MANILA – A major military offensive against separatist rebels in the southern provinces of Basilan and Sulu is raising concerns for displacing thousands of residents and causing setbacks to a peace process.
The renewed offensive was ordered following the deaths of scores of soldiers in clashes with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the al-Qaeda-linked, radical Abu Sayyaf group. About 9,000 soldiers have been committed to the offensive against some 200 rebels of the Abu Sayyaf who have been linked to kidnappings and terrorist bombings.
Defense officials said the offensive will continue through Ramadan, the Islamic holy fasting month, which starts in the second week of September.
The leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance) expressed doubts about the real motive for the offensive and said it was possible the operations were intended to push for more military funding.
"It can’t be ruled out that the seemingly endless war in the south is geared towards justifying more United States military assistance," said Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes. "The government must give the U.S. reason to continue providing and increasing military assistance. It must show the U.S. government that the ‘war on terror’ is alive and well and progressing in the country."
After the order for the offensive was given, a member of the armed services committee of the U.S. House of Representatives announced that the U.S. will not cut its military assistance to the Philippines given the country’s good track record in the war against terror. The assurance was given last August when Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) visited U.S. troops in Zamboanga who were training Filipino soldiers battling the Abu Sayyaf.
Political analyst Prof. Bobby Tuazon said the recent clashes would only aggravate the "already critical situation" in Mindanao and that the presence of foreign troops there would only worsen the situation.
He warned: "Armed conflicts are always rooted in social, economic, and political conditions and a purely military solution backed by foreign military aid will not work. Military operations will only invite more extremism. We can’t have another Iraq or Afghanistan in southern Philippines."
Tuazon also expressed concern about the effect of the offensive on the peace process with the MILF that has been going on for the past 10 years. He pointed out that although the peace negotiations have been marred in the past by some skirmishes between the government and MILF rebels there has been "tactical cooperation" by the two sides, especially on peace and order matters.
Amirah Lidasan of the Moro Christian People’s Alliance said her group was alarmed over the postponement of the resumption of the peace talks between the government and the MILF last month. She said it might "send a wrong signal to the military" that the government is "uninterested in talking peace."
The formal talks are being brokered by Malaysia, and MILF negotiators were about to fly to Kuala Lumpur when they received word that the Philippine government had asked that the meeting be postponed. As part of the peace process, the two parties had signed a cease-fire agreement in 2003 and an international monitoring team from Malaysia, Libya, Indonesia, Brunei, and Japan oversees its implementation.
For Catholic priest Joe Dizon, a convener of the Ecumenical Voice for Peace and Human Rights in the Philippines, a network of church leaders, human rights defenders, and civil libertarians, the major offensive will "just cost many more lives and further drain the nation’s coffers."
He said the projected cost of the war 1 billion Philippine pesos ($21.5 million) a month could instead be used to build additional classrooms and low-cost housing, procure medicines, buy agricultural equipment, and provide services for the poor.
The clashes have not only caused the deaths of combatants; they also displaced families living in the conflict areas. Lidasan said that of the 14,000 people displaced by the fighting, it was the women and children who suffered most.
MILF is active in an area called Bangsamoro, which covers the southern part of Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago, Palawan, Basilan, and nearby islands. There are an estimated 4.5 million Muslims in the Philippines, with the majority living in this area.
Because of the cease-fire agreement, clashes between government troops and MILF rebels have been limited. But in a Basilan village on July 10, MILF rebels ambushed 100 marines who were searching for an Italian priest, Giancarlo Bossi, who was abducted it turned out later by Abu Sayyaf rebels in another province. Fourteen soldiers were killed, and many of them were beheaded. MILF admitted firing on the soldiers; it said the troops entered its territory without prior coordination as had been provided for in the cease-fire agreement. But it denied beheading the soldiers.
However, the decapitations unleashed furious reactions from the military and government officials. It did not help any that a television news crew was with the troops at the time of the ambush and was able to videotape several instances when soldiers tried to use mortars but the shells failed to explode proof, the opposition said, of the poor quality of government-issued ammunition. Also, crucial air support for the soldiers under attack was withdrawn by military officials for still undisclosed reasons.
An investigation later found out that the soldiers were beheaded by Abu Sayyaf rebels who entered the area after the MILF had withdrawn its forces in compliance with orders from MILF officials who were requested to do so by government officials and grassroots-based cease-fire monitoring teams.
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a former Navy lieutenant who is detained for leading a mutiny in 2003, claimed to have received information that ranking government officials were responsible for the slaughter of the 14 soldiers. He refused to give details and instead called for a Senate investigation into the matter. Government and military officials denied Trillanes’ allegation.
Dizon backed Trillanes’ call for an inquiry, saying the charge was "serious" and "should not be swept under the rug." He alleged that officials were using the beheading incidents "to fan the flames of war and to justify the presence of not only Filipino troops on Mindanao but U.S. troops as well."
The July 10 ambush triggered more military operations in Basilan and in Sulu where a clash between troops and the Abu Sayyaf last month resulted in heavy casualties for the army.