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Filipino Muslims on the defense

Religious minority says it's being blamed for bombings to distract the public from Estrada's trial.

By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 2001


When a series of bombs tore through five locations around Manila just before the New Year's holiday, killing 22 and injuring 120, official fingers quickly pointed in the direction of Muslim militants.

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The Philippine police now say they have an "airtight case" against the MILF - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - handing down indictments this week against nine guerrillas allegedly responsible for the bombings.

Muslims here, however, say they are being used as scapegoats by a government under fire as President Joseph Estrada faces an impeachment trial based on fraud and corruption allegations that could cost him his job.

In this largely Catholic nation, in which large statues of the Virgin Mary stand in the hallway outside the Senate chamber where Mr. Estrada is on trial, the Muslim minority says the arrests are yet another example of their mistreatment by the government.

"The minute we heard about these bombings, we knew that it would be blamed on us," says Abdul-Azziz Sunpa, a leader in all-Muslim Quiapo, a Manila slum that has swollen into a dense ghetto as Muslims from the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have fled here to escape the fighting there.

"We feel upset when anyone innocent is killed, Christians too. We guard this area closely so as not to let any illegal elements in," says Mr. Sunpa, sitting in the sputter of an old fan that doesn't cool an open-air shanty even during Manila's cooler months.

Muslims here - who make up about 5 percent of the population - say they have been systematically discriminated against and marginalized by the government. While militants in the south of the country continued to wage their struggle for a separate Islamic state, last April Abu Sayyaf - an extremist group whose violence is shunned by many other Muslims here - kidnapped 21 tourists from a diving resort in neighboring Malaysia.

Answering calls to respond to the crisis, Estrada launched a military assault on the Abu Sayyaf rebels last summer, quelling the violence for a time. It also boosted his already flagging popularity rating, several months before a whistleblower unleashed Estrada's current troubles by going public with accusations that he took $11 million in tax funds and kickbacks from illegal gambling. For that reason, Muslims here say Estrada or other pro-government forces launched the bombings to distract attention from his trial and resurrect a common enemy.

"When his [Estrada's] ratings were low, he launched an attack and his ratings went up. And now, because of the impeachment, he's trying again," says Dato Amerol-Gulan Ambiong, chairman of the Metro Manila Peace Coordinating Council. "We don't even have the power to do five bombs at one time," he says. "The Muslims in Manila are very weak."