Following President Bush’s promise to wipe out terrorism wherever it exists, U.S. troops began training exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines late last week on Basilan island. Basilan is home to the Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf, the suspected ally of Al Qaeda that has been holding two Americans and one Filipino hostage since May.

Though the U.S. government has insisted that this exercise is in the best interest of the Philippines and the “war on terrorism,” those concerned about the peace process in the southern Philippines are not so sure. At issue is whether the U.S. military presence in the Philippines will alienate moderate Muslim groups and increase ethnic and political tensions between Christians and Muslims there.

Tensions between the Republic of the Philippines and Islamic (or Moro) organizations in the south are not new. Muslims have been in the region since Islamic missionaries visited in the thirteenth century and constitute 5% of the population in the Philippines today.

For centuries they have consistently resisted the rule of the Spanish, U.S. and the Philippine governments. In the late 60’s and earlier 70’s, during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, a number of confrontations — including the massacre of Muslim trainees by the Philippine military in March of 1968 — further alienated Muslims and encouraged them to arm themselves. After a number of skirmishes, President Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and a rebellion ensued, led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

With international support from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the MNLF signed an agreement with the Philippine government in 1976 calling for a cease-fire and granting autonomy to the thirteen provinces where the majority of Muslims lived.

The MNLF as well as other Islamic organizations contend that the peace agreement has never been truly implemented by the Philippine government. Though the MNLF experienced fragmentation and internal disagreement in the late 70’s, its movement had refashioned itself by the early 80’s into a popular political effort to gain autonomy. The MNLF has continued in this vein up to the present, pursuing a peace process with the Philippine government.

In the early 90’s a radical group opposed to the peace process left the MNLF and formed Abu Sayyaf (“Bearer of the Sword”). This group was led by Abduragak Abukar Janjalani, a veteran of the Afghan war against Russia who insisted that the proper response to the Philippine government was not more discussion, but jihad. This jihad has included attacks on the Philippine military, local Christians and American tourists.

While Abu Sayyaf has employed violence and terrorism, moderate separatists continue to seek autonomy by peaceful means. In 1996 the MNLF signed a peace deal with the Philippine government, and just last year the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — a faction which split from the MNLF — signed a cease-fire treaty. While both the MILF and the Philippine government contend that the terms of this treaty have not been kept, negotiations continue.

With the arrival of U.S. troops last week, however, the MILF has warned that it is prepared to retaliate if local or U.S. forces encroach on territories which it claims as its own.

“We will respond to any threats. We will shoot them if they encroach on our territories,” Shariff Julabbi, MILF regional chairman said recently.

Add to this some 1,000 people who protested the troops’ arrival outside the U.S. Embassy on Monday, signaling a threat to launch much more severe action if the government continues with the exercises. As expected, the OIC is further displeased by the U.S. presence on Basilan island, though it too opposes Abu Sayyaf’s actions. Concerned by President Bush’s comments against member-nations Iran and Iraq in his State of the Union address, the OIC hinted just last week that it may no longer support the “war on terrorism.”

Despite all of this, the U.S. government is not alone in believing that its presence is justified. Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has stood by her decision to accept the U.S. troops, even against pressure from within the Philippine Congress. And citing the “expressed will of the people,” the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has also welcomed U.S. military assistance, noting that, “If help is given by a friendly force, and if the legal issues are resolved, then I don’t think we should go against our people’s will in trying to end their own suffering.”

A poll conducted by Social Weather Stations last week confirmed an 84% public approval of American military assistance.

Still, the immediate solution requested by the majority of Filipinos may not be best for Philippine or U.S interests. Hard feelings toward the U.S. run deep among Muslims in the southern islands. They have not forgotten U.S. colonial control (1898-1946), under which numerous requests for sovereignty were denied. Indeed, when sovereignty was granted in 1946, Muslims were not given the separate sovereign state they had requested but were included in the Republic of the Philippines. As a result, many Muslims in the Philippines are inclined to see their struggle for independence today as a continuation of their struggle against the U.S.

What is more, the U.S. government must consider the ill effects that a military presence may have for the legitimate peace process between moderate Islamic separatists and the Philippine government. U.S. presence could erode moderate Muslim support for the less violent agenda of the MNLF and MILF. If military assistance is necessary, then it may be fair to ask if assistance is also needed in conflict resolution and peacemaking. Considering Muslims’ attitude toward the U.S. government, it remains to be determined whether the U.S. is in a position to provide such assistance.

Opposition from separatist minority groups alone will not — or perhaps ought not — be enough to stop the U.S. government. It may be argued that international security takes priority over the good will of a few thousand Muslims in this situation. Nevertheless, a strategic question lingers for the Bush administration. If the “war on terrorism” is to be successful on a global scale, it must maintain broad-based support-particularly from moderate Muslim nations.

President Bush has wisely noted that this must not become a war against Muslims. To maintain that position, he must have moderate Muslims on his side. Any action which threatens to alienate such allies in the “war on terrorism” must be viewed with caution. Is the administration’s decision to move on to the Philippines such an action? Though the answer may not yet be clear, it is a good time to ask the question.

This article was reprinted with permission from the Institute for Global Engagement.

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