Eight days after September 11, 2001, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, like a pilot fish astride a whale shark, became the first Asian leader to endorse the Bush Administration’s global war on terrorism. By doing so, she internationalized her country’s two internal conflicts, facilitated the revival of US proprietary aims on the archipelago (an American colony from 1899 to 1946) and opened what was then termed the “second front” in the war. Since February 2002, US troops have been deployed on the islands for a series of joint exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)–dubbed “Balikatan,” or “Shoulder-to-Shoulder”–apparently in violation of the Philippine Constitution, which prohibits the presence of foreign troops in the country (the government contends that the deployment is allowed by the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1998). Just recently, responding to Bush’s appeal to the United Nations for help, Arroyo offered to send more Philippine troops to Iraq, in addition to the ninety-five already there as observers.
Arroyo’s enthusiastic support for Bush’s war, while embarrassing to nationalists, is unsurprising. Philippine leaders have traditionally used the country’s strategic location in Southeast Asia to extract economic and military aid from the United States, which has always viewed the Philippines as crucial to maintaining its regional and global hegemony–and to containing China, a prize sought during the heyday of empire, but now a potential superpower rival. Two other factors increase the Philippines’ strategic value: a possible US confrontation with North Korea, and the Philippines’ claim to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, halfway between Vietnam and the Philippines. Surrounded by rich fishing grounds and thought to contain substantial reserves of oil and gas, this desolate stretch is being claimed as well by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, either in part or in its entirety. Dispersed over 256,000 square miles, these three-square-mile islands may yet be a flash point between China and the United States, with the Philippines as an American surrogate.
Before 9/11, none of the insurgencies, past or present, that the AFP faced since the country regained its independence in 1946 were ever viewed by Manila as more than internal threats. However, any domestic challenge was seen by the United States as a threat to its own interests as well, mainly to its bases in the country, in exchange for which Washington extended economic and military aid to Manila. Maintaining this cozy, neocolonial vassalage has virtually guaranteed US interference in Philippine affairs. Hence, right after World War II, the AFP quashed the Huk Rebellion, instigated by the Soviet-leaning Partidong Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP), with CIA assistance organized by the late Col. Edward Lansdale (often considered the model for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American). Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, under the US-backed martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, it battled both the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (the CPP, a breakaway group from the PKP), and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Mindanao-based secular Islamic force.
The latter insurgency has since withered, its leader, Nur Misuari, a former academic, languishing in a military stockade. Today, the AFP continues to face the NPA nationwide, and in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a fundamentalist Islamic group that split from the MNLF in 1978. Reliable estimates put the strength of each guerrilla army at between 12,000 to 15,000 men under arms.
What have been the effects of war on terrorism in the Philippines? Rather than improve the lives of those directly affected, it has made them worse. The war itself can be regarded as terroristic, particularly in Mindanao, where the army has aggressively engaged the MILF and where the number of internal refugees at its peak rose as high as half a million. In one period alone, from January to October 2002, according to the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace, more than 9,000 civilians were victims of military and paramilitary assaults. Only now, with a cease-fire between the government and the MILF in place, has the tide receded. However, most military encampments lie in civilian areas, putting these residents in danger should hostilities resume. And the economic costs to both the government and the farmers, workers and small entrepreneurs have been staggering–and this in an area that has the country’s five poorest provinces, all Muslim.