After nearly six months of fruitless negotiations, Philippine President Joseph Estrada has ordered military action to free kidnap victims and arrest their captors. Mr. Estrada’s patience has run out. But if he thinks the army can fix what ails the southern Philippines, he is mistaken. Some of the kidnappers are common criminals masquerading as Muslim separatists. Others are true believers, however, and they have been driven to act by centuries of discrimination, neglect and corruption.
The drama began last April, when Muslim insurgents abducted 21 people, 10 Western tourists among them, from a resort island in Malaysia, near Borneo. The captives were transported to the rebel base on Jolo Island, some 800 km south of Manila. Negotiations were begun to secure the release of the victims, but freedom for most of them did not come until a huge cash ransom — never acknowledged as such — was paid. It is believed that Libya, acting as mediator, gave the rebels some $15 million for the release of the captives. Journalists hoping to secure interviews with the kidnappers and their hostages have paid thousands of dollars more for the privilege.
Unfortunately, the rebels were reluctant to let a good thing go. The day after releasing four Western hostages, they grabbed three more Malaysians. Factions emerged and the various groups began to fight among themselves. The ransom payments have been used to buy new arsenals of weapons, intended for yet more kidnappings or, worse, to wage war against the government. The Abu Sayyaf faction, the largest and most visible of the rebel groups, has used the money to finance a recruitment drive that has expanded the band from 200 members to 4,000.
Exasperated, Mr. Estrada sent 4,000 troops, artillery, helicopters and fighter jets to Jolo Island on a rescue operation last weekend. The government forces drove the rebels from their stronghold, but they were able to retreat into the jungle with their captives. Two French journalists managed to escape in the darkness, but there were no other successes in the initial stage of the operation.
The attack is a high-risk effort, and the government’s objectives are unclear. First, the goal was freeing the captives. Then it was smashing the gang. Most recently, Mr. Estrada claims the operation is part of a wider strategy to rein in the militants and end hundreds of years of virtual civil war in the southern Philippines. It is hard to evaluate its effect: A news blackout has been imposed by the Philippine government and the details that have trickled out have often been contradictory. There have been reports of civilian deaths and refugees fleeing villages by the thousands.
An all-out assault will not end the insurgency. The willingness of reporters to venture into the jungles in search of a scoop will guarantee that the rebels have a ready supply of hostages. It is hoped that these intrepid journalists will recognize that they are compounding the problems and put common sense ahead of their competition for a story.
But the real problem is the political and economic circumstances that created and fueled the civil war. Muslims in the south have resisted domination by the Catholic majority for 400 years. Various governments in Manila have tried sticks and carrots to win over the residents; all attempts have failed. The status quo has been a simmering conflict that periodically exploded into full-scale fighting. After years of this, the Moro National Liberation Federation in 1996 made peace with the government in exchange for limited autonomy in the southern Philippines. The Abu Sayyaf rejected the deal and has continued its struggle for an Islamic homeland.
While some question the motives of the various groups, one thing is clear: The Philippines’ Muslim minority live in the poorest part of the country. The causes of this poverty are many — discrimination, corruption and the reluctance of investors to put money into a region that is under siege. But as long as the south remains mired in poverty, it will be a breeding ground for rebellion and criminal groups.
Mr. Estrada deserves some credit for giving more financial help to the southern Philippines than his predecessors. But it will take more than that to really reduce the indigence, which is the only way to end the secessionist movements. The president has vowed to break the back of the insurgency and turn Mindanao, where the rebel groups are based, into “the breadbasket of the Philippines.” That would do the job, but recent history gives precious little grounds for optimism.
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