A 'Second Front' in the Philippines
Why the Philippines?
So why rush to the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Basilan? Undoubtedly, a key incentive for President Arroyo is the aid that Washington has promised her administration in return for her declaration of fealty to President George W. Bush. About $100 million in military aid has been committed to the badly underfunded Armed Forces of the Philippines. Even more critical are the billions in economic aid and foreign investment promised by Washington and Wall Street during Arroyo's visit to the United States last November. The centerpiece of her program to jump-start the Philippine economy during this period of global recession is massive economic support from Washington. For her, the global antiterrorist campaign is first and foremost a business proposition, and she made this very clear when she emerged from her meeting with President Bush in Washington in November and boasted to Filipino reporters that "it's $4.6 billion, and counting."
Beyond the promise of massive aid, President Arroyo perceives a positive political fallout from the coming of the Americans. She is banking on the popularity of a hard line against the Abu Sayyaf among Mindanao's Christian majority. This group enthusiastically supported the aggressive military campaign against the MILF launched by Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada. Although Estrada was ousted by a middle-class-based popular uprising in January 2001, the Christian majority still voted overwhelmingly for his allies during the congressional elections last May. Arroyo figures that bringing in US troops to stiffen a badly performing Philippine Army will bring a significant bloc of votes over to her side in time for the 2004 presidential elections. "I wish the administration would just say that it is basing its decisions on what it thinks is the popular mood rather than attempting the impossible--trying to prove that the American troop deployment is constitutional and legal," says Wigberto Tanada, a former senator who is the main convener of an anti-interventionist alliance called Gathering for Peace.
When it comes to Washington's motives, many here see the Bush Administration's choice of the Philippines as a second front in its global antiterror campaign as having been made in haste and as the result of a process of elimination. Somalia evokes memories of the disastrous 1993 Ranger raid that led to the withdrawal of US troops; Yemen and Sudan are unknown, forbidding territory; and action against Iraq is--at least for now--precluded by the absence of consensus among the key policy-makers. In these circumstances, the Philippines--with a fiercely supportive head of state, being a former colony and possessing a familiar culture--stood out.
Representative Etta Rosales of Akbayan (Citizens Action Party), one of the country's most respected legislators, feels there is an even deeper reason: In her view, the United States has been pushing hard to reintroduce a US military presence in the Philippines ever since it lost its bases in 1991. An effort to push through an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement similar to that negotiated with Japan met strong opposition both in and out of government in the mid-1990s. Strong lobbying by the Pentagon, however, produced the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1998, which reopened the gates through which US troops poured in under the guise of conducting military exercises with their Filipino counterparts. Exercises normally have had a duration of a few weeks. But the 2002 "Balikatan" (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) Exercise in Basilan is projected to last six months, and its aim, suspects Rosales, is to lay the ground for a longer-term and more intensive military presence. "They were simply waiting for the perfect moment, and the Abu Sayyaf's alleged links to Al Qaeda provided the perfect excuse," she contends.
The Caldron of Basilan
The US Special Forces will find their Filipino allies demoralized by antiquated and inadequate equipment and very low pay. Probably the only reliable fighting unit in the armed forces is the Marines. The army's reputation is so bad that many residents of Basilan swear that a few months ago, the Abu Sayyaf were able to break out of encirclement in the town of Lamitan by paying off the Scout Ranger units that had the bandits and their hostages in their grip. The biggest problem that the Special Forces will face, however, is Basilan itself; as journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria put it in their Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, Basilan, an island of some 1,370 square kilometers, is a "war laboratory," where "battalions of young soldiers are trained to become tough and where senior military officers are stationed before they are promoted." Its literacy rate is the lowest in western Mindanao, and half the population lives in poverty.
Basilan's social history is a microcosm of forces that have transformed the region of Mindanao and made it a land of permanent war. Muslims belonging to the Yakan ethnolinguistic group form the majority, but large numbers of them have been dispossessed by a migrant Christian population that streamed into the island with the logging concessions, agribusiness firms and multinational corporations, some of which arrived as early as eighty years ago. José Torres Jr., a specialist in Basilan society, estimates that today Muslims constitute 71 percent of the population but Christians own 75 percent of the land, with ethnic Chinese controlling 75 percent of local trade. The result is a combustible mixture that has produced unending streams of resentful recruits first for the MNLF, then for the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf.