Hostage crisis in the Philippines

Clashes between Muslim extremists and government troops yesterday result in hostage deaths.

As a third hostage crisis unfolded in the southern Philippines yesterday, this nation of 78 million people was again refocusing on the poverty and alienation of the Muslim minority from mainstream development and national life.

Yesterday Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels seized a bus with 70 civilians on Mindanao island, home to most of the country's Muslims. The MILF also claimed responsibility for bombings in four towns.

Challenging the government's ability to deal with the crises, Muslim separatists have held 27 schoolchildren, teachers, and a Roman Catholic priest since late March on the island of Basilan. On Easter, 21 international tourists and staff were abducted from a Malaysian resort island and taken to nearby Jolo in the Philippines. And a third front opened up last weekend when the remaining cohesive rebel group, the fundamentalist MILF pulled out of peace talks with the government. Last night, officials were sorting out the results of clashes between government troops and rebels on Jolo and Basilan. At least four hostages were killed.

With thousands of military troops, armored personnel carriers, and helicopter gunships deployed to rescue the hostages in three places, the virtual state of war is exposing the government's impotence in dealing with the rebel groups, who've long dreamed of an independent homeland in Mindanao, separate from the predominantly Christian nation.

The two kidnapping groups in Basilan and Jolo have a long record of kidnappings for ransom, which has eroded their original ideological leanings. They are remnants of a previously dominant rebel group once led by Nur Misuari, an ideologue who waged a separatist war for a Muslim Mindanao in 1972.

Mr. Misuari succinctly explained the causes of the Mindanao conflict, which has roots reaching back nearly 500 years when colonizers took the Philippines. "We fought Spain for 377 years, we fought against America for more than four decades, we fought against Japan, the Dutch, the Philippine government," Misuari told journalists in Zamboanga city, where he went as a government emissary to negotiate release for the 21 foreign hostages. The "effect of all this turbulence has planted the seeds of discord, dissension and a sense of loss...," Misuari said. "They are not so sure they have a future."

Misuari signed a peace accord with the government in 1996. Some of his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels were integrated into the Philippine armed forces, and Misuari was appointed governor of four provinces populated by Muslims.

Not surprisingly, the kidnappers on Jolo have refused to deal with Misuari. The peace accord left many of the Muslim fighters in disarray.

The kidnapping groups in Basilan and Jolo appear not to be linked, except as past as members of the MNLF. The Basilan group, called the Abu Sayyaf, claims to have beheaded two adults two weeks ago as the government refused to pay ransom. On Easter Sunday, another armed group raided the resort of Sipadan, taking 10 foreign tourists, nine Malaysians, and two Filipino staff to Jolo, seat of the 1972 rebellion. They demanded $2.6 million in ransom. The group had also threatened to behead two foreign hostages if the troops ringing their mountain hideout are not withdrawn.

The peace process has not brought development - or peace - to Mindanao's more than three million Muslim population. Lacking jobs, money, and skills, but still in possession of firearms, the rebels turned to banditry to survive.

The crises are unlikely to signal any immediate change in the Philippine government's dealing with its Muslim minority. Manila has not yet figured out how to integrate the Muslims, and to a degree, the Muslims themselves had refused to be integrated.

Former Philippine military chief Gen. Lisandro Abadia, who fought the Muslims as soldier, said: "They will never give up their arms.... What is needed in Mindanao is development, education and [government] presence," said General Abadia. "But they've got to understand that there must be peace first before development."

No one seems in the mood to listen, however. The Muslims believe the Manila government wants to integrate them only to subjugate them.

While rich in oil and gas, fishing grounds and forests, the south remains the poorest region in the country. It has the lowest literacy rate with minimal infrastructure and social services.

The minority consider themselves Muslims first and Filipinos second. Misuari had adopted "Moros" as their own proud cultural label, a derogatory term used by the Spanish to describe the tribes they couldn't conquer.

Religion and culture have set the Moros apart from the Christian Filipinos. Even within the Muslim community, they are splintered by linguistic differences. The minority appears to have lost their political agenda as well, except for the MILF, which broke away from Misuari's MNLF in the 1980s. More militant and cohesive, the MILF controls central Mindanao. With 15,000 men under arms, it represents the biggest insurgency in the Philippines. But apart from declaring that it wants an independent Islamic state, its agenda has not been well articulated.

The insurgents have been variously influenced by foreign elements. The MNLF was initially bankrolled by Moammar Qaddafi and Middle Eastern groups. The founder of Abu Sayyaf was said to have cut his extremist teeth in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, the military said there is no evidence to link them to Osama bin Laden, although his charity had given money for housing and medical facilities in Mindanao.

The negative image of the Filipino Muslims is reinforced in a vicious cycle. While the violence down south appears remote to Manila, national newspapers don't help the situation by identifying anyone from the South arrested for petty crime as a Muslim.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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