Philippines: Fighting Factions Face Frustrating Future


August 20, 2011: The deadlock in peace negotiations with MILF ultimately comes down to money. MILF wants control over taxation and government spending in the Moslem south. Past attempts to do this led to major problems with corruption (long a bigger problem in the south than in the Christian north). Thus the national government is not willing to give MILF complete control in the south. But this is what many MILF commanders want, so that they can establish, in effect, a military dictatorship in the southern islands. While the majority of MILF commanders are willing to compromise, a large minority (as many as a fifth of them) are determined to have it all. Then there is clan politics, a major factor in the south. A century ago, the entire country was dominated by clan politics. Clan power has declined in the Christian north, but not in the south. Local politics in the south is dominated by clan leaders and most of these clans are affiliated with a local MILF unit. Some clans have allied themselves with the national government. Thus the situation in the south can also be seen as a civil war. But most of the violence down there is the result of feuds between clans. This has been a major cause of poverty in the south, as outside investment runs into corruption and, worse, clans fighting each other for the right to plunder the new venture. An example of how this works can be seen in the 1990s, when large gas deposits were found in the southern provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Sultan Kudurat. Drilling proved impossible because the clans that controlled the area could not agree among themselves who would control (demand bribes from) what portion of the oil fields. The threat of violence, usually just blamed on MILF, kept gas drilling companies out.

MILF is even disputing what parts of the Philippines would be part of this autonomous Moslem state. Right now they are demanding Mindanao, Sulu, and part of the Palawan Islands. These areas contain large Christian populations and another point of dispute is what rights, if any, non-Moslems would have.

Frustrated in negotiations, the government has used more military and police action, and they have reduced the MILF, NPA and Islamic radical violence in the last year. While MILF, NPA and Abu Sayyaf present themselves as proponents of social change, they have actually become warlords who are mainly concerned with money, and most southerners recognize that. Thus the growing clan based violence is often against MILF, NPA and Abu Sayyaf. Many violent incidents in the south, initially blamed on MILF, NPA or Abu Sayyaf, later turn out to be largely about clan or political rivalries. Overall, the southern violence is generally a combination of Islamic, clan and political disputes.

The most radical Islamic group, Abu Sayyaf, has been largely confined to a few southwestern islands ((Jolo, Basilan) by a shortage of money. This was the result of the United States hunting down and seizing or freezing the foreign bank accounts of Abu Sayyaf leaders. The lack of cash made it impossible to expand the terrorist organization. Even volunteers (and many Abu Sayyaf members expected to be paid) need supplies and services that have to be purchased. Thus Abu Sayyaf spends a lot of time stealing just to survive. The core members of Abu Sayyaf in the southwest survive in an area where such bandit-like activity, and Islamic radicalism, has been a problem for centuries.

Clan based fighting continues in the south ( Maguindanao province) , sustained by renegade MILF commander Ameril Umbrakato. After two weeks of fighting, there have been over a hundred casualties and thousands of civilians have fled their homes. The fight is basically over a land ownership dispute. Some six hectares (15 acres) of land is involved.  Local leaders (political and clan based) are calling on the national government to intervene. The army did move some troops in, but has largely left it to MILF to sort it all out.

August 18, 2011: MILF commander Ameril Umbrakato has left the organization, along with some 300 followers, and formed an even more radical Moslem separatist organization (BIFF, or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front). MILF has about 10,000 armed members, but the organization actually consists of dozens of separate militias. Umbrakato used to command a larger force, but was removed because of age (he is in his 70s). Three years ago he led an unauthorized offensive against Christians in the south, which left 400 dead. More recently, his smaller group of followers has fought other MILF units in Maguindanao province. Umbrakato opposes any peace deal that does not give autonomy in the south and full control over non-Moslems in the south. MILF has declared Umbrakato a renegade, and MILF will go after him.

August 16, 2011: In the south, police arrested Datu Karim Masdal, who was wanted for involvement in several major terror attacks.

August 15, 2011: In the south, Maguindanao province governor Esmael Mangudadatu survived a road bomb attack (which killed one person and wounded two). At first believed to be carried out by Islamic terrorists, the attack was later found to be the work of a political rival.

August 13, 2011: MILF commander Abdulmajid Abdulham was killed in the south when soldiers and police sought to arrest him for criminal activities. Abdulham ordered his bodyguards to open fire, and he was killed in the subsequent gun battle.

August 12, 2011: In the south, two Islamic terrorists died when the bomb they were building went off prematurely.

August 7, 2011: In Sulu, troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf, leaving at least three Islamic terrorists dead.

August 6, 2011: In southern Cotabato City, a bomb went off, killing two and wounding ten.



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