Monday, July 26, 2004

Don't You Go, Don't You Go to Far Zamboanga

An article in the Weekend Australia describes the reality behind the Philippine's bluster about "standing tall" and "preserving it's dignity". Martin Chulov reports from Zamboanga City.

WITH a sweep of his arm across the bay, the rebel leader warned: "Whatever you do, don't go anywhere out there by yourself. The Germans were taken from that island," he said, pointing at a small atoll. "They'd just gone there to swim. ...

"Them" are the militants and kidnappers who have terrorised the archipelago for the past 10 years. The Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah are two legs of a troika of rebel groups, who have fought the Philippines armed forces under the banner of Islam. The third is the separatist but semi-legitimised MILF, accused in the past of harbouring the terrorists and still continuing to co-operate with them.

In Southeast Asia's war on terror, it is the depth of this link that troubles regional governments, including Australia's, which last week described Mindanao as a hotbed of terrorists. In many of the MILF's 13 declared base camps across the province, there is clear evidence JI and Abu Sayyaf members have joined MILF insurgents in combat training. Many have gone on to commit terrorist acts in The Philippines and Indonesia. And only good fortune and smart intelligence work has prevented catastrophic attacks in Malaysia and Singapore. In prison cells across all four countries are members of JI who have trained in the Mindinao camps and subsequently been accused or convicted of atrocities. Three of the Bali plotters trained in Mindinao, including one, Abdul Ghoni, who was said to have helped to make the Sari Club bomb.

The Manila government has long surrendered sovereignty over large parts of the southern Philippines to the enemy. It is not uncommon for children in Basilan, Jolo or Tawi-tawi to point to arrivals from the capital and exclaim "Look! Here come some Filipinos!" The concern which Arroyo showed towards a Filipino hostage in Iraq does not extend to simple farmers even in the heavily Christian Zamboanga peninsula. "Zamboanga's medical examiner said this week that Abu Sayyaf rebels had been responsible for 76 beheadings over five years in the area surrounding the troubled city."

The Philippines "has a long-standing Islamic insurgency powerful enough to limit state capacity in much of the south, yet so decentralized that what ensues is not a shadow government, but pockets of anarchy", the report says.  "These enclaves are dominated by local rebel commanders owing varying degrees of allegiance to umbrella coalitions like the MILF, or ASG, but whose power is rooted in pyramids of particularistic clan and tribal loyalties."

How do those under the gun in Zamboanga feel about Arroyo "standing tall" in Iraq, bravely defying the pressure of arrogant America by going, belly to the floor to feet of a small gang of terrorists? They are not very impressed.

But in the eyes of two military officers contacted by The Weekend Australian, the events of the past week, rather than strike fear in the hearts of the Abu Sayyaf fighters may well have emboldened them. "We take the fight to them every day and our message has been to never give in to terrorism," said one officer insisting on anonymity. "Yet our Government has given in in the blink of an eye when terrorists in Iraq threatened us," he said, referring to the withdrawal of Philippines troops from Iraq following threats to behead the kidnapped contract truck driver Angelo de la Cruz.

Three quarters of a hundred beheadings around Zamboanga never persuaded Manila to stop offering concessions to terrorists in the south. It's a habit long ingrained in leftist circles in the Philippine capital.