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.
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."
Such conspiracy theories seem to be gaining currency outside of Muslim groups. Many here say there seems to have been little motivation for the MILF to start bombing Manila: The group signed an agreement with the government in 1996, but suspended talks during this summer's military crackdown, and was set to resume negotiations. Veteran observers of Philippine politics recall that Ferdinand Marcos, who was deposed in 1986, is reported to have been responsible for violence in Manila as a pretext to declaring martial law in 1972.
"What strikes me is that it's taking place at the very time the impeachment trial is taking place," says Carmen Pedrosa, a columnist and opponent of the Estrada regime. "I can't accept that in the midst of this trial the Muslims would make this kind of chaos," she says.
Congressman Roilo Golez, in a quick break from the impeachment proceedings, offered a similar analysis. "Right now people are beginning to suspect that they [the government] are trying to aggravate the feelings of the Muslims in order rile them up in order to create another war in Mindanao," says Mr. Golez. "That would divert attention from the trial and improve Estrada's ratings."
Speculation about who would have a motive to launch terror attacks in Manila - the explosions rocked a commuter train, a bus, the airport, a park near the US Embassy and a gas station - have been a sort of menacing sideshow to the impeachment trial. The confluence of the two has raised fears that instability could ensue at the outcome of the trial, which is due to finish on Feb.12. Government officials say, to the contrary, it is likely that Islamic militants see the trial as an opportunity to further destabilize the government. The chief of the Philippine National Police, Director-General Panfilo M. Lacson, says investigations have turned up concrete proof of MILF involvement.
In a statement, Mr. Lacson said investigators found a four-page document that delineates plans by the MILF to conduct "high-profile bomb attacks" on selected targets in metro Manila. Lacson says that Ismael Abbas Climaco, one of the nine suspects now in police custody, was identified by a witness as having emerged from a red car before it exploded Dec. 30. Police say they also have proof that Mr. Climaco bought the vehicle, and have evidence that the bombs were activated remotely by cellphone.
The MILF has denied involvement in the attacks. An MILF negotiator, speaking by telephone from Mindanao, says the government "is making a big mistake in pointing its finger to the MILF."
"We interpret this move as a desperate move on the part of the government, when they don't have anything against us." says Moner Bajunaid, a professor of Islamic Studies at Mindanao State University. "We renounce any terrorist acts. The MILF does not engage in any moves to harm civilians, and the MILF itself is not out to bring down the Estrada administration. I don't think any other elements based in Mindanao are, because there's no gain in trying to make a move in Manila. But now the government is using the MILF as a way out of its predicament, and this will definitely hamper the resumption of talks."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society