the state mandate."

Amid the escalating costs of the conflict, which has threatened to drag down the national economy, some legislators have proposed a shift to a federal form of government to give way to the Muslims' desire for separation.

Others lawmakers, however, believe tackling poverty and underdevelopment would be the better approach.

Senator Loren Legarda has proposed a Marshall Plan worth 101.8 billion pesos (US$2.42 billion) to rehabilitate Mindanao in the next four years. The Marshall Plan was launched by the United States after World War II to revive the economies of Western Europe.

"It is apparent that a few billions spread over several years will have little or no meaningful impact in lifting Muslim Mindanao from decades of poverty and neglect," said Legarda, chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs.

"What Muslim Mindanao needs is a massive infusion of several billion pesos worth of development funds over a short period," she said.