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Early this year, amidst military preparations
for a war in Iraq, the United States announced it was sending
3,000 soldiers to Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines.
FRONTLINE/World correspondent and reporter for PRI's
The World, Orlando de Guzman, a Filipino reporter from the
north, journeyed to Mindanao, where Muslim rebels are fighting
a guerrilla war against the Philippine government -- a war in
which the United States may soon be embroiled.
De Guzman's first stop is the port town of Jolo, where the United States has just announced the commencement of joint exercises with the Philippine army. As he enters town, de Guzman is greeted by a sign that reads, "We will not let history repeat itself. Yankees back off." At a local radio station, tribal singers protest the turn of events, singing, "Americans do not follow the divine law. They will steal our independence."
Once a Spanish colony, the Philippines is 90 percent Catholic, but the southern region of Mindanao has a sizeable Muslim minority and has long resisted the government in Manila. During the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, U.S. troops fought the Muslim, or Moro, population and committed massacres that are remembered to this day as a central part of the region's collective memory.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, is by far the largest and best-armed Muslim rebel group in the Philippines. Tension between the MILF and the government has been escalating since February, and de Guzman is attempting to meet with the group directly. As he waits, he hears word of a battle being waged in a nearby village, so he heads there.
The area is thick with jungle vegetation reminiscent of images from the Vietnam War. In a strange scene, a crowd of villagers, mainly children, follows the Philippine army as a form of entertainment, cheering when they fire artillery shells. In the village itself, de Guzman finds that not the Philippine military but a civilian militia is in control. The captain tells him they're waiting for the national military to arrive, but does not seem confident. Even when the military does come to aid such villages, they seldom do more than keep the MILF at bay.
Not only are Muslim rebel groups keeping up the steady pressure of attacks on villages and even civilian farmers, but they're also making their presence known in the cities. De Guzman travels to the major port city of Davao, where the previous day a bomb exploded, killing 16 people. The government claims that the MILF is responsible, with help from Jemaah Islamiya, the same group responsible for the Bali nightclub bombing in October 2002. The MILF denies the claim.
Attacks such as the one in Davao, de Guzman notes, increase religious tension in an already volatile community and often result in counterattacks. Indeed, a few hours after the bombing, unidentified men in fatigues attacked three nearby mosques with hand grenades.
Fighting between the Philippine military and the MILF has resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims. They seek refuge in evacuation centers set up by the government. The refugees now number 350,000, and some have been in an evacuation center for three years. De Guzman visits a center and finds life to be miserable and provisions scarce. Last month, he hears, more than a dozen children died from dysentery.
De Guzman receives word that the MILF is finally ready to meet him, so he and his producer Margarita Dragon travel into the jungle, into MILF-controlled territory. He ends up in Abubakar, a camp that spans 12,000 acres and was once home to 25,000 people. It formerly was a working model of the MILF's vision of an Islamic state, with a mosque, a school and a sharia court. But in 2000, in what was called "the all-out war," the Philippine government overran and destroyed Abubakar, which they said had been used as a terrorist training center. Though pushed underground, the MILF still controls most of their former territory by the use of a rotating volunteer force.
Most of the villagers have fled, but on his trek into the mountains, de Guzman meets a 70-year-old man who has refused to leave. When asked why he hasn't moved to the city like so many others, he says there's nothing for him to live on in the city -- no corn, no cows, no money, no living. So he stays, armed with the gun he recently bought and is prepared to use against the military. De Guzman asks him if the people here feel that they are fighting for their land. "No," the man says. "They are fighting for their lives."
After an uneasy night sleeping in hammocks to the sound of artillery fire, de Guzman and his escorts press through the rugged terrain to the former headquarters of the MILF. Only a broken-down cement structure remains, but the MILF show it off as a symbol that they have reoccupied the territory the government forced them to leave three years ago. De Guzman meets the local field commander, code-named "Congressman," who has been fighting with the MILF for 30 years. In an unusual moment, Congressman breaks down crying, as he says he would rather die fighting in the mountains than give up the dream of a separate Islamic state.
De Guzman is ordered to leave not long after he arrives. Back in the city, he waits two days, then receives word he will meet Al-Haj Murad, the MILF's chief military commander. This will be the first interview Murad has given in three years. De Guzman and Murad meet a short distance from a heavily guarded highway.
One of the founders of the MILF, Murad is the man in charge of its military operations. Like many MILF leaders, he is a former Mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the late 1980s in Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden. The Philippine government has a $1 million bounty on Murad and other key MILF leaders. He is wanted for murder and for suspected involvement in bombings throughout Mindanao.
Surrounded by MILF soldiers, Murad talks to de Guzman over lunch. De Guzman asks him for his take on the joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises. Murad says he hopes the United States will realize that not all Muslims are terrorists, and he says the MILF is trying to avoid being labeled as such. "They cannot equate Islam to terrorism," he explains. "And the problem here in Mindanao cannot be a part of the fight against global terrorism."
De Guzman points to the links that security and intelligence analysts have made between the MILF and known terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiya. Murad concedes that while some MILF members fought in Afghanistan and may have developed personal relationships with terrorists, there is no organizational connection. He states plainly, "We are fighting on our own. Our objective is to achieve the aspiration of the Moro people. We are not concerned with the objective of the brothers in Indonesia, in Malaysia or in other regions in the Middle East." Murad labels the problem in Mindanao a domestic problem. U.S. intervention, he says, will only complicate the situation.
In the two months since de Guzman left Mindanao, joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises have commenced near Manila and will be starting in the southern Philippines soon. The MILF has responded with more attacks on Christian villages. On the eve of her recent visit to Washington, President Macapagal Arroyo ordered more attacks on MILF strongholds, inluding the same positions Orlando had visited. An additional 50 civilians have been killed and 30,000 more residents have been displaced. If history is any guide, de Guzman says, a U.S.-Philippine war against the MILF will be "long and dirty." He concludes, "For the people of Mindanao, a protracted war will certainly mean more suffering and deepening hatred between Christians and Muslims."
Orlando de Guzman
Co-production of FRONTLINE/World and Rain Media
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