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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Richard Halloran

Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Philippines makes progress on terror, but not Moros

 •  Army mum on shooting

The armed forces of the Philippines, assisted by U.S. Special Operations Forces and law enforcement officers, have begun to overcome Islamic insurgents in the "Terrorist Transit Triangle" alongside the southern Philippines. At the same time, however, the government in Manila has evidently failed to address the 450-year-old issue of making peace with Muslim Filipinos known as Moros.

A senior American officer, after discussing the efforts of about 500 American troops backing Filipino forces in building schools, medical clinics and other civic projects, was asked what the central government in Manila had done to bring the Moros into the mainstream of Philippine life. His reply was succinct: "Nothing."

A Filipino business executive who is a Muslim from Mindanao, the main island in the Philippine south, was asked the same question and gave an equally succinct answer: "Nothing."

Both the American and the Filipino asked not to be named because they want to avoid provoking the regime in Manila with which each must work.

The terrorist triangle runs along island chains through the Sulu and Celebes seas, permitting terrorists to move among the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In the Philippines itself, the terrorists of the Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiya, and the Rajah Solaiman Movement, plus the communist New People's Army, continue to operate there.

A U.S. State Department report four years ago asserted: "The major, and disturbing, trend in the Philippines has been the growing cooperation among the Islamist terrorist organizations operating in the country: Jemaah Islamiya, the Abu Sayyaf Group, and the Rajah Sulaiman Movement." The latter consists of Christian converts to Islam, which allows them to pass undetected in other parts of the Philippines.

In a similar report last month, the department said Philippine troops, with the intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance help of U.S. forces, "continued to marginalize the remaining numbers" of the Islamic terrorists. But the report said the 5,000-strong New People's Army "continued to disrupt public security and business operations with intermittent attacks" on communications and transportation everywhere.

A Coastwatch South program, in which the U.S. has given the Philippines a dozen radar stations, communication gear and training is expected to improve Manila's operations against the terrorist triangle. The State Department reported that Philippine military and law enforcement agencies have mounted operations seeking "to eliminate terrorist safe havens in the Sulu Archipelago and central Mindanao."

Gradual progress against the insurgents, however, will mean little unless the government in Manila can find a way to resolve the long-term issue of the Muslim minority of about 5 percent of the Philippine population. They have been struggling against discrimination since the colonizing Spaniards imposed Christianity on the Philippines in 1565, and often provide support to the terrorists.

After the U.S. defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines was ceded to the U.S. in 1898, the Moros turned their resistance to the Americans whom they saw as replacements of the Spanish oppressors. From other parts of the Philippines, Christians moved into what had been Muslim territory in Mindanao and the islands to the southwest.

Before World War II, the U.S. promised the Philippines independence but Japan's occupation of the archipelago delayed that until 1946. After independence, some Moros continued to press for independence while others were willing to settle for autonomy. Still others, mostly moderates, thought it better to work within the system to end discrimination against Muslims.

In the late 1980s, Philippine President Corazon Aquino tried to establish an autonomous region for the Moros, but that did not work out. The Supreme Court declared another effort "unconstitutional" in 2008, ruling that the proposal was a "whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise."

And there this sad situation sits.

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a correspondent in Asia and in Washington, is a writer in Honolulu.