Unrelenting  U.S. Intervention in the Philippines and the Question of Moro   Sovereignty

by E. San Juan, Jr.



Except for natural disasters such as the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, or the sinking of a ferry with hundreds of victims, nobody notices what’s going on in the Philippines today. But now that Britney Spears just belted out her tempting warble of “sneaking into the Philippines, ” can the PENTAGON Special Forces not be far behind to get a piece of the action? Before you can say “Yo Mama!” US troops are found already “embedded” in the Empire’s most Americanized islands where savage class wars have been raging for decades.
The US invaded the Philippines in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, but it created the “first Vietnam” (to quote the historian Bernard Fall) when 1.4 million Filipino recalcitrants had to be “neutralized” to convert the revolutionary Philippine Republic into an “insular possession.”  Mark Twain praised the US government’s success in acquiring “property in the three hundred concubines and other slaves of our business partner, the Sultan of Sulu,” referring to the “civilizing mission” of US diplomacy over the Muslim inhabitants of the southern Philippines (E. San Juan, US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines, 2007). But in the 1906 siege at Mt. Dajo and the 1913 rout at Mt. Bagsak, both in Jolo, the US military had to massacre thousands of Muslim men, women and children to complete the islands’ pacification. The victors seemed not to have learned anything, so history is repeating itself.
A hundred years after, the U.S. seems to be doing the job again.
By the last week of September, the total casualty figure surpassed three hundred as government troops (with their US advisers/trainers) and Moro (Muslim citizens of the Philippines) militants clashed in the southern Philippines. The scale of violence and magnitude of civilian suffering reached a crescendo enough to alarm the European Union, but not Bush, Condoleeza Rice, nor the two US presidential candidates.  BBC News (9/26/2008) reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross bewailed the plight of tens of thousands of refugees and evacuees, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, and the potential for sectarian “ethnic cleansing.” More than 120,000 people have died since fighting broke out 40 years ago between the Muslim separatists and the neocolonial state, with no end in sight.

With full-scale war between the formidable Moro guerillas and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) about to sweep the country, the U.S. military presence suddenly caught media attention. It was confirmed by government officials that the headquarters of the U.S.-Philippines Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P) is found inside Camp Navarro of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City, Mindanao . Accessed only by U.S. personnel, the physical infrastructure was sealed by permanent walls, concertina wires and sandbags, with visible communication paraphernalia (satellite dishes, antennaes, etc.). From this place, US military operations against domestic insurgents–whether belonging to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) or to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), or the New People’s Army (NPA)–are launched and directed. In lieu of economic-social reforms, the government’s militarist solution to poverty, unemployment, and extra-judicial killings and kidnappings–over 1,000 victims so far–will only create a refugee crisis, more atrocities and “collateral damage” of innocent civilians, loss of national sovereignty, and impunity for criminal violence committed by the military and police.

Re-occupying “Our Possessions”

The Camp Navarro U.S. outpost  is only one of many disposable, low-profile “lily-pad” stations of “forward deployment” for the US military in the post-9/11 period.  Tom Engelhardt recently counted more than 750 US military facilities in 39 countries. But many more are not officially acknowledged, such as the 106 bases in Iraq or those in Afghanistan; or in countries like Jordan and Pakistan where bases are shared (Tomgram 2008; Chalmers Johnson, Sorrows of Empire,  2003). This applies to US military installations in the Philippines. US troops in the Philippines refer to their Jolo launching-pad as “Advance Operating Base-920″ devoted to “unconventional warfare”(Herbert Docena, Focus on the Global South Media Advisory, 8/15/2007). The JSOTF-P started in 2002 in Mindanao, part of the Pentagon’s realignment of overseas basing network (Michael Klare, “Imperial Reach,” The Nation 4/25/2005). The bases are now called “cooperative security locations” (CSL), a euphemism mentioned in the May 2005 report of the US Commission on Review of Overseas Military Facility Structures, or Overseas Basing Commission. CSLs can be existing military or private facilities available for US military use. These are located in Clark, Subic, Mactan International Airport in the Visayas, in General Santos City airport, in the aforementioned Zamboanga AFP outpost, and in other clandestine areas (Julie Alipala, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Mindanao Bureau, 11/26/2007).

The Arroyo regime readily hands out apologias for the presence of 400-600 US military personnel in the country purportedly serving “mutually beneficial ends,” as the US Embassy claims. Retired General Edilberto Adan of the Presidential Commission on the VFA (Visiting Forces Agrement)  openly excuses the U.S. embedded military headquarters as a necessary fixture to maintain “control over their units.”  When Arroyo visited the US in May 2003, she boasted of having obtained from Washington $356 million in security-related assistance, the largest military aid package since the closing of US bases in 1992. She claimed that US military aid had grown to “more than 100 million dollars annually from 1.9 million dollars three years ago” (Inquirer News Service, 5/27/2003). Two million dollars were allocated for “Sulu rehabilitation” while four million was allocated to Basilan, the site of the Balikatan exercise in 2002.  As a “major non-Nato ally,” Arroyo announced that Bush will continue to give aid to support the Philippines’ “war on terrorism,” not for economic development or for social services, much less for social justice and equity.
“War on terrorists” (“terrorists”, of course, refer to those opposed to US policies; the exploitative neoliberal impositions of the World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund) becomes the Arroyo regime’s blanket term to legitimize US infringement and violation of Philippine sovereignty. What results is a war of terror on humanity, a “homeland security imperialism” whose latest symptomatic crisis is the collapse of the US financial system and the erosion of US economic capacity to maintain hegemony (John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney, Pox Americana, 2004).

Ghouls of  Pacification

A brief historical background may be helpful. When the U.S. granted nominal independence to the Philippines in 1946, one of the conditions for this grant was the retention of 23 military installations all over the pacified colonial territory. It was legitimized by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty which, under the aegis of Cold War anticommunism, provided for US intervention in case of foreign military invasion by a communist power (Daniel B, Schirmer and Stephen Shalom, The Philippines Reader 1987).

In reviewing the historical record of US colonial subjugation of the islands, William Blum reminds us how the US helped suppress the Huk peasant rebellion in 1940-50. At least one US infantry division collaborated with the Filipino military in killing Huk sympathizers (about 500 peasants, with thousands jailed and tortured) during the months before and after the elections of 1946. In the 1950s, through the Joint US Military Advisory Group and Col. Edward Lansdale (who became notorious for the Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam), then President Ramon Magsaysay used US military advisers, weapons and logistics in unconventional types of counterinsurgency schemes against peasant rebels. Among the CIA agents in government, Arroyo’s father Diosdado Macapagal “provided the Agency with political information for several years and eventually asked for, and received, what he felt he deserved: heavy financial support for his campaign…” Blum concludes that by the early fifties, “Fortress America” in the Philippines was securely in place: “From the Philippines would be launched American air and sea actions against Korea and China, Vietnam and Indonesia….On the islands’ bases, the technology and art of counter-insurgency warfare would be imparted to the troops of America’s other allies in the Pacific” (Killing Hope, NY 2004, p. 42).”

The methodology of US domination changed after the end of the Cold War. Covert intervention adopted the guise of “persuasion” through the rituals of electoral democracy. This was clearly demonstrated after the February Revolution in 1986 when Marcos was overthrown by a popular-cum-military uprising and the elite oligrachy headed by Corazon Aquino was restored to power. The scenario that Philip Agee described in 1992 may still be valid: “As for the Philippines, absent agrarian and other significant reforms, US military intervention could be a last resort should the New People’s Army achieve enough momentum to create significant destabilization or even victory.  For the time being, continue the CIA-Pentagon ‘low-intensity’ methods already under way.  If unsuccessful and stalemate continues, consider a negotiated settlement as in El Salvador and rely on CIA-NED electoral intervention to exclude the National Democratic Front from power” (Ellen Ray and William Schaap, Covert Action: The Roots of Terrorism,  2003). It appears that it is with the separatist MILF, not the NPA (debilitated by vigilante incursions and internal squabbles), that the US is interested in striking a deal with the help of the US Institute of Peace and partisan Malaysian mediators. It is also an implementation of a flexible divide-and-rule strategy.

Visiting to Overstay: Penetration and Bondage

Immediately after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, the Philippines became the second battlefront in the “war on terrorism.” In February 2002, Arroyo allowed the U.S. Special Operations Command-Pacific to conduct “training exercises” in Mindanao.  Earlier, 660 US soldiers arrived in the Philippines, expanding Washington’s “preventive” war to southeast Asia. The San Francisco Chronicle (18 Jan. 2002) editorialized on the “Next Battle: Philippines,” pointing out that the demonized ASG is so discrepant from Al Qaeda, and that poverty and land reform are the causes of conflict in the US neocolony. The first Balikatan war games were held involving 4,773 Filipino and U.S. troops. About 2000 US soldiers participated in counterinsurgency operations disguised as “civic action” in several provinces where the NPA was active: Pampanga, Zambales, Nueva Ecija, Cavite and Palawan. This intrusion of the US military was considered legal under the VFA ratified in 1998, just seven years after the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the 1947 RP-US Military Bases Agreement, thus closing the two huge US bases in Asia Clark and Subic) where the US enjoyed extraterritorial rights and inflicted all kinds of abuses and indignities on Filipinos (see Teodoro Agoncillo and Milagros Guerrero, History of the Filipino People, 1970). In June 2002, at least 1,200 military personnel comprised the largest US mission outside Afghanistan (Bobby Tuazon, Unmasking the War on Terror, 2002).

The VFA signifies the legitimized sell-out of Philippine sovereignty. Under the VFA, the US can enter the Philippines anywhere and hold military operations. It restricts the Philippine government in checking US aircrafts and ships for nuclear weapons banned by the Constitution. US authorities have jurisdiction over their servicemen who commit crimes in the Philippines while on duty. The flagrant example is the case of Marine Corporal Daniel Smith, convicted for rape last Dec. 4, 2006. Even before his appeal could be acted upon, the Arroyo government surrendered Smith to the custody of the US Embassy, placing him beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. In October 2007, US officials promised that rape will no longer be committed during war games. Col. Ben Matthews II, commander of the Marine Aircraft Group and co-director of the Talon Vision ’08 exercise (in which Smith and his three co-accused officers were involved), spoke about “the ethics and morality of individuals, not just soldiers” (Tonette Orejas, “US Marines promise no more rape,” Inquirer 10/21/2009). Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Smith has become a matter of public speculation, or “rumor-mongering” (to use the Marcos dictatorship’s neologism) as the Supreme Court investigates the legality of his transfer.

Aside from the VFA, US troops, attached employees, and their war materiel have been given unlimited and unrestricted freedom of movement, flexibility and maneuver by the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MlSA, 2003; renewed 2008), and the Security Engagement Board (SEB, 2006). The MLSA permits US forces to use government facilities for storage and pre-positioning of equipment as part of strategic deployments during US war maneuvers in the Asian-Pacific and Middle Eastern regions. All three agreements (reinforcing the Cold-War vintage 1951 Mutual Defense Pact and the Joint US-RP Military Advisory Group) that legalize a permanent  “temporary” U.S. military base of operations within the country eviscerate national sovereignty. Both the Arroyo bureaucracy and the mercenary AFP continue to demonstrate their function as tried-and-tested instruments of US global foreign policy and imperialist aggression.

Today, the new agreement covers “non-traditional threats,” a rubric covering a wide spectrum of reasons including terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy, and disasters such as floods, typhoons, earthquakes and epidemics.  According to Arroyo’s factotums, the US is not engaged in actual fighting; instead, US servicemen are merely providing critical combat support services by way of intelligence purveyance, logistics and emergency evacuation for AFP counter-terrorism operations. In addition to Balikatan, Kapit-Bisig war exercises have been carried out with three components: training and equipping the AFP, giving humanitarian and civil assistance, and supporting local military campaigns against Muslim militants (E-Balita, 7/25/06). Counter-terrorism thus merges with anti-narcotics and disaster preparedness to produce the public-relations mantra of fighting “transnational crimes” (E-Balita 5/25/2007).

When typhoon Frank wrought havoc in the islands, Bush dispatched the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier group led by the USS Ronald Reagan to the Philippines allegedly to assist in local relief and recovery efforts with its F-18s and 6,000 crew. Arroyo cited its tasks of aerial damage assessment and search-and-rescue operations.  The fleet hovered around the Sulu Sea (where Moro insurgents operate) and Panay Island (where the NPA is active). Senator Rodolfo Biazon and progressive groups questioned Arroyo’s welcoming of nuclear-powered vessels (which violates the Philippine Constitution’s ban on the entry of nuclear weapons) and the secrecy of its movements (Juliet Labog-Javellana, “US aircraft carrier stays at edge of RP waters,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6/28/2008). Arroyo’s flunkeys cheered this “humanitarian” gesture of GI Joes as more consoling than the Presidential group-hug of disaster victims which Arroyo herself couldn’t give while she was tied up in Washington begging for more money to prop up her beleaguered, subalternized regime.

An earlier intrusion of the USS Blue Ridge in February 2007 occurred during Operation Friendship, a community service project with the AFP. The ship was reported to be involved in a goodwill mission, providing medical assistance and building furniture for a school in Manila (http://rjhm.janes.com/21 March 2007). It was also in this year that the joint war-games named  “Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT)” to enhance the interoperability of the navy and marines were transferred from Subic and Zambales in Luzon to Zamboanga and Basilan, known bailiwicks of the ASG and the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (EBalita, May 25, 2007).

One other alibi for US military presence in the Philippines is provided by the Pentagon doctrine of “stability operations,” non-combat activities aimed at “quieting domestic disturbances” such as the U.S. pacification drive (1899-1916) to suppress native and Moro resistance, leading to the genocide of 1.4 million Filipinos.  The chief excuse for US military presence, however, invokes the threat of international and domestic “terrorism” which justifies U.S. security support for development projects and AFP counterinsurgency actions. Beginning with the Reagan administration in the eighties up to today, the U.S. doctrine of “low intensity warfare” envisioned a flexible combination of “economic assistance with psychological operations and security measures” (Michael Klare and Peter Kornbluh, Low-Intensity Warfare, New York 1989). With the demise of the Soviet Union, “low-intensity warfare” evolved into the preventive or preemptive war on Al Qaeda and extremists, including torture, “extraordinary  rendition,” and other “shock-and-awe” tactics.

Hypocrisy and Mystification Galore

In a “Focus on the Philippines” Special Report, Herbert Docena has summarized from various news reports and documents the characteristics of the US “unconventional warfare,” among them, the mixture of covert combat actions with humanitarian projects, training, and other civic actions, which are viewed as “integral” to “foreign internal defense.” Static defensie garrison forces have also been replaced by “mobile expeditionary operations,” as shown in the US operations in Sulu and Mindanao. Such counterinsurgency schemes are conducted “under the guise of an exercise,” as a US official stated (Unconventional Warfare, 2007, p. 24). Further, massive documentary evidences now exist that confirm US troops handling military equipment, defusing landmines, and using military equipment during actual hostilities. Post 9/11 US military doctrine and practice form part of a larger global war effort to repair and buttress US hegemony in various parts of the world, including the Philippines and other “friendly” nations. To achieve military and political supremacy, the US cannot accept the limitations imposed by orthodox diplomacy, treaties, and formal agreements.

The fraud of “humanitarian” succor has been repeatedly exposed. Dr. Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, chair of BAYAN (the largest federation of nationalist groups), addresses this pretext in her commentaries in Business World (9/20/2008). She asserts truth to power: “The Arroyo regime deliberately obfuscates the unbending aim of US geopolitical and military strategy in the Philippines and elsewhere: the pursuit of its own Superpower interests.  These include securing areas with strategic communication and supply lines and resources, primarily oil (such as in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia), trade routes (such as the South China Sea) and other geographically strategic areas that will ensure its achievement of unrivaled global power.  Domestically, the US has a keen interest and long history of interfering in the country’s internal affairs, most especially countering the growing strength and influence of the local anti-imperialist, patriotic and democratic movement.”

No one today is fooled by the alibi that the miniscule ASG militants numbering 400 (wrongly identified as an al-Qaeda affiliate) constitutes a real threat to US internal security. The real targets of US intervention are the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines, classified on 8/9/2002 by Colin Powell’s State Department as “terrorists.” In 2005 then Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz stated that the Maoist NPA is the “greatest internal security threat,” requiring the government to enter peace talks with the larger insurgent MILF (Gary Leupp, “Maoist and Muslim Insurgencies in the Philippines,” Bulatlat 5/22-28/2008). This view dovetailed with the belief of Admiral Timothy Keating, chief of the US Pacific Command, who confirmed that the US priority targets included not only the ASG and the Jemaah Islamiyah but also the NPA: “If the government of the Philippines tells us that they need help on the New People’s Army, we would consider and respond. So, yes,” the US would lead the military assault on the NPA” (Christine Avendano, Inquirer.net, 6/28/2007).

Keating recently participated in the meetings of the RP-US Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board, two agencies directing joint war games and planning counterinsurgency agendas. In response, Fidel Agcaoili of the National Democratic Front called Keating’s remarks “interventionist,” adding that US military support for the puppet government has failed to quell the 37-year old insurgency. Communist Party spokesperson Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal said that the US military has long been directly engaged in unconventional, covert combat operations against the 13,500 NPA fighters  in 120 guerilla fronts, backed by several thousand militias and mass partisans. Using humanitarian missions as cover, US military conducted intelligence-gathering activities in Bicol and Quezon, as well as gave training, technical assisance, weaponry and intelligence information to the Arroyo regime (Inquirer.net 6/29/2007).   This may also explain the acrobatics of Arroyo’s stance toward the MILF and the US willingness to support MILF notions of “ancestral domain.” In short, US military presence is meant to help preserve the Philippines as a neocolonial dependency, a bastion of US hegemony, by supporting the corrupt and morally bankrupt ruling elite (landlords, compradors, bureaucrat capitalists) as their faithful agents in exploiting and oppressing 90 million Filipinos.

Ancestral Domain as “Killing Fields”

Events have overtaken the good intentions of everyone. Arroyo’s abrupt scrapping of the already initialled Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the neocolonial state and the MILF last August 4 exploded into fierce bloodletting. Over 250,000 civilians became refugees, with several hundreds killed, chiefly due to the indiscriminate aerial and artillery bombardment of the AFP against two small MILF detachments. Why the sudden unilateral deceit and treachery?

After more than four years of peace negotiations facilitated by the Malaysian government and the US Embassy (through the US Institute of Peace), Arroyo’s officials initialed a peace pact that would end several decades of conflict between six million Moros (the 2008 CIA World Factbook counts only 4.5 million out of 96 million Filipinos) and successive administrations since Marcos. But local officials appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the final signing, thus precipitating the hostilities. MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said that Arroyo failed to inform her constituencies (local officials, other indigenous groups, etc.). It turned out that the real motivation behind the agreement was a secret stratagem to change the Constitution and install a federalist system so that Arroyo and her clique can maintain power after 2010 when her term ends. Clever ploy, indeed, but easily exposed and deflated.
Apart from the possibility of charter change, one may ask: Was Arroyo really intent on pacifying the MILF, just as former president Fidel Ramos pacified the MNLF? One lesson that escaped both parties today is the neutralization if not dismantling of MNLF gains won through enormous sacrifices by way of Misuari’s acquiescence to the 1996 peace agreement, which provides a working model for the MOA. Kenneth Bauzon drives home a point not fully articulated by academic pundits: the 1996 agreement “is essentially a neoliberal formula designed to bring to an end the MNLF’s more than two decades of insurgency. At the same time, the agreement provided legal cover for the entry of capital–both domestic and foreign, and both commercial and philanthropic–to facilitate the integration of an otherwise untapped region, the ARMM, into the global neoliberal world economic order” (in Rethinking the BangsaMoro Crucible, ed. Bobby Tuazon, CENPEG 2008). This explains why US Special Forces have tenaciously and not so surreptitiously embedded themselves in the deeply compromised state apparatus. And why the US Embassy (via the US Institute of Peace and Islamic mediators) insinuated itself in the peace talks, hoping that the Moro “ancestral domain” would easily become grist to the predatory “free market” machinery, the global capitalist commodifying engine, now suffering serious breakdown in Wall Street and Washington.

Amid this stormy landscape enter the “humanitarian” do-gooders. In the AFP’s pursuit of two MILF commanders (Ameril Ombra Kato and Abdullah Macapaar, alias Commander Bravo), US Special Forces were sighted inside the 64th Infantry Battalion Camp in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao. Bai Ali Indayla of the Moro human rights group Kawagip testified that the soldiers were engaged in covert operations, such as the supervision of drones or spy planes (used in 2006 to track down the ASG leaders) and predator missile strikes. This was confimed by Major Gen. Eugenio Cedo, then commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Philippine Daily Inquirer 9/10/2008). As usual, the US Embassy  denied that the soldiers were involved in actual combat; they were only responding to the AFP request for aerial surveillance to determine conditions of the terrain and visibility, for “future civil-military projects,” to quote Rebecca Thompson, US Embassy Information Officer.

Cheering from the Sidelines?

The record of US “non-involvement” in combat is too long to be fully rehearsed here. Marites Danguilan Vitug and Glenda Gloria’s well-researched book Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (2000) may be consulted for the larger context of US meddling. Suffice it here to mention some tell-tale examples.  Asia News (July 2004) reported that US Special Forces established a training camp in Carmen, North Cotabato, to teach 150 AFP soldiers unconventional warfare tactics, night combat sniping and surveillance techniques (People’s Weekly World, 7/17-23/2004). Two German interns of Bantay Ceasefire, supported by the European Center for Conflict Prevention, witnessed  US P-3 Orion planes conducting surveillance flights in contestcd villages in Maguindanao where the Abu Sayyaf and MILF elements operate (Evgenia Lipski and Tobias Schuldt, “What are US soldiers doing in Mindanao?” Bulatlat, 8/21-27/2005).

One is reminded of an earlier incident in 2002: the house of a Moro peasant in Basilan island, Buyong-buyong Isnijal, was raided. He was shot in the leg by an American soldier, Sgt. Reggie Lane, who participated in the actual operations. Up to now, no serious investigation has been undertaken to render justice to the victim, Just as nothing has been done to clear up the complicity of four US soldiers in the murder of Corporal Ibnul Wahid, as witnessed by his widow Sandrawina Wahid. She was also one of the witnesses who survived the Feb. 4, 2008 Maimbung massacre. She testified to the presence of US troops during the assault of AFP elite forces on Barangay village, Ipil, Maimbung, Sulu, Eight civilians (a three-month pregnant woman, two children, two teenagers, and her husband, a soldier on vacation) were slain in that combined civic-military action (Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, “Streetwise,” Business World, 9/12-13/2008).

In November 2005, 4 fully armed US soldiers joined the AFP in an encounter with the MNLF followers of Nur Misuari in villages around Indanan, Sulu. They were presumably on a “humanitarian mission,” as claimed by Col. Mark Zimmer, public affairs officer of JSOTF-P (Inquirer News Service, 9/25/2005). Two OV-10 planes dropped several bombs and fired rockets on several villages, killing 15 civilians. After the 2004 bombing of a ferry with over 100 victims, the hunt for the ASG and the Jemaah Islamiyah intensified. Two main suspects of the 2002 Bali bombings were supposed to be holed up with Khaddafy Janjalani, the ASG leader, in Jolo (E-Balita 8/2/2006). The MNLF in Sulu were accused of coddling ASG gunmen. Despite the disclaimers, two groups (Union of Muslims for Morality and Truth, and Concerned Citizens of Sulu) demanded the immediate pullout of US troops from Sulu province for violating the VFA.  Jolo city councilor Temojin Tulawie asked: “What would US soldiers be doing within the perimeter of the area of engagement right after the bombs have fallen in Indanan if they were not party to the military offensives?” (Inquirer News Service, 9/28/2005). “They are not peacemakers but provocateurs and warmongers,” Tulawie added. Human Rights Commissioner Nasser Marohomsali asserted that the involvement of US troops clearly violated the 1987 Philippine Constitution which prohibits foreign military from participating in direct combat operations on Philippine soil.

One last incident caps this brief review. In December 2007, US troops ordered the shutting down of a hospital in Panamao town, Sulu, and prevented medical personnel from treating patients after sundown with threats to shoot anybody in the hospital if there is an attack (Al Jacinto, Arab News 1/13/2008.  This has angered Muslim villagers and activists early this year, amid preparations for Balikatan 2008 war games in Sulu and Zamboanga where hundreds of US troops are stationed.  Washington bureaucracy, however, cannot be deterred by native complaints. In the midst of successive military exercises in Basilan, Sulu, and Zamboanga in 2005, US ambassador Francis Ricciardone revealed that the US Agency for International Development was giving two-thirds of its grants to the region at an average of $50 million a year.  Why such generosity?  Obviously, to suppress the “bad guys” of the Moro and communist insurgencies, Ricciardone confessed. This is the reason why the US “established a semi-continuous military presence,” hence the bases issue is, for Ricciardone, “an artifact of people’s imagination” (Carolyn Arguillas, MindaNews, 1/11/2006).

Despite the wrath of the Sulu communities, Christopher Hill,US assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, justified the US role of assisting AFP campaigns, together with the police, in countering terrorism (GMANews.TV, 5/25/2006). What he meant was that it was all right to violate the Philippine Constitution and circumvent the vaguely and loosely formulated VFA. BAYAN secretary general Renato Reyes contended that US intelligence work, reconnaissance, and training of AFP soldiers “are part and parcel of actual combat operations” and their embedding in AFP units “shows that GI Joe is more than just an adviser and observer” (News Release, 8/15/2007). A melodramatic but highly prejudiced “insider” account of how US intelligence personnel (CIA and other unsavory characters) and US Special Forces collaborated with local officials and military agents may be found in Mark Bowden’s narrative of the pursuit and killing of one ASG leader, Abu Sabaya, entitled “Jihadists in Paradise” (The Atlantic, March 2007; <http://www.theatlantic.com/>; for a corrective to Bowden’s racist-ethnocentric, perspective, see Jose Torres Jr, Into the Mountain: hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf. 2001).

Amid daily testimonies of the carnage and destruction affecting millions of inhabitants in the southern Philippines, progressive representatives in the Philippine Congress have urged a thorough probe into the permanent presence of US troops . Personalities such as Rep. Maria Climaco of Zamboanga City and Amina Rasul, lead convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, have also urged action to stop US meddling on behalf of the corrupt, bankrupt Arroyo despotism. BAYAN and other civil-society groups recently petitioned the Legislative Oversight Committee on the VFA to terminate all agreements allowing foreign troops (not only the US but also the Australians and other nationalities) interfering in the ongoing hostilities, thus violating the Philippine Constitution (News Release, 9/25/2008). They also demanded that the Department of National Defense and AFP arrange “the immediate pull-out of US troops and the dismantling of their facilities in Mindanao. However, unless millions of Filipinos commit open civil disobedience  and paralyze traffic, business, and government operations–that is, unless massive “people power” erupts to protest the corruption, puppetry and criminality of the US-Arroyo regime–it is unlikely that the Arroyo clique and its American patrons would scrap the VFA and all other instruments of US control. Fighting in the jungles and countryside, in synchrony with parliamentary mass urban mobilizations, may have to accelerate until the comfortable lives of the elite and the complacent middle class becomes impossible to sustain.


Reflections on the BangsaMoro Struggle for Self-Determination

[The 1789 Reign of Terror] is the rule of people who themselves are terror-stricken. Terror implies mostly useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.

—Friedrich Engels (Marx and Engels 1965)

Beginning January 2002, hundreds of U.S. Special Operations Forces have been stationed in the Southern Philippines as part of the US “global war against terror” after 9/11. This deployment was called “Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines,”  part of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. In October 2004, then President Bush singled out the Philippines as one front (the other two are Iraq and Afghanistan) in the US attempt to assert its hegemony in the Middle East, Asia, and throughout the world (Docena 2008).

Last October 2010, US Ambassador Harry Thomas flexed imperial muscles by demanding that the Philippines must eliminate, not just reduce in size, the Abu Sayyaf (ASG), a self-styled Islamic sect which is always linked to Osama bin Laden and the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) responsible for the Bali bombing in 2002 (Bloomberg 2010).  In 2001 the ASG beheaded one of three American hostages seized from a Palawan resort, while in 2004 it bombed a passenger ferry on Manila Bay, killing over 100 people. Both groups are always connected with Al Qaeda. Thomas said that “we are at a critical threshold” and the US will continue to send military advisers and aid (such as 25,000 helmets and fast-deploying rubber boats, among others), “as part of its security engagement with Manila” (Agence France-Presse 2010). At the same time, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin stated that there was no fixed time-table for the presence of US troops in the Philippines involved not only in military campaigns but also in”peace and development,” as verified  by US undersecretary of State Wiliam Burns (Siam Daily News 2010). Based on photos taken by Agence France-Press of US troops entering combat zones riding Humvee armored jeeps fully armed, then Makati mayor Jejomar Binay commented that the Arroyo administration was “apparently subcontracting the job of leading the fight against Muslim insurgents to the Americans” (Tribune Online 8/16/2007).

Various websites have confirmed the active participation of the US military (roughly 580-620 members, as of 2009) in combat operations against the ASG and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) where 15 soldiers have already been killed, “including the ten who were lost in a 21002 helicopter crash” (Yon 2009). Civic projects (managed by US-AID and other agencies such as Military Information Support Teams) such as road building, schools, textbook distribution, medical programs, and information outreach, are accessories to the military and police operations, part of the twin policies of drying up the sanctuaries and killing or capturing the hardcore members of ASG.

A month before Thomas’ warning, the US and the Aquino regime staged a demonstration of the threat with the October 21 bombing in Matalam, North Cotabato, attributed to the JIL and a new terrorist sect called Jihadist Ulama intended to replace the ASG.  Obviously this recurrent hype about security threats occurs every time there is a move to review the onerous Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a travesty of Philippine sovereignty which has kindled mass outrage. The latest attempt to amplify the panic is the US State Department’s attempt to tag remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as possible funding sources for the ASG. The Department’s October report cited the group’s appeal for funds via the Internet You Tube video of late ASG leaders Abdurajak and Khadaffy Janjalani (killed in 1998 and 2006, respectively) as its basis. No concrete evidence has been offered to substantiate the suspicion. This provides a ploy or ruse not only to renew the VFA but also for the US to intervene in the formal and informal banking and finance sectors of the country through which billion-dollar remittances are channeled to keep the local economy afloat (Esplanada 2010; Madlos 2010). One should also mention the widely publicized indictment of Filipino citizen Madhatta Haipe, allegedly a founding member of the ASG, in a Washington federal court.  Extradited to the US in 2009, Haipe pleaded guilty to four counts of hostage taking in a 1995 abduction of 16 people, including 4 US citizens, near Lake Sebu, southern Mindanao (Inquirer 2010). What this bureaucratic legal exercise is meant to accomplish is clear: the Phiilippines is not a safe refuge for anyone who threatens to challenge the long tentacles of the  imperial power of the United States.

US Caught In the Quagmire

A direct U.S. colony for about half a century, the Philippines remains a neocolonial formation, with a client collaborative regime (Petras 2007) subordinate to U.S. interests. This singular status of clientship or subordination is erased in current historiography. Consequently, the fallacy of treating the US and the Philippines as equal partners in inter-state relations results in gross misjudgments and absurd expectations.

The strategic US military bases in Clark and Subic Bay, Philippines, was evicted by the Philippine Senate in 1991.  However, by virtue of the anomalous Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed by then President Estrada in 1999, the US succeeded in establishing a Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines in Camp Navarro, Zamboanga City, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Mindanao Command. This allows the US to participate in counter-insurgency operations against the Moro fighters in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA), and factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that refused to accept the Arroyo regime. Both the NPA and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are classified as “terrorist” organizations by the U.S. State Department.

For now, the ASG has become the target of US surveillance by unmanned spy planes (drones); this intelligence gathering directly aids in the AFP’s combat operations. In 2002, for example, a Moro peasant in Basilan suspected to be an ASG follower, Buyong-buyong Isnijal, was shot by US Sgt. Reggie Lane; no serious investigation was made about this incident despite a Congressional resolution. In Feb. 2008, one of the few survivors of the Maimbung massacre in Sulu, Sandrawina Wahid, witnessed US troops engaged  in the Philippine military’s assault on the town where eight civilians were killed, including Rowina’s husband, two teenagers, two children, and a three-month pregnant woman. Another incident hit the headlines recently when a Philippine Army captain Javier Ignacio was killed while investigating the previous murder by US military personnel of a Filipino employee Gregan Cardeno. Hired by US company DynCorp International, Cardeno was assigned to the Liaison Coordination Element, a unit of the US military, based in Camp Ranao, Marawi City (Carol Araullo, “Streetwise,” Business World, 11-12 June 2010). The death of Cardeno exposed the clandestine unit engaged in work that appears in violation of Philippine laws and its sovereignty; the activities of DynCorp and other secret companies have likewise not been disclosed, contradicting the US Embassy claim that the US Special Forces are confined to openly conducted civic/humanitarian projects such as building roads, schools, etc.

On September 29, 2009, two American soldiers were killed by a landmine planted by the MNLF in Indanan, Jolo. These two are now considered the first casualties since the Balikatan exercises in 2001, although several US soldiers died in fighting in Sulu three or four years ago. This was a reprisal for the Philippine Marines’ bombing of Muslim devotees in religious rites on September 20 in the same town. A local observer, Prof. Julkipli Wadi noted that the US muted this incident to avoid jeopardizing its humanitarian stance. Wadi cites the October 2009 visit of US embassy officials to the MILF leadership in Sultan Kudarat, Mindanao, where these officials were lectured by the MILF deputy chieftain Ghazali Jaafar; according to Wadi, Jaafar told them that “Washington must help in the resolution of the Mindanao problem by addressing the root cause, which is political, emanating from the grant of US independence to the Philippines,” which “immorally and illegally incorporated the Bangsamoro homeland” (“US Strategic Avoidance,” MindNews, 20 October 2009). Wadi described US soldiers entrenching themselves in many parts of Zamboanga, Basilan, Jolo and parts of Tawi-Tawi, and asks “how long would US authorities pursue the policy of strategic avoidance by hiding under the veneer of counterinsurgency and war on international terrorism while entrenching deeper in the hinterlands and seas of the Sulu Archipelago without being known by the American public?” Obviously, aside from propping up the neocolonial Filipino elite and thus advancing its global geopolitical strategy, the US would like to take advantage of the natural and human resources of Mindanao and Sulu, and its ideal location as a springboard to intervention in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the whole of Indochina as a means of encircling China, their ultimate competitor.

Certainly, U.S. power and legitimacy or cultural authority are at stake. But the preponderant use of military power and logistics undermines any pretense of humanitarian motives.  Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich reminds the US public that in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt ordered General Leonard Wood to pacify the Moro province, home to about 250,000 Filipino Muslims then. In March 1906, at Bud Dajo, Jolo, just to cite one incident, the American pacifiers killed 600 Muslims, including many women and children—a “disagreeable” by-product, what is called by the Pentagon “collateral damage” (“Caution: Moral Snares Ahead,” Los Angeles Times, 22 Jan., 2002). It is not just moral snare or hubris that explains this propensity to complacently offer thousands of human lives to the altar of Empire; it is the logic of capitalist expansion, the motor of profit gained from alienated labor/lives, that propels white supremacy and its civilizing mission—the hallmark of US imperial presence in Mindanao and Sulu, an an amoral hegemon whose crimes against humanity elude the MILF leaders, thus their naive plea to Washington to assist their cause by mediating the conflict between them and the Arroyo regime.

But there are other players in the scene, of course. In 1987, the Moro historian Samuel K. Tan expressed his belief that the national community remains divided between the Christian “national community” and what he calls the “cultural communities,” referring to the Moros and the non-Christian Lumads and Cordillera peoples. Is democracy coming to an end in the emergence of “a nation of multiple state-systems”?  Tan is critical of the Christian sector’s drive to create a “Christian nation in Asia regardless of the implications to the cultural communities,” as evinced in the program to unite the Philippines on the basis of an ideological secular basis summed up in the slogan “one nation, one spirit” (1987, 72). What Tan ignores is that the secular neocolonial state as it has historically evolved cannot fully exercise its sovereignty over all the communities without the aid of US political, military and diplomatic assistance. It is indeed an instrument to foster global capitalism’s welfare. Moreover, the problem of unequal power is not primarily a question of culture but of control over resources and land, ultimately a question of political leadership and organization. In any case, the fate of the “three communities” is now a matter of international or global concern, as evidenced by the sordid plight of OFWs languishing in jails around the world and by Filipino progressives appealing to the UN Human Rights Council and the World Council of Churches on behalf of thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, and a reign of impunity for crimes against humanity by the U.S.-funded military and police forces of the Arroyo regime and its oligarchic allies.  Since the end of the Cold War, the upsurge of counterhegemonic forces against US imperial dominance in Asia, Africa and Latin America cannot be ignored or under-estimated.

At least since the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, the Moro struggle for autonomy or independence has become internationalized.  With the entry of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference), the MNLF and MILF have become dependent on the mterial and political support of Islamic countries. The mediating roles of Indonesia and Malaysia as key members of the OIC need no further clarification. The preponderant US role remains ineluctable. What is occurring in the Philippines as an arena of class and national struggles should be analyzed in this historical geopolitical context to understand properly the significance of the Moro people’s struggle for self-determination.

In the last twenty years, particularly after the reinstatement of “elite democracy” with the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the US re-asserted its total domination of the Philippines with the Aquino-Ramos regime. While Corazon Aquino’s “total war” on the Communist-led New People’s Army continued under U.S. direction (sanctioned by numerous treaties and executive agreements), the power of the nationalist movement since formal independence in 1946 demonstrated its subterranean force in the expulsion of the U.S. military bases in 1992. It was the loss of these bases that confronted US imperial planners, a loss immediately solved by means of the “Visiting Forces Agreement” initiated by Fidel Ramos, a general tutored by the Pentagon. But this agreement required justification or legitimacy, which explains the “Abu Sayyaf” phenomenon and the elaborate overt and covert intervention of the U.S.—directly, this time, via the Pentagon, US State Department (via US Embassy), US Institute of Peace, US-AID, and others (see Chaulia 2009)—in the initially secessionist/separatist insurgency led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The Missing Link: CIA Frankenstein

What is most intriguing is the persistence of the “Abu Sayyaf” (ASG) terrorist group as an integral part of an expanding US military presence in the Philippines. Not a day passes when somewhere a news report of the Abu Sayyaf is found with always a mention of its Al-Qaida link, origin, or connection. For example, the Feb. 2005 BBC “Guide to the Philippine conflict” lists down the MNLF, MILF, the NPA, and the Abu Sayyaf as the “main rebel factions” in Mindanao. It recites the oft-repeated factoids:  The ASG split off from the MNLF in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajik Janjalani (killed in December 1998), succeeded by his less doctrine-driven brother Khadafi Janjalani, whose death in September 2006 precipitated the disintegration of the group into multiple factions. From a thousand combatants in the beginning, it has shrunk to 400 or less members

Given its record of kidnapping-for-ransom, massacres, and bombings (often mentioned is the October 2004 bombing of the Superferry 14 in Manila Bay, with 116 people killed, the ASG has acquired a high-profile “terrorist” aura. The kidnappings in Sipadan, Malaysia, in April 2000 and the May 2001 raid on a Palawan resort and the subsequent rescue of Grace Burnham, catapulted the group into the status of media celebrity. Meanwhile, the Al-Qaida connection has been reinforced by association with the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah  (JI) noted for the 2002 Bali carnage. The April 13, 2010 raid in Isabela, Basilan, by ASG members disguised as police commandos, led by Puruji Indama, revitalized its 2 decades of deadly mayhem.

All accounts agree about the origin of the ASG in the US Central Intelligence Agency ‘s (CIA) role in training mujahideens from various countries to fight the US proxy war in Aghanistan against the Soviets (1979-1989). In May 2008, Senator Aquilino Pimentel described the ASG a “CIA monster” trained by AFP officers in the southern Philippines and directed by informers/spies such as its former leader Edwin Angeles (Santuario 2009). In his book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, American and International Terrorism, Jon K. Cooley documented the CIA training and funding of the ASG—freedom-fighters such as Osama bin Laden engaged in jihad against the communist infidel—around 1986 in Peshawar, Pakistan; one of the veterans was Abdurajak Janjalani (Santuario 2009; Bengwayan 2002).  Accordingly, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University calls the CIA-created ASG and bin Laden’s followers as “alternatives to secular nationalism,” and fundamentalist terrorism as an integral modern project, for which US imperial aggression around the world is chiefly responsible (2002).

A recent writeup of this  “al-Qaida-linked extremist group” now claims that its present leader, Khair Mundus, has been receiving funds from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. It is alleged that he once transferred these funds to Khadaffy Janjalani in 2001-2003. No less than the US State Department alleges that Mundus, while in police custody in 2004, “confessed to having arranged the transfer of al-Qiada funds to an ASG chief to finance bombings and other attacks” (“Abu Sayyaf faction,” GMANews.TV). The US is offering half-a-million dollars for the arrest of this ideologically inspired agent. The Basilan-based group has supposedly given sanctuary to Dulmatin, a key suspect in the Bali carnage, hence the interest of the US State Department (which explains why he has been reported killed several times). Aside from Mundus and Dulmatin, another Bali bomber Umar Patek has been tagged by the US-funded Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research as operating in Tawi-Tawi province (ABS-CBNNews.com 2010).

Since Abdurajak Janjalani’s death, the group has lost interest in Islamic goals and degenerated into banditry and “high impact terrorist activities.” But Mundus is trying to revive its Islamic evangelism and unite the factions spread out in Basilan, Sulu and Zamboanga, influencing even Puruji Indama, the guerilla blamed for the brutal beheading of 10 marines in a 2007 encounter in Basilan.  A clear tendency of the media propaganda machine has emerged to infuse ideological and political substance to the ASG which, since at least 1998, has simply become a criminal outfit for easy containment by the local police, not by the heavily armed US Special Forces with technologically sophisticated spy equipment and drones. The journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria named Gen. Guillermo Ruiz, former Marine commander and police officials Leandro Mendoza and Rodolfo Mendoza as coddlers/patrons of the ASG (Bengwayan 2002).

Anatomy of a Faction

Clearly, without the presence of this group with its flagrant, highly visible kidnappings and bombings, the rationale for US military intervention would lose credibility. It is not secret that the AFP, so much dependent on US Pentagon logistics and equipment, would not really be able to challenge the NPA, its perennial military target, as long as the political, economic and social conditions warrant its existence. US geopolitical strategy for maintaining hegemony in Asia and around the world requires its presence in the Philippines, hence the need for ASG’s terrorist identity and anti-people behavior.

We can learn more about US ideological rationale from a U.S.Institute of Peace academic expert Zachary Abuza’s recent summing-up in response to the April 13 raid on Isabela City, the capital of the island province of Basilan. Abuza rehearses the founder’s past as an Afghan mujahidin and the founding of the group in 1991 “with al-Qa’ida seed money” (Abuza 2010, 11). Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, an Osama bin Laden connection, and Ramzi Yousef, famous for plotting the bombing of multiple commercial airliners, are mentioned to reinforce its international terrorist standing. ASG orientation changed from being sectarian (1991-1996) to being purely monetary (2000-2001), with over 140 hostages (16 of whom were killed) ranging from Western tourists, school children, priests and ordinary people.

Clearly the ASG will never disappear, if not in reality at least in the media. In 2003-2004, with leaders Abu Sabaya and Ghalib Andang killed (followed by Abu Solaiman in January 2007), ASG is tied with the Indonesian terrorist JI as well as with Malaysian terrorists. It is at this point that the ASG becomes more frequently associated with the MILF which employs the ASG for bombing campaigns and also for infiltrating the Sulu archipelago, mostly controlled by the Tausug-dominaed MNLF. Despite the loss of its leaders (the latest being Albader Parad), the ASG keeps coming back like a hydra-headed monster, almost chameolonic too in adapting to changing environments. Its public face will metamorphose or metastize relative to the two main groups, the MNLF and MILF.

The latest attempt to spread the ASG contagion to other parties in the region may be gleaned from Abuza’s claim that the ASG has recruited new combatants from the MNLF under Habier Malik in March 2007. But the bombings and kidnappings did not subside in 2008-2009, with two US soldiers killed in the 2009 Jolo bombing. Philippine generals and Marine commanders all concur that the ASG has been decapitated and falling apart, even while attacks are continuing. A new line is being established: the Pakistani connection. One Abdulabasit Usman was killed by a U.S. drone attack in Waziristan, the Afghan-Pakistan border. This Usman is suspected to be a member of the MILP, the JI, ASG, and also “an independent gun for hire.”  Abuza nonetheless states as a fact that “What is clear is that he worked at times as a bomber and trainer for both the ASG and MILF.” Thus linkages are at first hypothesized, posited, and then simply asserted as a factoid for the record.

The death of Dulmatin occasions the suspicion that al-Qai’da in Malaysia and Aceh are using the ASG and the MILF as channels connecting Arab militants and South Asian (Pakistan and Afghanistan) fighters with southeast Asian organizations. In any case, the ASG and MILF are now interwoven with Al-Qai’da operations in the Indonesian-Malaysian region. The MILF has been accused of harboring Rajah Solaiman (recently labeled “terrorist” by the US State Department), Pentagon Gang and JI terrorist agents. Jihadist violence and criminal kidnapping-for-ransom characterize ASG with close working relations with the MILF and disaffected elements of the MNLF. Abuza concludes that despite its successes, the “Philippine military does not appear to have the capacity nor the will to finish the job militarily, and the government’s refusal to develop a holistic peace process in the southern Philippines….will continue to support the ASG’s ranks” (2010, 13). The unstated implication is that US military intervention to advance its own strategic geopolitical-cum-economic interest, cannot be given up lest the whole battlefront is lost to anti-systemic Islamic-led extremism. Meanwhile, Ibrahim Murad of the IMLF warned last August that US troops’ sojourn in Mindanao “only complicates the situation. They are just simply justifying their presence for terrorist elements” (News Essentials 2010).

Provisional Inventory

What is the situation now after 13 years of GRP-MILF peace talks?  Let me provide a drastic schematic framework within which to view the current impasse affecting at least 6-9 million Muslims (10% of the total population) in over 700 villages, mainly within the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The 2008 agreement between the GRP and MILF was scrapped in 2008 as “unconstitutional.” The MNLF is deeply factionalized, with Misuari still in jail. From its official emergence in Nov. 14, 1972, immediately after Marcos’ declaration of martial law, to Dec. 1976, with the signing of the Tripoli Agreement, and its final actualization in the 1996 peace agreement between Fidel Ramos and Nur Misuari, the MNLF (with 30,000 fighters in 1973-75) seems to have wasted its decades of lessons and experience. Misuari’s arrest after the failed Jolo and Zamboanga rebellion in Nov. 2001 may lead to the gradual  exodus of his followers into the camps of the MILF, the ASG, or even government fronts. Meanwhile, splitting from the MNLF in 1977, the MILF pursued the armed struggle under Hashim Salamat as “jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in the way of Allah)—a sectarian, fundamentalist trend which runs immanent in the peace negotiations with the Arroyo regime (Klitzsch 2009).  The peace agreement signed on May 7, 2002, with Arroyo culminated in the Memorandum of Agreement on “Ancestral Domain” (MOA-AD) and the issue of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (JEC), which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008. Now, the March peace talks in Kuala Lumpur witnessed a controversy over the use of the Philippine Constitution and the Republic’s jurisprudence as the existing legal framework (requiring amendment) for a revised peace agreement (Balana 2010; Rosauro 2010). The resort to the internationalist idiom of “self-determination” (with its Wilsonian, not Leninist precedents) does not guarantee actual political/military control over territory and natural resources if it conflicts with the overarching sovereignty of the neocolonial State. Misuari’s experience in administering the ARMN fully bears this out (Dela Cruz 2006).

Given the severely uneven development of the region, diverse class and sectoral interests are involved. The Lumads or indigenous ethnic communities have recently mobilized. The hostility of the Christian landlords, business, comprador,  and foreign corporate fronts in Mindanao rests on varied grounds, some diehard and some amenable to compromise. The present regime speaks of course for the US/Washington Consensus, for global capital and transnational corporate interests and their local allies, so that unless the MILF addresses this structural and institutional constraints, the iniquitous status quo will not be altered in any substantial or meaningful way so as to improve the material lives of the Moro masses, not to speak of the Lumads and other indigenous communities.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the mobilization of 10,000 armed combatants and several thousand partisans, MILF ascendancy remains contested, hence their wobbly diplomatic stance. Overall, the primary cause for persisting armed confrontations is the absence of any hegemonic (intellectual and moral leadership, in Gramsci’s sense) power in Mindanao as a whole, though the MNLF once enjoyed such in the Tausug homeland of Sulu. The MILF has suffered from a marked opportunism, as evidenced in Salamat’s January 2003 letter to George Bush “seeking his good offices,” and the MILF’s assent to allowing the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to intervene. In fact, by June 2003, the US State Department laid down its policies for the GRP-MILF peace negotiations. USIP Philippine Facilitation Project Executive Director Eugene Martin’s explanation for US involvement deserves to be quoted here:

The continued conflict was seen as a source of not only domestic instability but a potential threat regionally and even globally. As such, it became part of the war on terror, although the MILF is not considered a terrorist organization. Increased military assistance to the AFP and joint exercises, like Balikatan, were focused on helping the AFP be more professional and effective against designated terrorist groups such as the NDF and the Abu Sayyaf Group (quoted in Santos 2005, 100).

Martin acknowledges that the conflict cannot be solved “by purely military means,” so he cites the underlying causes—poverty, lack of development  and education, and displacement of Muslims from ancestral lands—as the reason why the US is involved.  This of course does not overshadow the main concern, “the war on terror.” Unlike other commentators, Martin does not neglect naming the NDF together with the ASG as “terrorist organizations.”

In terms of profit-centered Realpolitik, US interest in the Moro insurgents is designed to coopt this force as much as possible and manipulate it for geopolitical ends. This does not preclude its purpose of serving as a pretext or cover for preparing the ground in suppressing the NDF/NPA as well as the possibly more dangerous Indonesian and Malaysian affiliates of al-Qaida/Osama bin Laden.  Aside from USIP ideological and political input, the US has made overtures to the MILF leadership on the possibility of using MILF “ancestral domain” for military bases, to which the MILF leadership replied that “everything is negotiable.” Astrid Tuminez (2008), a USIP operative, confirms the US focus on Mindanao as a new “Mecca of terrorism,” a half-concealed rationale which thus legitimizes the thorough involvement of the US government in the current peace talks as well as the regular “Balikatan” war exercises and civic-action activities of the US military contingent in the Philippines.

Never Again “Benevolent Assimilation”

US dominance, both political, military and ideological, cannot be discounted. Even those who purport to be neutral or well-intentioned observers succumb to the fallacy of believing the US a neutral or benevolent mediator in the conflict. In his book, Dynamics and Directions of the Grp-MILF Peace Negotiations (2005) that Soliman Santos Jr., for example, naively claims “that US clout can play a positive role as guarantor of a just and lasting peace agreement” even as he admits that for the US the global war on terrorism is its chief concern.

Terrorism, die-hard separatism, is not necessarily the polar opposite of compromise and bargaining with the Arroyo regime for temporary concessions. Like the MNLF, the MILG knows that it cannot win solely by military means. With the realization that conventional warfare is not feasible to advance a separatist project of full independence, esp. with the loss of fixed camps (first, the Abubakar camp and then the Buliok Complex) and millions of their followers displaced and reduced to refugees, the MILF has shifted to a pragmatic, if somewhat opportunist, mode of diplomacy.  While the aim of Islamization seems to persist as a cultural identity  brand, despite the passing of Hashim Salamat and his adherence to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s doctrine of jihadism {Klitzsch has ably documented this genealogy of Salamat’s thinking), I think the present MILF leadership has realized that they cannot deliver immediate benefits to its ranks and the popular base unless some gains in the diplomatic/legal front are achieved. While Islamism (jihadist or merely didactic) appeases those militants vulnerable to the ASG appeal, the need to produce material rewards is urgent lest the mass base turn to the MNLF or, even worse, the traditional Moro oligarchy. The tactical changes may be discerned in the  2004 statement by the MILFG Peace Panel Advisor that the MILF “strives for a ‘political solution’—‘neither full independence nor autonomy, ‘but ‘somewhere in between’ “ (quoted in Klitzsch 2009, 166). Murad Ebrahim was also quoted in saying that the territory they will administer as BJE will be “governed with Islamic precepts”  (Robles 2010). Of course, these may just be propaganda ploys or publicity subterfuge.

Varying commentaries on the conflict register as symptoms of disparate theoretical frameworks and axiomatic paradigms. The common error of mainstream academic scholarship, as well as media punditry, in this matter—i.e. the failure to locate the Moro struggle within the US global strategy to maintain its imperial hegemony—stems, of course, from either deliberate advocacy for neoliberal free-market worldview, or from misguided naivete. The shift of the intellectual paradigm from leftist or progressive historicist views to narrow empiricist and even eclectic postmodernist stances may be perceived in a recent volume edited by Patricio N. Abinales and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo. With the single exception of Herbert Docena’s effort to document active U.S. military collaboration in the war against the Moro insurgents, the contributors range from the narrow “all politics is local” stance of Abinales to Quimpo’s endorsement of the view that the situation in the southern Philippines is a product of internal causes, with the US as peripheral or not centrally involved. Quimpo chimes in with Establishment voices that welcome US intervention. Quimpo harps on the bossist, “patrimonial and ethnocratic” Philippine state, as though it had no historical genealogy or political provenance in US colonial and neocolonial control of the country.  He even laments that the US has not addressed the corruption endemic to a patrimonial state. Quimpo believes that the USIP is “an independent federal institution” (2008, 189),  while the cynical Abinales celebrates “the fading away of the US in the postauthoritarian scene” pervaded by globalization anomie (2008, 199).

In general, the prospect seems bleak to Quimpo and his associates. In his detailed description of the ASG included in the volume, the military-affiliated academic  Rommel Banlaoi dismisses the solid, irrefutable findings of the 2002 International Peace Mission published in their report, “Basilan: The Next Afghanistan?” that the ASG is basically the product of local political and social conditions, in a U.S.neocolony. This judgment has been meticulously supported by a rich trove of stories, interviews, and textured accounts of the ASG’s symbiotic ties with the military, local politicians, and government bureaucracy in many books published since the ASG appeared, among them Marites Danguilan Vitug and Glenda Gloria’s Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (2000).

While recognizing that the ASG and other groups are struggling to solve structural inequity and injustice, as well as cultural discrimination and the loss of sovereignty, Banloai’s recommendation is to improve governance into one “more transparent, accountable, responsive and participatory.” (2008, 145). Meanwhile, Kit Collier rejects the primordialist analysis for a more instrumental, postmodernist approach, which uses an ethnographic phenomenological method similar to the anthropologist Frake’s picture of a contested, ambiguous, invented identity of the ASG combatant (see Frake 1998; and my critique in San Juan 2007). All deflect attention away from the larger global context of US re-tooling of imperial hegemony in the wake of the end of the Cold War and, in particular, the post-9/11 “global war on terrorism” launched by George W. Bush and carried on by Barack Obama.

Toward Historical Dialectics

A more serious endeavor to grapple with the vast historical and political landscape into which the Moro struggle is inscribed, is the volume The Moro Reader (2008) published by CENPEG. The volume correctly defines the subordinate role of the Philippine nation-state to the US and its neoliberal program of globalization. What is missing is further elaboration of the concept of “ancestral domain” and  the abstract “right of self-determination” within a rigorous historical-materialist analytic. I venture a preliminary clearing of the stage for such an inquiry with a few general propositions/theses.

Only a general review of what is needed can be made here.While I myself (San Juan 2007) have previously endorsed the fundamental imperative of solidarity with the Moro aspiration for independence and separation from the neocolonial domination of the oligarchic landlord-comprador ruling bloc,  I would like to reformulate my views in light of the more pronounced MILF ideological doctrine of Islamic evangelical confrontation with the West (deriving either from Egyptian or Saudi Arabian traditions). A theoretical reframing is in order.

Progressive activists need to take into account the primacy given by the MILF and the ASG to Islamization and the project of an Islamic state patterned after Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt and other Arab countries. Unlike the MNLF program, the MILH (to my knowledge) has not come up with a thorough analysis of Manila/Christian colonialism, nor its dependence on the imperial US patron, despite its denunciation of settler greed, injustice, ethnic discrimination, etc.  To my knowledge (I stand corrected), the MILF  has no anti-systemic (anti-capitalist) policy or operational ideal functioning at present. The marginalization of the secularly-oriented MNLF and the outright rejection of Marxist and other socialist-oriented revolutionary ideas aiming for a class-less society is symptomatic of a retrograde impulse influencing the actual tactics and strategy for autonomy.  Some have noted the separatist motivation of the Bangsamoro nation to encourage the development of an autocratic, tributary and highly hierarchical sociopolitical formation. “Self-determination” cannot be an absolute principle but must always be historicized and dialectically apprehended within the manifold determinations of social historical development of specific formations within a global context. Can we envisage a popular, democratic civil society/public sphere flourishing within the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity?

Of course, the everyday practice of Moro militants yields a rich complex of data for formulating hypothesis and theoretical propositions that may engender a socialist-democratic ethos. Since culture is a creative process, such is theoretically possible. But empirical data cannot substitute for a valid theoretical framework. I agree with Kenneth Bauzon (2008) that the current conjuncture has to be read within the framework of a resurgent neoliberal restructuring of global capitalism. This is occurring within the US hegemonic “crusade” against Islamic fundamentalism, or violent extremism, itself framed by the neoconservative Huntingtonian paradigm of the “clash of civilizations.” This culturalist interpretation obviates any structural or systemic critique. This is why the understanding and theorization of terrorism as a political phenomenon is also superficial, misleading, and tendentious. It acquires a life of its own divorced from the analysis of dynamic political forces (for example, the antagonism between capital and labor) and their specific agendas and long-range platforms.

Terrorism becomes a political and moral issue when the political group using it adopts a subjectivist mode of imposing its will on the masses.  When Marx objected to the Jacobin use of the guillotine as a tactic to impose bourgeois interests on everyone, instead of developing it within the given conditions, he was objecting to this means of enforcing the interests of a particular group/class on the whole society. In opposing the conspiratorial terrorism of utopian socialists and anarchists, Marx argued his dialectical stand that “socialist revolution must develop from within the given social relations and must be directed to the establishment of universal interests’”(Hansen 1977, 102-103)—the revolutionary process, in short, is not superadded but inheres within the existing nexus of sociopolitical relations.  Critical analysis of the interaction between the collective actors and their changing sociopolitical environment is needed, together with constant appraisals of the direction of the changes of both subject and object of the field of conflict, to ascertain what can be changed and what cannot—the possibilities and limits of radical historical transformation in the multi-layered Philippine setting.

In this context, the MILF goal of claiming the sovereign power of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity to rule over “ancestral domain” has been promoted through both conventional war and terrorist tactics (as evidenced by links with Jemaah Islamiya, ASG, and others). Forced to renounce publicly their connections with such groups, Salamat and the MILF leadership has to resort to the OIC and the US to enhance its status as a legitimate political party. Nonetheless, their supreme goal is no longer secession or a separate independent state, but political power over a definite territory and its inhabitants via  combination of force and diplomacy. Essentially, it is an attempt to universalize the Will of a political party—the agent of historical change–that claims to represent the whole Moro peoples (across ethnic and class divisions). Now the reality is that any revolutionary party with a democratic-popular orientation has to take into account the social-economic reality and the political alignment of forces both within the Philippines, the southeast Asian region, and within the capitalist world-order (global war on terror by the US-led bloc, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, etc. against Iraq, Aghanistan, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and other nation-states).

Ultimately, the Moro rebellion has to confront the power of global capital (at present led by the US power bloc) as the enemy of genuine Moro sovereignty,  freedom and progress in a planetary habitat of peoples with diverse cultures, religions, histories, and aspirations.

Self-Determination as Means or End-In-Itself?

The ultimate goal of self-determination cannot be attained simply by fiat, of course, but by a revolutionary program of rejecting colonial occupation and imperialist domination. The MILF rejects the Manila/Christian state and its military forces and affirms its subjective identity (as the MNLF did in opposing Marcos and its US patron). However, the MILF does not mediate its self-proclaimed Islamic identity by the otherness (the concrete social context of a secular world of commodity-relations)  in which it finds itself. Hence, it imposes on its mass base a view absorbed from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic centers while paying lip-service to the history of the anti-colonial struggles of Moros as a whole. It is thus caught in a unity of contradictions. “Ancestral domain” tends to be fetishized  in its purely Islamic heritage. An abstract self-affirmation of Islamic identity (to distinguish it from Christian/Western others) remains subjectivist/voluntarist as well as philosophical/idealist, susceptible to terrorist realization. Its obverse is the positivist or pragmatic dependence on the OIC, the US, and other sponsors that it calculates will advance its self-identified agenda, given the current volatile contingencies.

From a dialectical stance, the only way to resolve the contradiction between the subjectivist/voluntarist Islamic self-identification of the MILF and its objectivist/pragmatist resort to US/OIC determinants, is to analyse the nature of the unity of these abstract opposites. In other words, the way to resolve the contradictions is by way of discovering the universal logic/principle underlying the project of revolutionary action, assuming that the MILF is engaged in a revolutionary project of emancipation of the Moro people’s potential for expressing its full humanity with others in the world. The past and the present will have to coalesce to shape the historical agent of change whose interests are not particular but universal, the interest of all members of the given society. The search for the revolutionary class or agent which, from the beginning, is the necessary condition of the present—that agent which will bring the future to the present because of its past—is not a theoretical problem but a practical one: “It is a problem of the unity of theory and practice, the co-determining conditions of which are in the present because of the past. Consequently, whereas the subjectivist [terrorist] desires the restoration of the past by means of externalizing a particular subjectivity, the revolutionary needs revolution to realize what is already given in the present through the past” (Hansen 1977, 108). Hence the revolutionary agent does not force onto people a particular view because his view is already present (though occluded or suppressed) in the existing reality.

In Quest of  Critical Universality

From a radical-democratic standpoint, the crucial question then is: what is in the existing reality that needs to be released or brought to self-realization? What is that emerging universal within the historical present? To answer this, one needs to critique the total situation to move beyond the abstract subjectivist/voluntarist position and the positivist/determinist one.  One needs to achieve a concrete dialectical comprehension of the whole global capitalist totality. To grasp the concrete universal immanent in the historical conjuncture,  one needs to generalize the unique condition of the Moro peoples so as to get beyond the particularity that imperialism/capitalism has imposed on it. Capitalism is precisely what enables particularism in social relations and conflicts arising from this, so that the elimination of distinctions cannot be carried out by presupposing differences (cultural or religious values, for example) without unity.

One manifestation of such a unity is perhaps what Muslim historian-philosopher Cesar Majul had in mind when, at the end of his scholarly history of the Moro sultanates and the Moro Wars, he proposed that the Muslim struggle should “be considered part of the heritage of the Filipino people in the history of their struggle for freedom…part of the struggle of the entire nation” (1999, 410). If the surveys are to be believed, more Filipinos  now than before (63% in 2005, compared to 43% in 2002) are sympathetic to the Moro struggle for their right to govern themselves (Robles 2010).

We are not proposing pluralism or status quo multiculturalism, a bazaar of affective flux and performative gestures, either corporate liberalism or individualist libertarianism, both apparent opposites concretizing the ideology of bourgeois society based on the division of labor and its attendant disparities in the distribution of power and resources. What we are proposing is to free ourselves from this enslaving ideology that teaches the idea that authentic self-expression (or, by extension, national self-determination) depends on an abstract property which guarantees authenticity, freedom, fulfillment. In short, we are searching for the politicized, active mass base of the Moro revolution that will universalize its goals by a thorough critique of global capitalism (led by the US imperial power) and, in the process, forge organic solidarity with the entire Filipino people struggling for democratic socialism. Such a critical universality will resolve the contradictions between subjectivism and objectivism I have outlined earlier.

As of now, such a critical universality is absent. One sign is the lack of a critique of the Moro dynasties and clans and the property relations characterizing the everyday experience of the Moro peasants, women, workers, youth (Wadi 2008), or of the prison conditions afflicting Moros in Camp Bagong Diwa (Vargas 2005), not to speak of taking cognizance of analogous Lumad demands for self-determination over ancestral domains (for Lumad aspirations, see Rodil 1993). A way of revising the deployment of the principle of self-determination is proposed by Talal Asad by distinguishing between the concept of Arab nationalism and a classical Islamism that contains an element of “critical universality” by an implicit critique of the secular bourgeois nation-state. It is necessary to define the narrow bourgeois nation-state parameters into which the Bangsamoro nation is being confined. Asad observes:

The fact that the expression  umma ‘arabiyya is used today to denote the “Arab nation” represents a major conceptual transformation by which umma is cut off from the theological predicates that gave it its universalizing power and is made to stand for an imagined community that is equivalent to a total political society, limited and sovereign like other limited and sovereign nations in a secular (social) world. The ummatu-l-muslimin (the Islamic umma) is ideologically not “a society” onto which state, economy, and religion can be mapped. It is neither limited nor sovereign, for unlike Arab nationalism’s notion of  al-umma-al-arabiyya, it can and should embrace all of humanity….The main point I underline here is that Islamism’s preoccupation with state power is the result not of its commitment to nationalist ideas but of the modern nation-state’s enforced claim to constitute social identities and arenas (2003, 197-98, 200).

One inspiring sign of “critical universality” may be found in the MNLF’s participation in the 1981 Permanent People’s Tribunal and its solidarity with the NDF and other forces in opposing US imperialism. At present, it is difficult to say whether the MILF recognizes the need to achieve a “critical universality” (Lowy 1998, 78) in its program, policies, and diplomatic positions.  In my view, subject to the pressures and exigencies of every phase in its negotiations with the GRP and relations with the OIC and the US, the alternating options of subjectivist/voluntarist and objectivist/pragmatist handling of the struggle distinguish the MILF record so far. With unpredictable dynamic changes in the Islamic world vis-à-vis the US, the internal antagonisms in the OIC and its relations with other blocs (Europe, Russia, China), and the advance of the national-democratic forces in the Philippines,  it is not impossible that the succeeding generation of leaders and rank-and-file militants will respond to the need for articulating that critical universality without which the revolutionary project of collective emancipation will remain doomed to repeat the horrors of the past and miseries of the present.

The Prospectt Before Us

The Moro people’s struggle in the Philippines for national self-determination has placed under critical interrogation the hallowed theories of cultural pluralism, liberal tolerance, and muticulturalism that continue to legitimize the domination of diverse ethnic groups under elite control in contemporary Filipino society.  Bourgeois political norms and laws have led since colonial times to the severe dispossession, exclusion, and utter impoverishment of the Moro people as a distinct historical  community united under Islamic faith and an uninterrupted history of preserving its relative autonomy through various modes (collective, familial, personal) of anticolonial resistance. Since the Spanish (1621-1898) and American colonial period (1899-1946) up to the present Arroyo government’s neocolonial polity subservient to U.S. hegemony, the Moro people have suffered national, class, and religious oppression. The Moro insurgents are labeled “terrorists” and stigmatized daily by the media, schools, Christian churches, and international business. They tend to be lumped with the Abu Sayyaf bandits, wholly a product of gangsterism involving the military, police, local officials, and the central government bureaucracy.  It is the obligation of Filipino Marxists and progressive organizations around the world to recognize the Moro people’s right to self-determination and offer solidarity. In my book US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (2007), I have tried to express this solidarity by a preliminary critique of neoliberal ideology, including sectarian ultra-leftism, that apologizes for, and foments overtly and covertly, the genocidal wars currently raging in the Moro homelands of southern Philippines. This paper is an attempt to explore the theoretical and practical limits of “self-determination” as a political strategy when, in this specific conjuncture, U.S. imperial manipulations are defining this Wilsonian principle for its own hegemonic interests. I propose that a historical-materialist socialist perspective (following Lenin’s use of the principle of the right of nations to self-determination), with modifications as suggested by Talal Asad, be pursued and developed in the light of the singular historical circumstances of the BangsaMoro struggle against local compradors, landlords, and bureaucrat-capitalists allied with the U.S. imperial hegemon and its transnational criminal accomplices. At the least, we need to pursue the ideals of justice and principled solidarity with all oppressed peoples who have long been victimized by global capitalism and the neoliberal market in the name of the global North’s deadly ideas of freedom, democracy, and cosmopolitan progress.


About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.