by Amir Butler
The second-phase of Operation Enduring Freedom was launched last week: To
hunt Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Basilan and Sulu. Whilst originally a
breakaway from the Moro (Muslims of the southern Philippines) independence
movement, the 800-strong Abu Sayyaf has devolved into a gang of bandits whose
primary objective seems to be lining their pockets with the proceeds of
kidnapping tourists and missionaries. They are hardly international terrorists.
Yet, like India with its maneuverings against Kashmiri militants, or Russia
with its war against Chechen separatists, the Philippine President knew which
button to press to get US sympathy. She termed her opponents "terrorists", and
linked them to Bin Laden. This was based only on a 1995 meeting with Bin Laden's
brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifah, and some contact with Ramzi Yusuf, the
1993 World Trade Center bomber.
So, once again, the West is entering into conflict in a region whose
complexities most of us know little about.
The struggle of the Moro people for freedom and self-determination is one of
the longest, if not the longest, struggles in the history of mankind. Their
struggle began with the "discovery" of the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan in
1521, who claimed the island for Spain. The Moros rejected his claim, and Lapu
Lapu subsequently killed him, a Moro Muslim leader. From then on, the Moros were
in a fight for their independence and freedom.
The Spanish differentiated the two natives of the archipelago into pagan
Malays (Indios) and Muslim Malays (named Moros after the Spanish Moors). Their
policy was simply to convert the Indios to Christianity and kill the Moros. The
military resistance against the Spanish lasted over 350 years, until the Spanish
were defeated by the Americans in the 1898 Spanish-American war. Despite the
fact the Spanish had never colonized the Morolands, Spain included Mindanao in
the Treaty of Paris, which transferred sovereignty to the United States.
The US then attempted to subdue and disarm the Moros. Such was the
resistance, that the US Army ordered the upgrade of the standard issue Colt
.38-caliber pistol to the more powerful Colt .45-caliber, in order to stop the
knife-wielding Moros. Their frenetic and oft suicidal style of fighting gave us
the expression, "running amok". The colonial administration then began passing
laws that would quell Moro aspirations of independence by migrating large
numbers of Christian Indios to the region.
In 1903, all Moro land holdings were declared null and void and made open to
land grabbing. In 1913, law was passed allowing Christians to own up to 16
hectares, whereas a Muslim could only own 8. In 1919, Christian land entitlement
was generously extended to 24 hectares.
When independence from the US was imminent, the Moro leadership pled not to
be included in the new "Independent Philippines". Yet, on July 4, 1946, when
independence was proclaimed, the Morolands were incorporated against their
wishes, as they had been with the handover from Spain to the US.
The pattern of migrating Christians to Moro lands continued. In the 1950s,
Northern peasants formed the New People's Army and staged a Maoist rebellion. In
order to defuse the situation, the government, under the auspices of the
Economic Development Corp (EDCOR) began migrating these peasants to the Moro
south and giving them seized parcels of Moro land.
In 1968, anger at Manilla reached a new level, when the US-backed Ferdinand
Marcos executed nearly 70 Muslim commando recruits to keep secret an aborted
plan to invade Sabah, in Malaysia's Borneo. When Marcos declared martial law on
September 21, 1972, the Moros went to war after a quarter of a century of
relative dormancy. Shortly afterwards, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)
was formed, which called for an independent Moro state - Bangsamoro. They fought
the US-armed Manilla regime for twenty-five years, leaving at least 100,000
Moros dead, and 250,000 driven from their homes. In 1996, the MNLF signed a
peace deal with the Philippine government.
In a war that has been criticized for it's double-standards, this latest US
military adventure will do little to change perceptions.
America is helping fight the 800-strong Abu Sayyaf, whilst overlooking the
New People's Army, who represents a force of over 12,000 fighters. They've been
staging a communist insurgency in the north for the last 30 years, and have
killed over 40,000 people so far, including an American hiker and his German
companion killed last week.
The problems in the Morolands have little to do with international
terrorism, but have everything to do with the injustices meted out to the Moro
people for centuries. The solution to the Moro problem is the same as the
solution to the East Timor problem. There must be a referendum under UN
supervision similar to the one conducted in the former Portuguese colony.
After over 450 continuous years of struggling for independence, the Moros
don't need "Operation Enduring Freedom", they just need freedom.
[Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC)]
Vic Hurley, "Swish of the Kris:
The Story of the Moros," E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936
Fred Hill, "Ethnic Cleansing In Mindanao, Philippines,"
The Wisdom Fund, April 17, 1996
Eric Margolis, "Philippines, Next Target of Bush's War,"
The Wisdom Fund, January 26, 2002
["More than 60,000 people have fled their homes to escape renewed fighting
between Philippine troops and the country's biggest Muslim separatist group,
officials said on Tuesday."--Reuters, March 5, 2002]
["We consider them a much bigger threat than the Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front or the Jemaah Islamiyah,"--Carlos H. Conde, "In Philippines, a threat revives: Once
nearly extinct, communist rebels find new converts," International Herald Tribune,
December 26, 2003]
[During the 1900-1904 conquest of the Philippines, US forces killed 50,000-100,000
Muslim civilians.--Eric Margolis, "AMERICA'S SHAME,"
ericmargolis.com, May 10, 2004]
"Guide to the
Philippines conflict," BBC, February 10, 2005
[March 8, 1906: In an extinct volcano in the southern Philippines 100 years ago today,
800 American soldiers killed 600 Muslim men, women, and children in what came to be
called the Moro crater massacre.Christine Gibson, "American Troops
Killing Muslims: A Massacre to Remember," American Heritage, March 8, 2006]
Donald Greenlees, "In
war-torn Mindanao, fruits of peace," International Herald Tribune, September 11,
[U.S. troops may also be violating the Philippine constitutional ban on the stationing
of foreign military bases in the country--Oliver Teves, "Group: U.S. GIs
fighting in Philippines," Associated Press, January 15, 2007]
Copyright © 2002 Amir Butler