It's Time to Get Together Again: U.S.-Philippines

American and Phillipine flags (Photo by mtfrazier/flickr)
American and Phillipine flags (Photo by mtfrazier/flickr)

by Nicholas Platt

Originally published in The International Herald Tribune September 8, 2004

When Manila withdraw its troops from Iraq, Washington described the decision as an encouragement to terrorists using hostage tactics there. Privately, American officials interpreted the move as a sign of domestic political weakness on the part of the newly and narrowly elected President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The important question now is the impact of these developments on fundamental cooperation between Manila and Washington in the wider war against global terrorism. The Philippines is an important and old ally, and represents an important theater in the fight.

The Mindanao region in the southern Philippines is the scene of a bloody decades-long conflict between separatist Muslim rebels and the Manila government, which has resulted in thousands of casualties and displacement and disruption of lives. At the heart of this conflict are Muslim Filipinos known as the Bangsamoro people, who have long sought self-determination, right to land and greater equality.

President Arroyo has declared her commitment to peace in Mindanao. She has launched a 10-point comprehensive development program, the Mindanao National Initiative. Negotiations have been under way for months between Manila and Muslims in Mindanao, with Malaysia playing an intermediary role.

At the same time, Arroyo is cracking down on terrorist cells and even readying a battalion of soldiers to go back to Iraq under the mandate of the UN peacekeeping resolution.

But does she have the political will and the clout to follow through on these initiatives and sort out the hard issues that alienate the Muslim communities? Can she squarely face continuing questions about the recurrent allegations and evidence that rebel leaders harbor Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in their Mindanao training camps?

It is very much in the U.S. interest to support President Arroyo to make progress on these fronts, not just to help fight terrorism but also to allow Manila to concentrate on its looming economic problems.

Rather than dwelling on recent disagreements, the United States should seek quiet advice from the Malaysians on the nature of an engaged and constructive U.S. role in the Mindanao talks. Aid funds to support rural development and refugee resettlement in Mindanao should be allocated to support the negotiations.

As all sides take a fresh look at the negotiations, there is an important job ahead for the foreign-policy research community. We need to understand in greater depth the critical issues for the Bangsamoro people, including the status of ancestral land, autonomy and political rights, increased resources for schools to improve education including in the madrassas, greater equity and economic opportunities. It is these issues, rather than radical Islam, that drive the separatist conflict.

Arguably, the best source of knowledge on these questions are Muslim intellectual leaders from Mindanao communities. But the United States has so far denied them a hearing. Earlier this May, when some 20 credentialed experts and stakeholders were scheduled to meet at a conference on Mindanao at the Asia Society in New York, U.S. authorities at the Los Angeles airport detained Professor Abhoud Syed Lingga, a Filipino Muslim and chair of the Bangsamoro People's Consultative Assembly. Professor Lingga, who represents a thoughtful Muslim perspective on the Mindanao conflict, had a valid U.S. entry visa, and a track record of participating in other international events, including at the United Nations.

But on arrival he was labeled "inadmissible into the United States" and flown back to Manila. In a show of solidarity, the other speakers cancelled, and the conference was called off. The incident was front-page news in Mindanao for a week.

The conference has been rescheduled for late September. The Asia Society, in cooperation with the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, is inviting, among others, representatives of the U.S. government, military officials and policy experts to discuss the challenges for resolving the Mindanao conflict. Allowing Muslim leaders to speak and U.S. officials to hear them this time would be an important step in the right direction.

U.S.-Philippine relations have long been close. The United States is the Philippines' largest trading partner and a major source of development assistance, much of it focused in Mindanao.

Manila was among the first governments to embrace U.S. anti-terrorism policy after 9/11. It is time for Washington and Manila to resume and redouble their cooperation both on the global war against terrorism and for a negotiated end to the conflict in Mindanao.

Nicholas Platt, who was U.S. ambassador to the Philippines from 1987 to 1991, is president emeritus of the Asia Society.