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US Military Operations in the Philippines


I think that the best way to begin is to repeat what Fr. Cirilo Nacorda said two days ago in Lamitan, Basilan, when he thanked the members of the International Peace Mission for “risking their lives” in going to Basilan to look for the truth. My colleagues have come from different parts of the world to spend three days and two nights in the principal war zone in the Philippines today, and one day visiting a jungle training site for Special Forces on the border of Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur.

Our mission had been prompted by the designation of Basilan in particular as the second front in the so-called war against terrorism by President George W. Bush. We went with a definite perspective, which is that military solutions, as in Vietnam and Afghanistan, worsen the situation, and that only dialogue among communities in conflict can create the conditions that can lead to peace. We went to probe the realities of the war in Basilan.

We emerged more worried than when we went in.

We still have to pull our findings into a final report, but allow us to share some tentative findings.

First, in the war against the Abu Sayyaf, there is strong evidence that the military is committing human rights violations. We encountered numerous cases of warrantless arrest, imprisonment of minors and a pregnant woman, allegations of extrajudicial execution, and allegations of torture via electric shock. These cases need to be fully investigated and the perpetrators punished. Let there be no mistake: All of us in the mission condemn the atrocities committed by the Abu Sayyaf; in fact, we spent our last day in Basilan listening to the testimonies of Abu Sayyaf victims in Lamitan. However, the military cannot adopt Abu Sayyaf tactics to destroy the Abu Sayyaf, not only because this is immoral but also because engaging in warrantless arrest, torture, and the killing of innocents is the surest way of creating more recruits for the Abu Sayyaf.

Second, the Abu Sayyaf problem appears to be a complicated political phenomenon which is resistant to a military solution. Throughout the visit, we met Basilenos who would ask us to answer the question: Why can’t 6,000 troops eliminate a group that numbers only 40 to 60 bandits? One answer that many Basilenos, Muslim and Christian alike, swear by is that at the highest levels of the provincial administration and at different levels of the regional and provincial military command, there are influential elements that coddle the Abu Sayyaf, some of them in exchange for monetary gain. These are serious allegations, but even just coming out with the demand to investigate them exposes to great risk those making the accusations. If the Abu Sayyaf is mainly a political problem, then relying on a military solution is not likely produce results. Dismantling the structures of collusion and corruption should be the main focus, not adding more troops and firepower.

Third, our trip has raised more questions than answers about the US military deployment in Basilan and Zamboanga. Many of those we talked to dismissed the claim of ongoing links between the notorious Al Qaeda and the Abu Sayyaf. In fact, Philippine government sources admit that no evidence of collaboration exists beyond 1995. Moreover, the American Special Forces do not seem to have any clear “value-added” in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf. One Filipino officer in the 103rd Infantry Brigade that we interviewed referred to US help in medical evacuation and in marksmanship training, but even Major Max Carpenter of the US Special Forces in Tabawan agreed that these are skills that either the Philippine troops need no instruction in, as in marksmanship, or, as in medical evacuation, something they do not need much training to acquire, certainly not six months.

As for the alleged acquisition and training in high tech equipment, we think that this has marginal use when dealing with a political problem like the Abu Sayyaf, who seem to be hidden more by a canopy of corruption and collusion than thick forest cover.

So why are US troops pouring into Basilan? Why the request for 300 more US troops to join the 160 Special Forces already there? We are more and more worried that there is a strategic intent in these moves, and that is to establish and expand a military presence in the Southern Philippines directed at Muslim revivalist movements there and in Southeast Asia. If this is the case, then the Philippines may be sliding into a situation of being a base for a long-term US war against insurgent and revivalist movements, with all the destabilizing consequences for the whole region of such an endless war.

This is important, since a number of local officials who should know better have been painting the expanding US military presence as a magic bullet that will solve not just the Abu Sayyaf problem but everything. Both Basilan Governor Wahab Akbar and Isabela Cirty Mayor Luis Biel told us that they now favor the incorporation of Basilan as the next state of the United States, with Mr. Biel saying he favored the introduction of nuclear weapons by the US to his province-something that is expressly forbidden by the Philippine Constitution. These are illusions that can only lead to the deepening of war in a war- and conflict-ravaged region.

Already, this stepped-up US deployment, under cover of training, is creating not just political problems such as infringement of sovereignty. Leaders of a Subanon indigenous community about 50 kilometers from Zamboanga City, in Baranggay Limpapa, told us that 50 hectares of their ancestral land had been illegally leased to the Armed Forces of the Philippines by the Zamboanga Freeport and Economic Zone Authority to serve as a site for joint training of Philippine and US troops in jungle warfare. As a result, 17 families face eviction.

Let me state that despite assurances to the contrary, the government and the military did not cooperate with this mission. Governor Wahab Akbar of Basilan prevented us from visiting and interviewing those arrested without warrant in the Basilan Provincial Jail, even as he admitted to us in a meeting that there were some innocent people among them. Nor did the Philippine military and US military cooperate. The Philippine military withdrew a promise of providing us with a military escort, and one of the Southcom’s top generals who promised to meet with us did not show up. Likewise, Colonel Maxwell of the Special Forces failed to turn up for our meeting at the joint 103rd Brigade and US Special Forces Camp in Tabawan at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 25.

In conclusion, we would like to thank the people of Basilan and Zamboanga who provided assistance to the mission even at risk to their lives, with graciousness and hospitality.

Thank you.

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