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PHILIPPINES - Islands Under Siege, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Islands Under Siege"

On the Front Lines in Mindanao

Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines

Population, Government, Economy

Muslim Rebels, U.S. Presence, Politics




A Conflicted Land: Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines
1898-1933: America’s Colony 1934-1964: War and Independence 1965-1986: The Marcos Years 1987-2003: Reform and Rebellion

1987-2003: Reform and Rebellion

Reformers confront old problems and new conflicts.

U.S. troops

U.S. troops arrive at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, April 2003. Since 2002, the United States has sent hundreds of soldiers to the southern Philippines to support and train the Philippine army. The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign soldiers from fighting in the country.
The popular movement that helped topple Marcos spawned optimism that a more democratic, autonomous era in Philippine politics was beginning. A new constitution, ratified in 1987, was designed to prevent a repeat of the abuses of the Marcos years. Clark Air Force Base was closed after being damaged in the 1991 explosion of Mount Pinatubo, and the naval base at Subic Bay was closed in 1992 after the Philippine government rejected an extension of the U.S. lease.

However, the high-level corruption and the mass poverty of the Marcos era were not so easily eradicated. President Corazon Aquino and her successors inherited many of her predecessor's problems, including the ongoing conflict with the NPA. Aquino declared "total war" on the rebels, and the United States has continued to supply and train the Philippine army. The NPA today is much weakened, but negotiations remain stalled.

Gloria Arroyo and Colin Powell

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo meets with Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2002. Arroyo has pledged her country's support for the U.S. war on terrorism. In turn, the Bush administration has offered military support for the Philippines' ongoing battle against Muslim separatists. (photo: Gabriel Mistral/Getty Images)
The southern Philippines, meanwhile, has become a flashpoint for new hostilities. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke off from the MNLF nearly 20 years ago, continues to fight under the leadership of a cleric named Hashim Salamat. After massive military campaigns by the Philippine government in Muslim areas, current president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo agreed in 2001 to peace talks with the MILF. But the violence has not abated. The Philippine government has accused the MILF of having ties to the terrorist group that blew up a Bali nightclub in October 2002 (although the MILF denies this). Currently, the MILF is thought to have 12,000 fighters in its ranks.

Concerned with possible links between various rebel groups and international terrorists, the United States continues to support the Philippine government's current anti-insurgency campaigns. The U.S. government recently added the NPA to its list of terrorist groups and also says that a smaller rebel group, Abu Sayaf, has links to al Qaeda. Abu Sayaf split from the MNF in 1991 and made its name by taking Filipinos and foreigners hostage on the islands of Jolo and Basilan. Though Abu Sayaf claims to be fighting for a Muslim state, MILF has distanced itself from the group.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is one of several insurgent groups fighting for a Muslim state in the southern Philippines. To some Filipino Muslims, they are freedom fighters. To the Philippine government, they are terrorists.
In November 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would support President Arroyo's campaign against Abu Sayaf. "President Arroyo understands now is the time to make a stand against terrorist activity, whether it be in Afghanistan or in the Philippines or anywhere else al Qaeda exists," Bush said after meeting with the Philippine president at the White House. American and Philippine troops have since conducted joint training operations, and the United States has sent nearly 600 troops to the southern Philippines.

In light of the war on terrorism, the current American and Philippine governments have played up their countries' "special relationship." For more than a century, United States has been the Philippines' largest donor and trade partner, and the Philippines has long emulated American culture and politics. But the images of American soldiers on duty are a reminder that the two countries also share what has been an often bloody past. The new conflict against the MILF and Abu Sayyaf raises some old questions: Will the United States get caught up in another violent guerilla conflict? Will the Philippine government sacrifice its democratic gains to restore order? And what is the future of the close yet conflicted relationship between the two countries?

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