What does it take to become a major news story in the summer of Arnold and Kobe, Ben and Jen?
A lot, as a group of young Philippine soldiers discovered recently. On July 27, 300 soldiers rigged a giant Manila shopping mall with C-4 explosives, accused one of Washington’s closest allies of staging terrorist attacks to attract US military dollars–and still barely managed to make the international news.
That’s our loss, because in the wake of the Marriott bombing in Jakarta and newly leaked intelligence reports claiming that the September 11 attacks were hatched in Manila, it looks like Southeast Asia is about to become the next major front in Washington’s War on Terror.
The Philippines and Indonesia may have missed the cut for the Axis of Evil, but the two countries do offer Washington something Iran and North Korea do not: US-friendly governments willing to help the Pentagon secure an easy win. Both Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri have embraced Bush’s crusade as the perfect cover for their brutal cleansing of separatist movements from resource-rich regions–Mindanao in the Philippines, Aceh in Indonesia.
The Philippine government has already reaped a bonanza from its status as Washington’s favored terror-fighting ally in Asia. US military aid increased from $2 million in 2001 to $80 million a year while US soldiers and Special Forces flooded into Mindanao to launch offensives against Abu Sayyaf, a group the White House claims has links to Al Qaeda.
This went on until mid-February, when the US-Philippine alliance suffered a major setback. On the eve of a new joint military operation involving more than 3,000 US soldiers, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters that US troops in the Philippines would “actively participate” in combat–a deviation from the Arroyo administration’s line that the soldiers were only conducting “trainings.”
The difference is significant: A clause in the Philippine constitution bans combat by foreign soldiers on its soil, a safeguard against a return of the sprawling US military bases that were banished from the Philippines in 1992. The public outcry was so strong that the entire operation had to be called off, and future joint operations suspended.
In the six months since, while all eyes have been on Iraq, there has been a spike in terrorist bombings in Mindanao. Now, post-mutiny, the question is: Who did it? The government blames the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The mutinous soldiers point the finger back at the military and the government, claiming that by inflating the terrorist threat, they are rebuilding the justification for more US aid and intervention.