Stuck in Sulu Quagmire by Patricio P. Diaz
Hostilities between Moro and military forces in Sulu flared up anew when the Moro National Liberation Front under Commander Habier Malik mortared the Marine camp last April 13. Fighting is still raging, 21 rebels and Marines have been killed, and 42,000 from six towns have evacuated.
This latest incident only shows how deeply the Philippine government is stuck in the Sulu quagmire. The Arroyo administration appears clueless on how to solve the problem that had been there long before it took over the government in 2001, optimism to the contrary.
The Sulu quagmire is as old as Philippine history. Until the MNLF rebellion in the 1970s, the military had warred against bandits; from the 1970s until the early 1990s, against rebels; from the emergence of the Abu Sayyaf until the present, against terrorists. Altogether, the unrests in Sulu are problems Manila and the military have long been mired in.
Since September 2001, the Arroyo government has tied the Sulu (including Basilan) campaigns to the global war against terrorism of the United States. U.S. President George W. Bush has praised President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as his closest ally in Asia. Since then the Sulu campaigns have been assisted by the U.S. Special Forces.
Under the cover of the RP-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement, the U.S. Special Forces have been training Philippine military forces in anti-terrorism warfare, in intelligence work, and in the use of modern weapons. The Special Forces have also been engaging in civic action projects – lately, extending these to other parts of Muslim Mindanao.
Not so long ago, President Arroyo proclaimed the near-end of terrorism in Sulu. Almost all known top commanders of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu had been killed. Only a handful of Abu Sayyaf terrorists – less than 100 – have survived and are being mopped up by the military forces.
Either the President’s pronouncement was based on erroneous intelligence or the Abu Sayyaf, like the mythical bird phoenix, can rise from its ashes. More military battalions have been sent to Sulu. In today’s news (April 20), the Abus, now numbering 400, are as savage as ever – beheading seven captives and sending the heads to the military camp.
A few times in the earlier past, the military and the President had predicted the extinction of the Abu Sayyaf only to rise in bigger number in succeeding news reports. It seems that part of the quagmire, as the contradictions indicate, is faulty intelligence and reckless propaganda. Minds are won not by glowing words but by visible facts.
Reports from the Palace and the military intend to convince the nation of the successes in the fight against terrorism in Sulu. But the people of Sulu, obviously, are not. The fight can only be won in Sulu not in Manila or elsewhere in the country.
While beneficiaries appreciate civic action projects, they and the non-beneficiaries in greater number evidently continue supporting tacitly the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists.
Evidently, too, most – if not all – people of Sulu do not see the Manila-labeled terrorists as terrorists but as champions of their historic grievances against the government.
Vs. MNLF, Too
The military campaign in Sulu is not just against the Abu Sayyaf but also against MNLF groups known to be loyal to detained Chairman Nur Misuari. Best known among these is Malik’s group. Prompted by Misuari’s protest against the ARMM election, his group attacked the military camp in Panamao, Sulu in November 2001.
For this and the simultaneous attacks of the Southern Command and the Cabatangan Complex in Zamboanga City, Misuari was detained and charged with rebellion. Since then, MNLF-Misuari loyalists have been labeled as Misuari break-away group to make it appear that the mainstream MNLF is true to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement.
But which MNLF faction is the mainstream? The Organization of Islamic Conference has always recognized Misuari as the MNLF chairman. In the review of the 1996 FPA, the OIC has asked the Philippine government to release Misuari so that he can lead the MNLF delegation to Jeddah.
Since November 2001, Malik has challenged the military more than twice. Each time, his camps were captured but later abandoned after negotiations to allow him to re-occupy them. His group would be called “rogue MNLF” each time he attacked the military.
After attacking the Marines last April 13, two of his camps were reported captured. A one million-peso bounty was offered for information leading to his capture. Again, his group was labeled “rogue MNLF”. Will the camps be returned to him again after another negotiation?
Calls for Ceasefire
The government has refused the call of the OIC for a ceasefire and negotiation. President Arroyo told the OIC her government is not fighting the MNLF but the Abu Sayyaf which Malik’s group has joined. In response, the OIC has urged its member states to press for the immediate end of the week-old clashes in Sulu.
Other groups are also calling for a ceasefire and negotiation. Among them are the Suara Bangsamoro Partylist and the Stop the War Coalition – Philippines whose April 17 manifesto was signed by 75 organizations and four individuals as members. The number of refugees is increasing; and so is the need for relief.
Will President Arroyo and the military continue ignoring the call of the OIC at the risk of sanctions which the Associated Press hinted in its report? Will they ignore the local and nationwide calls and the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians?
Will either another ceasefire and negotiation or continued military campaign be the way for the government to pull itself out of the Sulu quagmire? Has it any better alternative?
Roots of the Problem
Neither past ceasefires and negotiations nor escalated military campaigns solved the Sulu problem. In their calls, Suara Bangsamoro Partylist and Stop the War Coalition-Philippines have pointed the way: Address the roots of the problem. To the number of roots they enumerated, more could be added if sought from concerned groups in Sulu.
The heart of the Sulu quagmire is poor military and government intelligence – one that feeds their biases, ignoring the roots of the problems. Such intelligence is not conducive to fruitful dialogues.
Knowing well the roots of the problems despite biases for national interest, government will be ready to understand and grant legitimate, valid and reasonable demands. On the other hand, biased intelligence will tend to ignore and misunderstand such demands.
The historical roots of the Sulu problem must be understood and solved from the viewpoint of Sulu, not of Manila. Demands deemed excessive can be satisfactorily toned down according to conditions prevailing only in Sulu and the sentiments of its people.
Manila should be ready to compromise its biases for national interest with the social, economic and cultural welfare of Sulu to the satisfaction of its people. There is no better way out of the quagmire.