July 30, 2009

Philippine leader fails to address security problems

Asia-Pacific Features

By John Grafilo Jul 28, 2009, 5:48 GMT

Manila - A few months after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was catapulted into office in January 2001, she vowed to wipe out the Muslim Abu Sayyaf rebel group, which has links with al-Qaeda, during her term as president.

Every year since then, Arroyo claimed significant gains against the country's smallest Muslim rebel group but the guerrillas continue in their deadly ways, launching bomb attacks and kidnappings.

The nebulous Abu Sayyaf, which the military estimates to have between 200 and 2,000 members, has shown resilience in the past eight years despite the killing of its key leaders, as new commanders take over from the fallen ones.

Arroyo's government vowed again to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas after they freed on July 12 the last of three Red Cross workers who were seized on Jolo Island, 1,000 kilometres south of Manila, on January 15.

'All that this is saying is we have not completed our job,' National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said.

The Abu Sayyaf menace is just one of the security concerns that the Arroyo government failed to resolve during her eight-year presidency.

Peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's main Muslim rebel group, also failed to move forward and kept the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao on the edge of economic and political instability.

After five years of peace negotiations with the 12,000-strong MILF, the talks fell apart in August and ended in bloody clashes that killed more than 300 people and displaced more than 500,000.

The negotiations with the MILF started in earnest in 2003 under the tutelage of Arroyo. In July 2008, Arroyo told the country in her state of the nation address that a breakthrough in the talks with the MILF was achieved.

Arroyo said that both the government and the MILF peace panel reached an agreement on the thorny issue of territory and the pact would soon be signed. But after two weeks, Arroyo scrapped the agreement due to strong opposition even from her allies.

The non-signing of that key territory deal heightened the frustration of MILF members, prompting three guerrilla commanders to lead deadly attacks on dozens of villages and towns in Mindanao.

Manny Pinol, vice governor of the southern province of North Cotabato, said that unless the root causes of the problem in Mindanao were adequately addressed, the Muslim insurgency problem would persist.

'We have been telling [government officials] that the problem in Mindanao is not just the MILF,' he said. 'The MILF is only a manifestation of these problems. It's the years of neglect, deprivation, injustice poverty and lack of opportunities for the people.'

'They don't seem to listen to us,' Pinol added.

A similar fate befell efforts of the Arroyo government to negotiate peace with the 40-year-old leftist insurgency spearheaded by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CCP).

Data from the National Security Council (NSC) showed that while the leftist guerrillas have declined in number from from 25,000 in the 1980s to less than 6,000 now, they have intensified attacks against government targets since Arroyo became president.

Peace negotiations between the communist rebels and the government collapsed in 2004 after the guerrillas pulled out of the talks accusing the government of influencing foreign countries, including the United States and the European Union, into declaring the CPP a terrorist organization.

In the following years, clashes between government troops and the communist guerrillas intensified, causing more misery among civilians, especially in the impoverished countryside.

'This rebellion has kept the nation in a state of low intensity conflict, posing an obstacle to full economic development and political stability,' a 2009 NSC report about the internal security situation in the country said.

The report added that based on the estimates of the finance department, without the communist insurgency, the country's economy 'could still grow by as much as 2 per cent more.'

During Arroyo's state of the nation address on Monday, security issues and the problems of Muslim and communist insurgencies became mere footnotes in her annual speech.

'In these two internal conflicts the question is not who is going to win but why do Filipinos need to fight each other over issues that both sides know cannot be settled with force but only democratically?' Arroyo said.

Arroyo did come up with the good news that peace talks with the Muslim and communist rebels were set to resume next month, but analysts said nothing significant was expected to come out of these talks within the remaining 11 months of her rule.

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