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.
Among the soldiers’ claims:
§ that senior military officials, in collusion with the Arroyo regime, carried out last March’s bombing of the airport of the southern city of Davao, as well as several other attacks. Thirty-eight people were killed in the bombings. The leader of the mutiny, Lieut. Antonio Trillanes, claims to have “hundreds” of witnesses who can testify to the plot.
§ that the army has fueled terrorism in Mindanao by selling weapons and ammunition to the very rebel forces the young soldiers were sent to fight.
§ that members of the military and police helped prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes escape from jail. The “final validation,” according to Trillanes, was Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi’s July 14 escape from a heavily guarded Manila prison. Al-Ghozi is a notorious bomb-maker with Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been linked to both the Bali and Marriott attacks.
§ that the government was on the verge of staging a new string of bombings to justify declaring martial law.
Arroyo denies the allegations and accuses the soldiers of being pawns of her unscrupulous opponents. The mutineers insist they were not trying to seize power but only wanted to expose a top-level conspiracy. When Arroyo promised to launch a full investigation into the allegations, the mutiny ended without violence.
Though the soldiers’ tactics were widely condemned in the Philippines, there was widespread recognition in the press, and even inside the military, that their claims were “valid and legitimate,” as retired Navy Capt. Danilo Vizmanos put it to me.
Local newspaper reports described the army’s selling of weapons to rebels as “an open secret” and “common knowledge.” The army’s chief of staff, Gen. Narciso Abaya, conceded that there is “graft and corruption at all levels.” And police have admitted that al-Ghozi couldn’t have escaped from his cell without help from someone on the inside. Most significant, Victor Corpus, chief of army intelligence, resigned, though he denies any role in the Davao bombings.
Besides, the soldiers were not the first to accuse the Philippine government of bombing its own people. Days before the mutiny, a coalition of church groups, lawyers and NGOs launched a “fact-finding mission” to investigate persistent rumors that the state was involved in the Davao explosions. It is also investigating the possible involvement of US intelligence agencies.
These suspicions stem from a bizarre incident on May 16, 2002, in Davao. Michael Meiring, a US citizen, allegedly detonated explosives in his hotel room, injuring himself badly. While recovering in the hospital, Meiring was whisked away by two men, who witnesses say identified themselves as FBI agents, and flown to the United States. Local officials have demanded that Meiring return to face charges, to little effect. BusinessWorld, a leading Philippine newspaper, has published articles openly accusing Meiring of being a CIA agent involved in covert operations “to justify the stationing of American troops and bases in Mindanao.”
Yet the Meiring affair has never been reported in the US press. And the mutinous soldiers’ amazing allegations were no more than a one-day story. Maybe it just seemed too outlandish: an out-of-control government fanning the flames of terrorism to pump up its military budget, hold on to power and violate civil liberties.
Why would Americans be interested in something like that?