In the current hostage drama unfolding in the southern Philippine island of Basilan—involving two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and a Filipina nurse, Deborah Yap—the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has made no political or ideological demands. Though it is described as a Muslim extremist group, what the group does has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with cash. Indeed, a recently released letter alleged to be from the Burnhams says that the only demand the ASG has is for $2 million in ransom money, and that any military action will endanger their lives. The gang finds this a highly lucrative enterprise, having made in its previous kidnappings between $10 million and $25 million, enough to purchase sophisticated weaponry and speedboats and recruit otherwise unemployed young men with little to lose. And if allegations are true, the money enables them to pay off the local military authorities.
Notorious for its violence, the Abu Sayyaf has at times beheaded its hostages, as it did Guillermo Sobero from California, who was among several people—including the Burnhams—taken from two locations, a resort on another island last May, and later on, from a hospital in Basilan. Except for Yap and the Burnhams, all were subsequently released, some of them upon payment of ransom.
Founded by Ustadz Abdurajack Janjalani, a fundamentalist preacher who had trained as a mujahideen in Afghanistan and befriended Osama bin Laden, the ASG is thought to have ties to the Al Qaeda network through bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mustapha Jammal Khalifa, and a charity organization he set up in the 1980s, the International Islamic Relief Organization. This personal relationship is why the Abu Sayyaf, and the Philippines, have been targeted as the second front in the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism, and why more than 600 U.S. troops are currently deployed in the Philippines. But since Janjalani’s death in a 1998 firefight with the police, those links, tenuous at best, have most likely evaporated.
U.S. troops are there ostensibly to participate in a U.S.-Philippine military exercise dubbed “Balikatan” or “Shoulder-to-Shoulder.” The term “exercise” misleads, however. Live ammunition will be used in a combat zone, against a flesh-and-blood foe. U.S. military advisers going into the jungles will fire back, if fired upon. The only exercise in this case is that of the imagination; this is a real fight.
American intervention is curious, given that the Abu Sayyaf has been riven by factionalism since Janjalani’s death and seems to have degenerated into a small cabal of robber barons. The spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), General Edilberto Adan, described the gang in an interview as “now just a kidnap-for-ransom group, trying to use religion to justify their cause.”
The Abu Sayyaf never did and does not now constitute a destabilizing threat to the Philippine government, much less to the United States. The 60 or so gunmen still believed to be holding out with their three hostages are no match for the 5000 Philippine troops deployed against them, now augmented by U.S. Special Forces personnel. This deployment of troops by the U.S. does, however, imply that the Philippine military is incapable of shooting straight. But this flies in the face of its history.
The AFP has in fact battled three much larger, more sophisticated, and ideologically driven armies: the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the 1970s, the fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the 1990s, and the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA) since 1969. At its peak, the MNLF had about 20,000 fighters; the MILF has 15,000, many of them having come from the MNLF (as did the MILF’s founder, Salamat Hashim, once a top lieutenant to Nur Misuari, the MNLF head who now languishes in a military stockade). The MNLF and the Ramos government, following a deal brokered in Tripoli in 1976, signed a peace agreement in 1996. The Arroyo government is currently negotiating a peace settlement with the MILF.
The NPA, still active, and the only one of the three groups to be operating nationwide, is thought to have at least 12,000 guerrillas but is reportedly building back to prior, higher levels. The Arroyo government is also conducting preliminary talks at the Hague with the leaders of the NPA and its political umbrella, the National Democratic Front (NDF). At the same time the U.S recently (and without fanfare) placed the NPA on its list of terrorist groups. And now, part of the U.S. military contingent is on Luzon Island up north, near NPA strongholds—barely noted by the media but a clear indication of the broader aspects of this operation.
Why then has the Abu Sayyaf been able to hold off the Philippine military for eight months now? Since the gang slipped out of a hospital in the town of Lamitan on June 2, 2001—when they had been completely encircled by Philippine soldiers—there have been numerous credible allegations reported in the local press that the military units and their officers have been paid off. Such charges have come from soldiers, hospital staff, and released hostages. But both the army and the Arroyo administration, though unable to explain the gang’s escape, have described such accusations as baseless.
Such payoffs, if true, would not be surprising. Basilan, an island with postcard-pretty beaches that is more than twice the size of Singapore, is one of the poorest provinces in the country. It has long had a reputation as being a wooly place, where warlord politicians, missionaries, Muslim insurgents, military detachments, rubber plantation workers, illegal loggers, and civilians form a Darwinian world of sometimes interlocking, sometimes competing interests. The MNLF and MILF have camps here, which, because of the peace settlements, Philippine troops are forbidden to enter, but where the Abu Sayyaf, rather like a mischievous band of naughty boys, takes refuge whenever convenient.
The MNLF and MILF have disavowed connections with the ASG, describing it as a “lost command” group. But such a sobriquet has in the past served as camouflage for informal links between a larger, more established group with a political agenda, and a small breakaway faction not bound by any treaty. The “lost command” outfit is then free to engage in dirty tricks, acting as proxy for the larger group or groups.
While a prickly thorn in the side of the government, the Abu Sayyaf is clearly a domestic problem. However, the group serves as a Trojan horse, allowing both governments to pursue their own agendas. For the United States, helping to eliminate the ASG bolsters its claim of winning the war against terrorism. More importantly, it gives the U.S. once again a military presence, not only in its former colony but also in Southeast Asia—a regional presence that was crucial in, for instance, the Vietnam and Gulf wars. For President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it means increased military and economic aid, to the tune of $100 million, that all but dried up once the Philippine Senate in 1991 voted against the renewal of the bases treaty, shutting down two of the largest and oldest U.S. bases outside North America: Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base. The bases represent most visibly the neocolonial status of the Philippines, and are relics of its occupation by the U.S., from 1898 to 1946.
U.S. troops arrived in the archipelago during the Spanish-American War of 1898, ostensibly to help the Philippine revolutionary government win in its struggle against Spain, but in reality to take over as the new colonial masters. Not without a fierce war, however: The 1899 Philippine-American War, a conveniently forgotten guerrilla conflict that anticipated the Vietnam War by more than half a century, lasted for a decade, and cost more lives (at least 250,000 mostly civilian dead) and more money than the three-month-long Spanish-American War. In the early years of the colonial era, the U.S. administered Mindanao as a military province. There, U.S. troops first encountered the ferocity of Muslim fighters, who would run amok through towns, attempting to slay as many Christians as possible. Legend has it that General “Blackjack” Pershing had the .45 caliber pistol devised so these fighters could be stopped in their tracks.
Complicating matters, the current U.S. presence may be a violation of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which prohibits foreign troops from fighting on Philippine soil. But the Philippine government says joint military exercises are covered by pacts between the two governments: the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty. However, Wigberto Tañada, a former senator who voted against the renewal of the bases treaty in 1991, believes the current deployment of U.S. forces goes beyond the parameters of the two agreements. Speaking on behalf of a group called Gathering for Peace, Tañada declared, “We question the necessity and wisdom of inviting foreign troops on Philippine soil to address a domestic problem. . . . We believe the failure of the government to address the problems has to do more with political will than a lack of capacity.”
While Mindanao may not be the Mekong Delta or Kandahar, bringing in more men and guns in an area teeming with them is the last thing it needs. There have been reports of rising human rights violations in Mindanao— most disturbingly, on the part of the Philippine military, which has had, since the U.S.-supported dictatorship of the Marcoses, a long history of extrajudicial killings. Every time the U.S. offers to help the Philippines, it seems, something terrible happens. Echoing the question many have, Manila journalist and writer José Lacaba asks in an interview, “How many Filipino civilians are going to get killed to free two American hostages?”