Thirty years into Mindanao’s bloody uprising, there is little sign of dawn. 

Syed Nazakat in Manila, Philippines   

It is a disturbing question that both President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the security agencies of Philippians obsess about in private yet rarely discuss in public. How to win peace in Muslim dominated Southern Island of Mindanao where three-decade-old bloody conflict has claimed over 125,000 lives? 

It is perhaps tricky question, of course which naturally makes it perfect for endless Manila dinner-party talk. Now President Arroyo has begun to talk about Mindanao and challenges her government is facing to bring peace in the troubled Island of Philippians. And now she is looking towards Saudi Arabia for help to end a lengthy bloody conflict. 

“I shall ask the King’s (King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) support to share the good faith of the Muslim world in bringing peace and prosperity to Mindanao,” she told reporters last week before leaving for four-day visit to Saudi Arabia. 

Muslims represent less than 5 percent of the population of the Philippines, the only predominately Christian country in Southeast Asia. But resource-rich island of Mindanao is Muslim dominated. Some 3.5 million Muslims regard it as their ancestral homeland. Muslim rebel groups based in Mindanao are fighting to attain an independent Islamic state for last three decades. In that time, the rebellion has taken over 125,000 lives, mostly innocent people. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse. Over the past year, the insurgency has taken a decidedly dangerous turn, with disturbing news all the time flouting in that Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida is supporting and training the Muslim rebels in Mindanao particularly the militant groups of Abu Sayyaf and Jamaah Islamiyah. Many top Al-Qaida leaders, in various audiotapes have also wowed Muslims all across the world to help Philippine Muslims in their struggle against the Philippians state. 

However, many political analysts are in the opinion that economic disparities and ethnic tensions, more than religious differences, are at the root of the modern separatist movement that emerged in the early 1970’s. Asiri Abubakar, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines in Manila, says that incomes, job opportunities, health standards and education levels of Muslims on the southern islands lag far behind the rest of the nation. To villagers in Mindanao, he contends, the Abu Sayyaf rebels or for that matter any Muslim rebel seem like a modern, Islamic incarnation of Robin Hood. 

Owing to the present situation and the last week’s talks with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MNLF), the President Arroyo visit to Saudi Arabia is seen with keen interest. President Arroyo who has allied herself closely to US President George W Bush’s”war on terror” and had taken strong line against Muslim rebels is now trying to forge close ties with the Muslim world to see how long standing Mindanao problem could be resolved. “We hope we will soon achieve peace in Mindanao,” President Arroyo said.  

Not likely. Over 30 years into the uprising that turned Mindanao from a beautiful Island into a killing field, there’s little sign of a dawn; if anything, the outlook is still darker. While MNLF is having talks but other militant groups like Abu Sayyaf Group

and Jemaah Islamiya who are said to be having ties with Al-Qaida are locked into intractable, antagonistic postures with the government. They blame President Arroyo of having no clear policy about Mindanao and they also accuse the government of adopting divide and rule policy. 

The government is also showing no sings of leniency towards those who don’t want shun violence. So despite having talks with MNLF there have been surprise attacks on the hideouts of Muslim rebels by Philippians army. US marines are also training the Philippians army in Southern Island to curb the insurgency. The USA is also the largest recent supplier of arms to the Philippines. Other suppliers include Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Australia, Taiwan and Israel. 

Now the big question is how should government win peace in Mindanao?  Everybody knows the force is no answer. If the experience of the past of armed conflict in Muslim Mindanao teaches anything, it is that the current administration’s “get tough” policy will have the opposite of its intended effect. It will energize the base of Muslim insurgents and increase their popular support while undermining the ongoing peace talk between MNLF and the Philippians government. As Abdul Abadai, 52, of Malati says that the big problem between Mindanao Muslims and the government is of lack of trust. “The government never trusted the local people there and Mindanao people always have a kind of suspicion about the government,” says Abadai, who has left Mindanao some 10 years back and is now in Manila happily, if not lavishly. “Why don’t you joined Muslim rebels,” I asked? “I don’t like fighting”, he said straight away, smiling.   

(Sahara Time, 2007)


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