A marriage of convenience is what the United States and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are into, and they make for strange bedfellows indeed. One might even say that each one’s sleeping with the enemy. But as in most unions of expediency, both partners would rather forget how strategically irreconcilable, though tactically opportunist, are their interests.

Does the MILF need reminding that the marginalization and neglect of the Muslims of Mindanao were driven by US colonial policy, and that all Philippine governments since 1946 were mere policy copycats?

In the 46 years that the US was sovereign in the Philippines, its focus was on Christianizing and de-Islamizing Mindanao through the resettlement of Christians from Luzon and the Visayas. Every one of the US’ client governments continued that policy, and reduced Muslim dominance from 98 percent of the population at the turn of the 20th century to the current 20 percent, or 3.2 million, of the total Mindanao population of 16 million. Muslims are now concentrated in the poorest areas of Mindanao, where, anyway, they own only some 16 percent of the property.

If one must talk about the roots of the current conflict, those are long enough to trace to US colonial policy and the policies of all Philippine governments since 1946. And wasn’t Mindanao once the “second front” in the US “war on terror,” thanks mostly to the MILF, which the US government and media had time and again accused of coddling and training Jemah Islamiya operatives and even an Al Qaeda militant or two?

Yet there they are today, whispering sweet somethings to each other. The US has rather indiscreetly promised millions of dollars in aid to Mindanao once the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) becomes a reality — and that’s on top of an earlier offer of US million for MILF combatants once a peace agreement is signed.

For its part the MILF has reiterated that it’s open to hosting US military bases within the BJE, declaring through its spokesman that, despite the anti-Islam overtones of the “war on terror,” which US President George W. Bush once referred to as “a crusade,” it has never regarded the US as an enemy (“We have nothing against the Americans.”).

Apparently not. A special report by the “independent and non-partisan,” but US Congress-funded US Institute of Peace (www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr131.html) says the late MILF chair Hashim Salamat requested US support for the Mindanao peace process in a January 2003 letter to Bush.

From the statements of MILF sources, among them spokesman Eid Kabalu, we can conclude that the MILF sought US intervention because it thought a peace agreement possible only if the Philippine overlord weighed in. No argument there. The US and other countries including the Philippines may be sovereign equals on paper. But the US is more equal than others, and certainly more equal than the country of our misery, where over a century of “special relations” has made the US the prime mover of almost anything of importance, whether an election or counter-insurgency.

In response to Hashim Salamat’s request, an elated Bush told Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in May 2003 that the US would support “a renewed peace process” if the MILF “addresses its grievances through peaceful negotiations”. Still leery of MILF intentions anyway, the US entrusted in the same year the “facilitation” of peace negotiations to the US Institute of Peace (USIP) as — ahem — a non-government entity.

The MILF is apparently grateful enough for the USIP “facilitation” to give the US what it wants. The better not only to combat terrorist groups whether real or imagined, but also to contain the growing power of the Chinese behemoth, the US wish list currently includes military bases in Mindanao, and the MILF is willing to grant them.

As Kabalu has declared, “If the American interest is really in pushing this peace process, then we can talk about military bases.” It’s not only possible, said Kabalu, it’s also negotiable, presumably once the MILF establishes and takes control of the BJE, in which case it can dispense like aspirin as much territory as it wants: easy come, easy go.

US forces have been in Mindanao since 2002, ensconced in bases they call “facilities.” But they’re there on the fiction that they’re “visiting forces” who of course need to drill, eat and rest as well as keep and repair equipment in appropriate sleeping quarters, mess halls, barns, and storehouses.

Don’t call the sleeping quarters, mess halls, etc. bases. They’re facilities. The fiction’s necessary because the Constitution bans foreign troops from Philippine soil, which raises the question of how the BJE, assuming it ever becomes a reality, can allow bases labeled “US military bases” to operate within its considerably enlarged areas of responsibility. Would the BJE have the power to negotiate with foreign governments in the first place? Impossible — unless the Constitution is amended, or the BJE falls outside Philippine sovereignty altogether, despite US assurances otherwise.

How much are those assurances — for example by the ever voluble Kristie Kenney (“We do not believe that independence for Mindanao is appropriate”) and by such other worthies as US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (“The United States absolutely supports the territorial integrity of the Philippines”) — worth?

About two cents — or as much as US statements on the territorial integrity of sovereign states, which George Bush cited when he condemned the recent Russian invasion of Georgia, but forgot in 2003 when US forces invaded Iraq (and stayed). The US does want and believes it needs those bases. Territorial integrity be damned: the BJE would be exactly what the doctor ordered, the doctor (the US) being at the same time its own patient.

But the cynics who believe that once they get what they want both the US and the Arroyo regime of mockery will eventually renege on whatever promises they’ve made to the MILF should be talking to the MILF instead of the rest of the country.

The MILF might need to be informed that an autonomous Islamic state in Mindanao would create problems the US doesn’t want — but is easily subverted, the US being the world’s number one expert in the fine arts of destabilization and political mayhem. On the other hand, that the Arroyo regime, whose word is as valuable as a three-peso bill, has practically promised the MILF the moon should be cause for suspicion rather than celebration.

Muslim autonomy above all can’t be built on a marriage of convenience that as easily as it was forged can just as easily end in a devastating divorce. Mesmerized by dreams of sovereignty and focused on those futile shows of force in Lanao del Norte and Sarangani that are hardening majority prejudices, the MILF not only refuses to look that far ahead. It can’t see what it’s gotten into bed with either. It must be love. Or a severe case of myopia.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *