Security for Economic Growth: Ethnic Conflict and
the U.S. in Southern Philippines
By Datu Ishak Mastura, Esq.*
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. military forces went back to southern Philippines ostensibly to engage in counterterrorism training exercises against the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) linked Abu Sayyaf. The focus of the U.S. mission was to help the Philippine forces to hunt down JI and Abu Sayyaf. It has been theorized that the U.S. mission in southern Philippines was the test ground of the Pentagon’s wider mission in Southeast Asia which is to integrate “gap or seam” states into the functioning core of globalization beginning with the areas of localized state failure in Mindanao, where there is an existing long-running insurgency by the Muslim Moro ethnic group. At first, they were successful in rooting out Abu Sayyaf in Basilan Island by orchestrating a humanitarian assistance campaign, which severed the link between the terrorists and the rest of the Muslim population. However, the same mission has bogged down in the Sulu Island because of failure of political planning and to take into consideration the political economy of security, which in this case means dealing with the Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation) struggle for self-determination.
The essential lesson after five years of U.S. counterterrorism policy is that in order for local Muslim populations to take the counterterrorism agenda of the U.S. seriously, it must take their state-building and power-sharing agendas seriously too since conflict resolution and good governance are in fact the key to countering terrorism in the long term beginning with assistance to the Mindanao peace process with the Moro rebels. U.S. efforts in Mindanao must be complemented with nation or state (re)building of a Bangsa Moro homeland that has its roots in formerly independent Moro sultanates in order to anchor stability in the East Maritime Southeast Asia astride crucial sea-lines of communication. Japan and USAID are assisting in the reconstruction and development of the Bangsa Moro areas in Mindanao but without the necessary state or institution (re) building of a Bangsa Moro homeland within the Philippine state there is the risk of Mindanao reverting to the status quo because of the inherent weakness of the Philippines. Failure to contain or eliminate terrorism in Mindanao might herald Great Power war in the region since according to the theory of International Terrorism and the World System, the outbreak of terrorist activities signals hegemonic succession (possibly from the U.S. to China, which is increasing its influence in the Philippines within the traditional sphere of influence of the U.S.), and the trigger for Great Power war as what happened in the Thirty Years War and the WW I is usually a terrorist event.
U.S. mission in Mindanao
It has been postulated before that the mission of the U.S. in Southern Philippines is bringing the lawless parts or areas of localized state failure in Mindanao, principally populated by the Muslim Moro ethnic group or Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation), within the “limits of Western civilization” in the archaic terminology of Ralston Hayden, which is translated today as bringing “security into the gap or seam” in Mindanao in order to connect Mindanao to the wider benefits of “globalization.”
This mission is not new as it was defined by Ralston Hayden even in 1928 with regard to the Moros of Mindanao, if by “globalization” we mean the Western-dominated system we have today, which is basically Hayden’s thesis regarding the “limits of Western civilization” reformulated for the 21st Century. Coincidentally or not, Thomas Barnett has defined the role of the U.S. military or the Pentagon in his book, The Pentagon’s New Map, as protecting and projecting “globalization”. According to an article by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) based in Singapore, the fundamental thesis of Barnett is that “disconnectedness defines danger.” To be disconnected is to be disengaged from the globalizing world and all its attendant values, norms and interdependence. On this premise, the U.S. strategy is to fix the disconnectedness in areas like Mindanao in the Southern Philippines so-called “gap or seam” states, which are failed, failing or simply weak. This will entail building effective governance, democratic regimes, and connectedness among disconnected states via economic, military and political means. By exporting security into the gap or seam states, the Pentagon hopes to stem the migration of terrorist activities to the United States, and regional investment, business and trade links can be expanded. Barnett says that, “The integration of the gap will ultimately depend more on private investment than anything the core’s public sector can offer.”
The IDSS article recognizes that this strategy of the Pentagon is being seriously pursued in the region and that it addresses the question of whether the U.S. has an ASEAN strategy or not.
U.S. counterterrorism training exercises in Mindanao
In the Philippines, the U.S. military through its annual training exercises has focused on containing and reducing an environment open and willing to support terrorist activities and ideology through a consolidation of roles of civil, military and medical units wherein military and civil action had been combined with humanitarian efforts, such as in Basilan in 2002, which reduced sanctuaries for the Abu-Sayyaf group. According to these types of operations, which were also tried in Afghanistan, the fulcrum of anti-terrorist activities are the civilian population where terrorist elements are supposed to have embedded themselves, to wit:
The center of gravity became the Afghan people. If you can provide reconstruction, provide security, bring benefits to the Afghan national government to those provinces, then what you do is deny that area to the insurgents.
While the strategy was relatively successful in Basilan, the ostensible mission being to help Filipino troops kill or capture international terrorists, which was accomplished by orchestrating a humanitarian assistance campaign, which severed the link between the terrorists and the rest of the Muslim population allowing the U.S. military forces to leave Basilan, the American achievement in Basilan is already being endangered because of the weak Philippine state and the age-old problem of ethnic conflict between the Moros and the Christian Filipinos. As Robert Kaplan said in his book Imperial Grunts regarding the U.S. military in Basilan:
Though I would learn more about Operation Enduring Freedom, one thing was already obvious: America could not change the vast forces of history and culture that had placed a poor Muslim region at the southern edge of a badly governed, Christian-run archipelago nation. All America could do was insert its armed forces here and there, as unobtrusively as possible, to alleviate perceived threats to its own security when they became particularly acute…..Humanitarian assistance may not be the weapon of choice for Pentagon hardliners, who prefer to hunt down and kill “bad guys” through direct action rather than dig wells and build schools—projects that in any case are possibly unsustainable, because national governments like that of the Philippines lack the resolve to pick up where the United States leaves off. I had the distinct sense that the work of Special Forces on Basilan had merely raised expectations—ones the government in Manila would be unable to meet.
Burden of history
Unfortunately for America, it cannot escape responsibility for the troubled history of Mindanao, for it was precisely America, who nearly a century ago as the colonial master of the Philippines, lumped the Moro areas in Mindanao together with the Filipino nation when there was no need to do so after having already won the peace and establishing the Moro Province “allowing for a considerable de facto autonomy for Mindanao and Sulu.”
Early in the American colonial administration, U.S. imperial nation-building imagined Muslims or the Moros as permanently outside the Philippine nation that U.S. colonialism was constructing and “the Moro Province was in many ways constructed as an independent state under U.S. military authorities.” The Moro leadership appreciated American colonial control with the hope that Americans sympathetic to the separation of Mindanao from the Philippines would eventually give “independence” promised them after the completion of the “civilizing process.” In the words of Eugene Martin, a retired American diplomat, who became the executive director of the Philippine Facilitation Project of the United States Institute of Peace:
The United States has been involved with Filipino-Muslims since 1898 when we purchased the Philippine Islands from the Spanish for $20 million. Although it never conquered the Islamic sultanates in the south, Spain was willing to transfer all the islands to the United States as if it had. We succeeded in overcoming Moro resistance where Spain failed, thanks to modern weaponry and tactics. Realizing the ethnic and religious differences between the Moros and the rest of the Philippines, the U.S. colonial government administered Muslim areas separately, giving them considerable autonomy in local and cultural affairs. Perhaps as a result of U.S. colonial policies, representatives from Muslim areas formally urged Washington not to include those areas in the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, preferring even to remain a U.S. colony for a longer period. The United States did not heed Muslim entreaties, which has resulted in Moros occasionally telling Washington that the subsequent problems are the fault of the United States so “we” should fix them.
Alas, for the Moros a separate future from the Philippines was not to be because of the implementation of the policy of Filipinization by succeeding American administrators of the Philippine colony wherein Moros were administered by Filipinos in their own homeland.
The Bangsa Moro struggle
The current Moro armed conflict is the sharpest expression of this struggle or clash between two imagined nations or nationalisms, Filipino and Moro, with their own narratives of the conflict. For the Moro revolutionary movements, it has been a conscious struggle to regain the historical sovereignty of the independent Moro nation-states, particularly the Maguindanao and Sulu Sultanates, which according to the historian De La Costa by 1718 had become “full-fledged sultanates with a fiscal administration, courts of justice and a bureaucracy of a rudimentary kind.” For the Philippine government and nation-state of the 20th century, it has been a matter of defending its territorial integrity against secession and dismemberment making the conflict a veritable case of “irresistible forces, immovable objects.”
Understandably, the U.S. government has been loath to be involved in this historical minefield, which had beginnings from its own colonial history in the Philippines almost a century ago. While some note the relative success of joint U.S.-Filipino training exercises against the Abu Sayyaf, others warn that increasing U.S. involvement could “complicate” the Philippine’s insurgency dilemma and also possibly fuel anti-American sentiment in the region which could form the basis “of a new pan-Islamic solidarity in the region.” Some experts contend that not all militant Muslim groups operating in the region are aligned with Al Qaeda and it is important that U.S. counter-terror efforts in the region “do not motivate these potential affiliates to join the Al Qaeda cause.”
The worse thing that the U.S. military could do is to be lured by the Philippine government to confront militarily in conjunction with the Philippine military the Moro revolutionary groups, be it the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) or its larger splinter faction the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as the break-up of the Moro revolutionary organizations would likely spawn new Fourth Generation War groups that will be harder to eliminate and contribute to decades of instability in Mindanao and the rest of the region. Paraphrasing Fourth Generation War guru William Lind:
[M]ost of what [the Philippine military is facing]…..today is not yet Fourth Generation warfare, but a War of National Liberation, fought by people whose goal is to restore a [Moro] state. But as that goal fades and those forces splinter, Fourth Generation war will come more and more to the fore. What will characterize it is not vast changes in how the enemy fights, but rather in who fights and what they fight for. The change in who fights makes it difficult for us to tell friend from foe…..The change in what our enemies fight for makes impossible the political compromises that are necessary to ending any war. We find that when it comes to making peace, we have no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. And the end of a war like that in Iraq [or the Philippine insurgency] becomes inevitable: the local state we attacked vanishes, leaving behind either a stateless region (Somalia) or a façade of a state (Afghanistan) within which more non-state elements rise and fight.
Besides it is not in the interest of U.S. counterterrorism policy to have the MILF (since the MNLF is now confined to Sulu Island) splintered into several groups scattered over a large swath of the big island of Mindanao, making it difficult to track them down and to gather intelligence information on the movement. Splintering into smaller groups will inevitably lead to lesser command and control of the central leadership and local autonomy for guerrilla commanders, who may be inclined to follow their own strategies such as linking-up with extremists.
Often the Moro revolutionary movements are criticized for being diffused or decentralized making it difficult to have a single group to negotiate for a peace settlement. However, they fail to realize that the Moros are a traditional tribal warrior society. As a traditional clan-based tribal society, the Moros have evolved the most lethal cocktail of warfighting capability that has enabled them to survive the onslaught of modern forces including military force for centuries. Tribes, clans and family groups that are the traditional composition of Moro society take orders from their own leaders, often based in local hierarchies, and do not belong to a centralized military command and control structure unless their commander or traditional leader commits them to it so often local commanders get their men from their own personal following coming from their clans, family ties or their villages. As a result, the loss or capture of a commander impacts on the effectiveness of an individual unit, but other units in the area are able to continue their operations.
The clan and tribal structure of the Moros does not mean that revolutionary movements like the MILF are incoherent. Rather, the MILF and other Moro revolutionary groups were established through the clan-based and kinship network so that in the beginning were the clans and through their shared history of grievances against the central government was formed the Bangsamoro revolutionary cause. According to field observation by one researcher in 2005, “the MILF is a more unitary organization than it is given credit for (though it is hardly monolithic) with effective (though it can be slow) command and control.” More recently in 2006 in a Terrorism Conference in Singapore, a consensus was arrived that the MILF leadership remains strong and controls large territory under the grip of hard-line commanders, who nevertheless see that the dividends of peace as attractive.
The lesson for policymakers is that it is the organically evolved complexity of a society such as that of the Moros that sustains and defines its survival (which is the essence of victory itself). One observation defines the supreme art of survival of the Moros in the face of superior forces pressing from outside, and that is “Individual clans can be simultaneously represented in local politics, local military commands and local insurgency commands. Images of the conflict based on the clash of two clearly defined ‘sides’ fail to grasp this essential reality. Policies that do not take it into account will founder.”
Another lesson for policymakers is that when the military of an outside power such as the U.S. (or the Philippine military in Moro territory for that matter) invades the territory of a traditional society, the strict customary codes that govern the use of force, status of noncombatants, and proportionality of attacks are often modified and even suspended, wherein there are fewer restrictions and anybody becomes fair game, as what happened in Basilan and Sulu (or the 2000 “all out war” against the MILF) for a time before the Philippine military and U.S. advisers switched to a “hearts and minds” campaign and surgical strikes against Abu Sayyaf.
Nation or State-(Re) building
However, as they become more embedded locally, some analysts say the U.S. troops may have to eventually deal with problems other than security, and foremost of which is the undemocratic and corrupt nature of local political power, on the premise that the ultimate success of the “war on terror” hinges not on the physical elimination of groups like the Abu Sayyaf, but in resolving the absence of democratic politics in Muslim Mindanao by ending the domination of the political clans. Eliminating clan power in order to have a more democratic government in Muslim Mindanao would require the US military to engage in state (re)building to usher in a new set of leaders more representative of Muslim popular interests. Three obstacles make this unlikely: “First, Manila itself has little interest in or ability to pursue this strategy; second, the very politicians who are now allies in the “war on terror” would fiercely oppose it; and third, this is precisely the kind of political and administrative muddle that most American policy makers shun; nevertheless, it is hard to envision any other path to long-term stability in Muslim Mindanao.”
Reinforcing this view is the comment by one resident foreign observer that:
Discussions of a constructive U.S. role typically focus on promoting security and development, but this approach fails to recognize a simple truth: the traditional prerogatives of power in the southern Philippines are fundamentally incompatible with either. A thin veneer of democratic institutions covers a society that remains essentially feudal, conforming less to democratic ideals than to the style of the datus, the warrior chiefs of old. Leadership is personal and paternalistic and functions largely above the law; power flows from guns and money.
Political solution to ethnic conflict
U.S. military thinking recognizes that ethnic-based secessionist movements like that of the Moros are spawned by failures in integration and assimilation, wherein as ethnic groups are convinced that they are unable to compete and to be accommodated within undivided states; in effect colonized by administrators from other regions and subject to discriminatory language and hiring policies so that they seek independence or seek to regain their original status of sovereignty. More often than not they are heedless of the economic costs of separation even if it will likely mean loss of subsidies from the center because their political and ethnic goals outweigh the benefits that come with the undivided state. As we have seen, ethnic conflict stems from deep historical roots. Thus, they ultimately require “political solutions” since the use of military force can never achieve a lasting solution and at best military force can only accomplish temporary containment of violence and contribute to an environment that permits the establishment of political conditions or institutions that lead to a more lasting solution.
With regard to Southern Philippines, a group of security experts, who met in late 2006 in a Security Conference in Singapore to discuss the terrorism, insurgency and secessionist problems in the Southeast Asian region, brought forth three main lessons learnt: “First, a military solution, or at least a solely military solution, was not viable. The group recommended adopting a “carrot and stick” approach instead; second, it emphasized the need for “good governance”, [which they went] further to unpack the commonly used phrase and listed the values of resisting corruption and graft, transparency, rule of law, de-centralisation, provision of social services and the de-marginalisation of groups [and] third, the group acknowledged that the Philippines faced a problem of implementation and needed to build a comprehensive political solution. The main problem cited was a weak state, necessitating legal and constitutional affairs…..With the MILF, the ceasefire was seen to be positively holding up, with the next step being the introduction of further development projects into the political solution.”
Dilemma of counterterrorism operations in Mindanao
The key problem for the U.S. as it conducts training exercises in Mindanao to flush out Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) remains the same: “How does one separate the terrorist parasite from its unwilling host, without doing fatal violence to the patient?”
As it is, according to a study published by the U.S. Committee on Refugees in December 1999, the Philippines is the fourth Southeast Asian country with the most internally displaced persons surpassed only by Myanmar, Indonesia and East Timor. This displacement is concentrated in Mindanao, where sporadic military operations are conducted against Moro communities suspected of hosting foreign terrorists, or as a result of counterinsurgency operations.
Furthermore, there is the complication that the “terrorists are embedded in a volatile Muslim insurgency with which the West has no quarrel.” The MILF is Southeast Asia’s strongest separatist group with 15,000 armed guerillas enjoying popular support as it expresses the legitimate grievances of the Moros, and is engaged in peace talks with the Philippine government. So what is to be done? Security analysts say that:
American forces are probing the sanctuaries in the guise of training exercises, and they are backing targeted air strikes. But they must tread lightly, lest they be drawn into a shooting war, which would catalyze new alliances among local and foreign militants. A conventional military approach failed in Cambodia and Lebanon. It would fail in Mindanao, too. Instead, surgical military strikes based on an expanded intelligence effort should complement the peace process, prying extremists away from the MILF mainstream. A crucial, if embryonic, mechanism in this campaign is the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, established by the Philippine government and MILF negotiators to facilitate cooperation against “lawless elements” in MILF territory. The Group’s mandate should be widened, and resources should be provided to allow it to tackle terrorism explicitly.
While “surgical strikes” are supposed to be the order of the day, the current operations in Sulu Island where the Abu Sayyaf and their JI mentors are believed to be holed up have not been viewed as an unqualified success as the previous operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan Island even though the some of the top leadership of the Abu Sayyaf including their titular head Khadaffy Janjalani have been killed. So that:
After more than eight months of fighting involving 10,000 troops backed by US combat advisors the Philippine military claims to have killed just 70 Abu Sayyaf militants and two top leaders out of an estimated force of 400. Yet in the process a ten-year old peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front has come under strain and dozens, if not hundreds of civilians have died in the crossfire and thousands displaced.
It is now obvious after the last five years of U.S. counterterrorism policy that in order for local Muslim populations to take the counterterrorism agenda of the United States seriously, it must take their state-building and power-sharing agendas seriously too since conflict resolution and good governance are in fact the key to countering terrorism in the long term. By relying on sporadic military strikes and continued support for hard line policies of hawkish military elements without broader political planning, it runs the risk of combining the worst elements of its current strategy in Iraq with the Cold War-era policy of cronyism for the strong.
Mindanao peace process as sine qua non for stability in the region
Mindanao has been identified as an international “black hole” where effective government is weak and as such, “there is also a high level of criminal gang violence and violence connected with illegal operations such as safeguarding illegal logging against popular protest.” Given the predominance of the clans in the social and political order, “armed conflicts between guerrillas and state security bodies often appear to result from private vendettas between rival families, [but] for opportunistic reasons, they are reinterpreted as conflicts within the framework of the political struggle for self-determination.” Typical in the Bangsa Moro areas is the situation in Sulu, to wit:
The situation in Sulu, where strongmen have gained impunity, illustrates how a national government, with all its resources, personnel and legitimacy can be paralyzed and unable to enforce its will. While technically superior, the national government cannot move because it might unsettle the fragile peace in the province. The rule of law breaks down because violence, in the complex milieu of Sulu, becomes its own legitimacy.
Because the long-running insurgency in Mindanao has created conditions for lawless violence and fostered instability (resulting from clan feuding, ‘strongmen’ politics and military pacification), “the region [is] awash with unregulated firearms that constitutes a threat to security in their own right. The region is now one of the most heavily armed areas in Southeast Asia, and is certainly one of its least secure.” The Philippine military estimates that in Sulu “there are more than 30,000 loose firearms. Some reports say there are 100,000 loose firearms in the whole of Mindanao.”
Adding to the overall insecurity in Mindanao is the extremely strong gun culture among the Moros, where even poor people have guns. The Moro attitude that owning a gun is the only real means to protect oneself and one’s family and way of life is rooted in the narrative of resistance to colonizers, but now it is being justified by the general insecurity.
Ultimately, it is international support to the peace process with the MILF that will reduce the problem of terrorism and instability in the Philippines that threatens to affect the region. The International Crisis Group states that “genuine and fully implemented autonomy for Philippine Muslims is a sine qua non for winning the long-term war on terror in Mindanao.”
Of the three tracks (i.e. MNLF, MILF and Abu Sayyaf) constituting the current form of evolution of the Moro conflict, the MILF track seems to be a linchpin of the broader Mindanao peace process and the legitimate fight in defense against terrorism because this track is still evolving. The MNLF can be expected not to begrudge additional gains for Bangsamoro aspirations (such as those not adequately addressed by the 1996 Peace Agreement), which the MILF might achieve in its negotiations with the Philippine government while at the same time, the Philippine government should realize that the MILF did not split from the MNLF and continue to wage its own struggle, only to end up with a mere enhancement of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) so any offer from the Philippine government has to be qualitatively and substantially better.
Giving priority to the MILF track has been called a bold step that must be taken for “peace in our time” because what is really at stake here is whether the Mindanao conflict can be ended in this generation, or whether it will be passed on to the next one and evolve into a new form with wider implications for stability in the region.
The American government has expressed support to the peace process with the MILF and no less than the State Department has acknowledged that Moros have “serious legitimate, grievances that must be addressed.” U.S. policy on the matter is that it “wishes to see an end to the violence in the southern Philippines and is working to assist the Republic of the Philippines in addressing the root causes of that violence.”
Accordingly, “the United States stands ready to support, both politically and financially, a bona fide peace process between the Republic of the Philippines and the MILF.” The U.S. assisted the peace talk through USIP as a third party observer fostering dialogue between stakeholders in the peace process. Lately, it has signified that the State Department will begin dealing directly with the MILF through a liaison officer.
However, the U.S. has expressed concern about links between the MILF and international terrorist organizations and asked that those links be severed. In response, shortly before his death in July 2003, MILF chairman, Hashim Salamat, wrote a personal letter to President George Bush denying that the MILF engaged in terroristic acts and disavowing terrorism as a means of attaining its legitimate political ends.
The latest pronouncement of the MILF last December 10, 2006 is that they welcome President Bush’s recent statement “the United States is committed to fostering a climate of peace in Mindanao, and stand ready to provide quick-disbursing assistance once an agreement is signed with the MILF.” Earlier in 2004, the U.S. earmarked US$30 million for the peace process conditioned on the signing of a peace agreement.
Although the peace talks are currently at an impasse as to the territorial extent of the Bangsamoro homeland and due to the MILF’s insistence that new territories to be added to the existing territory of ARMM should not be incorporated through a plebiscite and thus risk failure just like in the past peace agreements because of the “veto” votes of the Christian settlers, the peace process with the MILF is viewed as irreversible and that it will eventually result in a peace agreement. The MILF considers 2007 as “make or break for the government and MILF” regarding the conclusion of peace talks.
Failure of the MNLF track as destabilizing factor
On the other hand with regard to the MNLF, the Philippine military has often “felt that the MNLF was a spent force and that the government has won the ‘psy-ops’ war against them, having gotten them to sign a peace agreement, which is being complied with slowly at a pace that the government dictates. Moreover, the government has effectively splintered the ranks of the MNLF, utilizing instruments of patronage.”
Except for a few pocket guerilla camps in Sulu, who remain loyal to Misuari, the MNLF can no longer field a credible force against the government in the rest of Mindanao especially since “with MNLF integration of up to 5,750 fighters into the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and up to 1,500 fighters into the Philippine National Police (PNP), for a total of 7,250 integrees, at least half of whatever force strength it had, one can say that the MNLF has substantially been defanged.”
Besides, the MNLF has already lost its hold on the ARMM when it failed to field a candidate for Regional Governor in the last elections on August 8, 2005 and thus, “because of its inadequate record of governance, the MNLF is on the verge of being regarded as irrelevant in the pursuit of peace and development in the region. After almost a decade of leading the ARMM, the fact that its leaders cannot win elections in the region without presidential backing indicates the group’s lackluster track record.” It has been said that “the tragedy is that the demise of the MNLF may also serve as a death knell for the 1996 peace agreement.”
However, the MNLF presence in Sulu cannot be discounted with regard to its capability to continue to cause disruption in its home turf, which may extend to the other islands in the Sulu Archipelago and the surrounding seas, threatening any future offshore oilfields.
In fact, in February and November of 2005 fierce fighting raged in Sulu between the Philippine military and the MNLF, who said that their camps were invaded by the military and that they were only retaliating for the military’s atrocities against civilians in the AFP’s pursuit of the criminal and terrorist gang, Abu Sayyaf.
Nevertheless, even if the MNLF has become a shadow of its former self, other revolutionary groups have been fighting for the Bangsa Moro cause. Indeed, just as then President Fidel Ramos finished concluding a peace agreement with the MNLF in 1996, he turned his attention to another insurgent group, the MILF, with which his government started negotiating in October 1996 and this led in turn to a general ceasefire in July 1997. This peace negotiation represents a second track of the overall Mindanao peace process, the MILF Track, while the MNLF peace agreement with its continuing problems of implementation is labeled as the MNLF Track as earlier stated.
Transforming the MILF and Muslim Mindanao
Hence, the overall Mindanao peace process finds its convergence in the peace negotiations with the MILF to which international actors have committed their support, such as the participation of Japan, Sweden and Canada to the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team that monitors the ceasefire between the government and the MILF. More innovatively, some experts have suggested that the pivotal international support to the peace process is in helping the transformation of the MILF, to wit:
Transforming the MILF
An important contribution foreign support can provide is also delicate — helping the MILF transform itself into an effective unarmed political force. If this transformation fails there will be no peace. The Moro National Liberation Front has never succeeded in turning itself into an effective regional political party with a permanent voice in national politics. This means that it has always been in a weak position in its dealings with the government and the national ruling party coalition. This lack of a political voice weakened Misuari’s authority and created strong incentives for local commanders to return to the gun to reassert their political interests ‘outside the system’. The latest elections in the ARMM where the president backed a non-MNLF slate clearly shows the shortcomings of this lack of transformation. The MILF needs to succeed where its predecessor organisation failed to ensure the sustainability of any peace deal…..Yet this transition is the lynchpin to a political solution to the Moro insurgency and to severing the links between the Moro insurgency and regional terrorism. Foreign support for the development of the MILF as an independent, mass-based political party with a national voice should only be considered after the MILF central command, through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, has shown its ability to sever links between MILF local commanders and regional terrorist groups and to bring the large majority of these commanders over to support a peace deal.
The proposal for the MILF to transform into a mass-based political party would fit in with the earlier mentioned proposal to eliminate clan power in Muslim Mindanao in order to have a more democratic government in Muslim Mindanao, which would require the US military to engage in state (re)building to usher in a new set of leaders more representative of Muslim popular interests. The MILF could provide the new set of leaders that is more representative of the Moro masses since it is now their vanguard after the disintegration of the MNLF. After all, according to one academic writer:
Whatever the historical limitations of the MNLF (or the MILF for that matter), given the incontrovertible evidence of their mass following – larger so far than what the CPP/NPA could amass at any given encounter with the AFP – and given the class structure of the Moro people (the majority of whom are exploited peasants and workers) vis-à-vis the majority of Christian Filipinos, there is no question that they genuinely represent the historic grievances and aspirations of their community. To be sure, large-scale political mobilization of Moro combatants with their civilian base may be viewed as participatory democracy in action, grassroots democracy in actual practice.
U.S. response to Southeast Asian security challenge
More fundamentally for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia helping resolve the legitimate grievances of the Bangsa Moro will advance the elements of Grand Strategy outlined by Professor Marvin C. Ott in his recent article for the Institute of National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University within the U.S. Department of Defense, Southeast Asian Security Challenges: America’s Response?, wherein its essence is the need for a comprehensive U.S. security strategy for Southeast Asia that addresses the pervasive sense of Muslim grievance, which jihadists have exploited, and that takes seriously the Chinese strategic challenge in the region.
Ott’s idea is consistent with Barnett’s proposition of integrating areas in the so-called “gap or seam” states to the U.S. led globalized political-economy, which areas in Southeast Asia are mostly Muslim-populated and where societal dislocation and economic hardship among Southeast Asian Muslims (particularly as both generate large numbers of underemployed and poorly educated young men, who are ambitious, energetic, Islamic and frustrated) contribute to terrorism.
“If America is able to help address the underlying historical grievances of the Muslim people of the southern Philippines, it would be another indication that we are willing to go to bat for people who have legitimate grievances,” according to Eugene Martin, executive director of the Philippine Facilitation Project of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
At the very least the U.S. role should continue in helping suppress the Abu Sayyaf while encouraging the conclusion of the peace negotiations with the MILF and boosting the political will of the Manila government to institute the necessary reforms for lasting peace.
If a peace agreement is signed, the U.S. will be confronted with a policy decision whether or not to employ pressure on the Philippine government to faithfully implement its obligations under a peace agreement, which scenario is plausible considering the poor track record at implementation of the Philippine government with the earlier 1977 and 1996 peace agreements with the MNLF.
Comprehensive approach to security
However, despite the rhetoric scant attention is being paid to the political-economy factor in case a peace deal with the MILF pushes through, which is why there is a need for a comprehensive security strategy even before any peace deal. “If a peace deal is struck, Mindanao would still be in the same boat as the rest of the Philippines,” observes Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation’s top man in Manila.
If the negotiations are unaccompanied by real change and Mindanao reverts to the status quo as what happened after the 1996 peace deal with the MNLF, the rebellion will surely resume in one form or another.
For the Philippines, the Moro struggle for self-determination while seemingly separate and distinct from the formation of Filipino nationhood is paradoxically the key to justice and a more equitable society in the Philippines as one Filipino-American intellectual put it, to wit:
The issue of Moro self-determination remains the key, the Archimedean point, to the prospect of security, civil liberty, progress, and above all justice, throughout the Philippines.
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Because the Moro struggle for independence and dignity is the key, virtually the catalyst and crucible, for the all-encompassing Filipino struggle for democracy, justice and national liberation, it is necessary to affirm once more the right of the Moro people to national self-determination. What is involved here is essentially the practice of political democracy by the masses, principally the underprivileged workers and peasants, but also the middle strata of professionals and even including the relatively wealthy business/merchants and small landlords (the datus and their clans). Neither differences in language, religion, nor territory can limit this democratic right of any national collectivity to determine its life and destiny, particularly against a colonizing and occupying power.
Political-economy of security
This brings us to the next question in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. If the U.S. has been perceived as lacking commitment in “state-(re)building” in situations of localized state failure such as in Mindanao, are there other countries more willing to engage in its intricacies that could complement U.S. efforts at the same time?
A viable U.S. counterterrorism strategy must move beyond police, intelligence and military assistance to help countries tackle the socio-economic vulnerabilities that provide openings for jihadists to exploit.
One country now increasingly involved in the Mindanao peace process is Japan, which in late 2006 joined the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team that is monitoring the ceasefire between the Philippine government and the MILF. Japan as the country with the second largest economy in the world is a close political and military ally of the U.S. However, its pacifist constitution does not allow it to project its foreign policy by military means. Hence, Japan is one of the strongest practitioners of the “political economy of security.”
Japan has articulated conceptions of comprehensive and human security that stress the interrelationship between economics and security and has long-favored state-building policies as key to East Asian stability. For Japan, the root causes of domestic and transnational terrorism lie in the economic dislocation, societal alienation, human insecurity, and the failure of state apparatuses to provide for the security of their citizens; consequently, Japan has contended the logical response to terrorism is the application of economic power.
It would seem that Ott’s thesis on some of the roots of terrorism is similar to the views of Japan’s policy elites. This political economy approach to security has somewhat complemented that of the U.S. agenda in the ‘war on terror’ by supporting key allies, but it has also shown signs of divergence because of Japan’s long-term commitment to state-building and human security.
In the case of Mindanao, aside from joining the IMT, Japan has committed a $400 million ‘Support Package for Peace and Stability in Mindanao’ in December 2002. It also directly provided Bangsa Moro communities small infrastructure projects under its Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Project through a special facility called the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development or J-BIRD in early 2007. Also under the J-BIRD it committed starting 2007 to conduct an Urgent Development Study for Socio-Economic Rehabilitation and Development of Conflict-Affected Areas in Mindanao with the cooperation of the MILF development arm created under the peace process, the Bangsamoro Development Agency. The support package for Mindanao priority areas are support for policy formulation and implementation of ARMM, support for improvement of basic human needs and support which directly contributes to peace-building and the fight against terrorism.
Nevertheless, it is not farfetched to see the U.S. having the same comprehensive security policy in conjunction with Japan in Southeast Asia, and it can very well start the formulation of that comprehensive security strategy in Mindanao. The U.S. and Japan as the main allies and economic supporters of the Philippines can help the Philippines extricate itself from the quagmire that is the Mindanao conflict (which is creating sanctuaries of terror in the region) through this comprehensive security strategy that would address the Bangsa Moro’s legitimate grievances against the central government as well.
Perhaps this is already beginning to be the case in Mindanao because the USAID is set to increase its flagship Growth with Equity in Mindanao program up to $145 million for the next five years starting in mid-2007 with the optional additional assistance in case of a peace agreement with the MILF is realized. According to the recommendation of Professor Marvin C. Ott, beyond counterterrorism assistance, the U.S. can assist countries in the region by doing two things: 1) finding multiple ways to convey respect for Islam and Islamic institutions, including enhanced contacts between Americans and Muslims in the region and 2) building political/diplomatic ties with the region.
The best way to convey respect to the Muslims in Mindanao is if they see that the programs and projects that are being implemented in their communities are done by fellow Bangsa Moro and not by Christian Filipinos.
Enter the Dragon
The U.S. working with Japan through the Mindanao peace process can also counter increasing Chinese influence in the Philippines. This influence is highlighted by the statement of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at the East Asian Summit in January 2007 that: “We are happy to have China as our big brother.” Recently in March 2007, the National Economic Development Authority announced the approval of Official Development Assistance coming from China of almost $1 billion for new projects in telecoms and internet connectivity. This latest assistance is on top of the pledges during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Philippines on April 2005 where China agreed to invest in the country $1.1 billion including $950 million in a nickel mine in economically-depressed Mindanao (although the mine deal has reportedly been put off). It extended a concessional loan for the upgrade of the North Luzon Railway to the tune of $543 million as well as gave $2.5 million in grants. Trade is increasing between the two countries with a surplus in favor of the Philippines so that China is now the fourth largest trading partner of the Philippines.
In a recent issue, Newsweek reported Henry Yep, of the U.S. National Defense University, saying China’s assistance to key Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines now far outstrips U.S. largesse, while a top Philippine defense official says that his “government is able to consider the types of relations it never would have before … because China’s public image is strong.” (It’s probably no coincidence that Manila recently accepted more than $400 million in Chinese aid.).
The U.S. and Japan cannot be expected to compete with the wave of money that will be coming from Chinese investments especially since economics is power and the balance of influence has begun to shift to China with the added dimension of the presence of a large and economically potent ethnic Chinese population, who currently dominate large sectors of the economy, particularly banking.
So it is only in the security dimension that they can gain leverage. However, the present stalemate between the MILF and the Philippine military presents them the opportunity to hedge their bets with the Bangsa Moro. This can be done by establishing a pro-Western Muslim body polity in Southeast Asia through the re-territorialization of a Bangsa Moro homeland within the Philippine state. The re-territorialization of a Bangsa Moro homeland can be done by means of supporting the peace process between the Philippine government and the MILF in the name of Human Security for the Bangsa Moro.
Clearly with the increased international attention, the current framework of the peace negotiations in the Mindanao conflict has gone beyond the traditional low-level mediation of the Organization of Islamic Conference and has now reached the level of International Diplomacy and application of International Law Framework since as explained below in one article on Human Security:
The international political architecture of the Cold War was defined by the respect for territorial integrity together with the principles of sovereign competence and noninterference. The architecture of the post-Cold War period has changed, however, especially in relation to ineffective states. While respect for territorial integrity remains, with regard to non-interference, sovereignty over the noninsured populations living within such states has become internationalized, negotiable and conditional. Interventions in Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, have not challenged the territorial integrity of the states concerned; indeed, its principle has been upheld. What is in question is how populations within such territories are governed and maintained. Re-territorialization within the existing borders of ineffective states, based upon external oversight and control of core budgetary and human security functions, is not only seen as good in itself, it has been cast as essential for the security of mass consumer society.
Promoting Bangsa Moro Human Security, which is defined as a people-centered approach to foreign policy which recognizes that lasting stability cannot be achieved until people are protected from violent threats to their rights, safety or lives, will in turn address the felt need for a comprehensive Moro policy on the part of the U.S. the lack of which was lamented in the following manner by Ralston Hayden as long ago as 1928: “The most urgent need is for the establishment by the United States of a stable Moro policy, one which will be recognized as permanent by interested Americans, and by Filipinos and Moros.