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Deadly Drones Come to the Muslims of the Philippines

Deadly drones come to the Muslims of the Philippines

by Akbar Ahmed and Frankie Martin (AlJazeera English)

Washington, DC – Early last month, Tausug villagers on the Southern Philippine island of Jolo heard a buzzing sound not heard before. It is a sound familiar to the people of Waziristan who live along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where the United States fights the Taliban. It was the dreaded drone, which arrives from distant and unknown destinations to cause death and destruction. Within minutes, 15 people lay dead and a community plunged into despair, fear and mourning.

The US drone strike, targeting accused leaders in the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah organisations, marked the first time the weapon has been used in Southeast Asia. The drone has so far been used against Muslim groups and the Tausug are the latest on the list.

Just as in Pakistan and other theatres of the “war on terror”, the strike has provoked controversy, with a Filipino lawmaker condemning the attack as a violation of national sovereignty. This controversy could increase with the recent American announcement that it plans to boost its drone fleet in the Philippines by 30 per cent. The US already has hundreds of troops stationed on Jolo Island, but until now, the Americans have maintained a non-combat “advisory” role.

The expansion of US’ drone war has the potential to further enflame a volatile conflict involving the southern Muslim areas and Manila, which has killed around 120,000 people over the past four decades. To understand what is happening in the Philippines and the US’ role in the conflict, we need to look at the Tausug, among the most populous and dominant of the 13 groups of Muslims in the South Philippines known as “Moro”, a pejorative name given by Spanish colonisers centuries ago.

Sulu Sultanate

For hundreds of years, the Tausug had their own independent kingdom, the Sulu Sultanate, which was established in 1457 and centered in Jolo. The Sultanate became the largest and most influential political power in the Philippines with highly developed trade links across the region. From this base among the Tausug, Islam took root in neighbouring Mindanao Island among the Maguindanao and other groups.

The antagonistic relationship between the Moro periphery and the centre in Manila developed during the Spanish colonial era. The Spanish had arrived not long after expelling the Muslims from Spain and, intoxicated by that historical victory, were determined to exterminate Islam in the region and unite the Philippines under Christian rule.

In the instructions given by the Spanish governor on the eve of the first campaign against the southern Muslims in 1578, he ordered that “there be not among them anymore preachers of the doctrines of Mahoma since it is evil and false” and called for all mosques to be destroyed. The governor’s instructions set the tone for centuries of continuous warfare. The idea of a predatory central authority is deeply embedded in Tausug mythology and psychology.

Of all the Moro groups, the Tausug has been considered the most independent and difficult to conquer, with not a single generation of Tausug experiencing life without war over the past 450 years.

As any anthropologist will testify, the Tausug have survived half a millennium of persecution and attempts at conversion because of their highly developed code and clan structure. It is the classic tribe: egalitarian and feuding clans that unite in the face of the outside enemy and a code which emphasizes honor, revenge, loyalty and hospitality.

It was only in the late 19th century that Spain succeeded in incorporating the Sulu Sultanate as a protectorate and established a military presence on Jolo. The Spanish were followed by American colonisers who could be as brutal as their predecessors. In a 1906 battle, US troops killed as many as 1,000 Tausug men, women and children, and between 500 and 2,000 in a 1913 engagement.

Despite the Moro resistance to US colonial rule, they advocated for either continued American administration or their own country, rather than be incorporated into an independent Philippines, which they believed would continue the policies of the Spanish against their religion and culture. The request, however, was rejected.

‘Special provinces’

Following independence in 1946, the Muslim regions were ruled as “special provinces” with most of the important government posts reserved for Christian Filipinos. Despite being granted electoral representation in the 1950s, the majority of Moro had little interest in dealing with the central government. Manila, for its part, largely neglected the region.

The Tausug areas remained impoverished and, in the absence of jobs, young men turned to looting and piracy. In response, Manila opted for heavy-handed military tactics and based its largest command of security forces in the nation among the Tausug.

Central government actions to subdue the Tausug areas in the 1950s resulted in the deaths of almost all fighting age men in certain regions. The society was torn apart, with the young generation growing up without traditional leadership.

The current conflict began in 1968 with what became known as the Jabidah Massacre, when around 60 mainly Tausug recruits in the Philippine Army were summarily executed after they refused a mission to attack the Malaysian region of Sabah, where a population of Tausug also resides.

In 1971, the Moro, incensed by Jabidah and accusing the central government of conducting “genocide”, began an open war against the state. A Tausug-dominated independence movement soon developed called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).  In 1976, the government reached an agreement with the MNLF to grant the Moro areas autonomy, which was further developed in a 1996 treaty that is still being negotiated.

For many Moro living on Mindanao, however, the deal was unsatisfactory because of the presence of so many Christian settlers, who they complained were taking more and more of their land under what seemed like government policy.

Indeed, the population had dramatically changed from 76 per cent Muslim in 1903 to 72.5 per cent Christian by 2000. The government was arming Christian settlers to attack Muslims. In 1971, the most notorious Christian militia, the Ilaga, killed 70 Moro in a mosque. Muslim militias lashed back, leading to a cycle of violence.

A new group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), based in Mindanao’s Maguindanao ethnic group, soon split from the MNLF and vowed to push for secession.

‘Abu Sayyaf’ label

Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States became involved in the region in pursuit of the elusive Abu Sayyaf, which it accused of having links with al-Qaeda. The group was formed by a charismatic Tausug preacher in the late 1980s, whose speeches attracted angry young men from a community rife with orphans due to the previous decades of war.

Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings, gripping the Philippines with sensational media reports. Manila has been accused of applying the “Abu Sayyaf” label to any conflict in the region, including those involving small armed Tausug groups, many of them kinship based, which have existed for centuries.

Aid workers kidnapped in 2009, for example, reported that their “Abu Sayyaf” captor told them “I can be ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group), I can be MILF, I can be [MILF or MNLF breakaway group] Lost Command”.

Manila was discovering, like many other nations after 9/11, that by associating its restless communities on the periphery with al-Qaeda, it could garner easy American support.

To resolve the conflict between the Moro and Manila, President Benigno Aquino must demonstrate that the centuries of conflict and forced assimilation into a monolithic Filipino culture are over. The government needs to promote pluralism and build trust with the periphery.

With the recent declarations by President Aquino’s government that the state is fully invested in implementing the 1996 autonomy agreement with the MNLF and hopes to have a peace treaty in place with the MILF by 2013, the various parties have a unique opportunity to work for a longstanding solution.

Development projects to help the suffering Tausug must be conducted urgently as the situation for ordinary people is dire. Amidst the frequent barrages of artillery and bombs and the displacement of hundreds of thousands over the past decade, a 2005 study found that 92 per cent of water sources in Sulu Province, where the majority of Tausug live, were contaminated, while the malnutrition rate for children under five is 50 per cent. Education and employment are constant challenges.

The sad state of affairs does not only result from a lack of funds, as the Philippines government, the United States and others have poured millions into the region, but rather how funds are spent. The association of development with the military among the population has been an impediment to implementing necessary projects.

Mediation needed

Between inefficient aid funding and the ongoing military campaigns, Manila has been drained of desperately needed resources and diverted from fulfilling its ambitions to become an economic powerhouse.

Development solutions can only work if they have the full support of the clans that decide local politics, which is no easy task, considering the tenacity with which clans can fight over resources. Yet with a holistic plan of engagement in the context of true autonomy, it is possible to bring them together.

Mediation, involving local religious leaders and international bodies like the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which has taken the lead in peace talks between the Moro factions and the government, can play a key role in this regard.

Major General Reuben Rafael, the Philippine commander formerly in charge of military operations in Sulu Province, gave us an example of how to proceed. In 2007, he staged a public apology for transgressions against the population. The assembled people began to cry, including the Tausug mayor of the town, who stated that never in the history of Sulu had a military general apologized to them in such a manner. This is the way to the heart of the Tausug, and we salute the general for showing us the path to peace.

By unleashing the drones, the US has pushed the conflict between centre and periphery in the Philippines in a dangerous direction. If there is one lesson we can learn from half a millennium of history it is this: weapons destroy flesh and blood, but cannot break the spirit of a people motivated by ideas of honour and justice.

Instead, the US and Manila should work with the Muslims of the Philippines to ensure full rights of identity, development, dignity, human rights and self-determination. Only then will the security situation improve and the Moro permitted to live the prosperous and secure lives they have been denied for so long; and only then will the Philippines be able to become the Asian Tiger it aspires to be.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.

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  • Stoned Gremlin

    @Awesome Does he ever defend his poorly written claims or does he just come here to troll?

  • bilal

    just a sidenote, the united states killed anywhere from half a million to one and a half million fillipinos, including many muslims, during their ocupation of that country.

  • Al

    Masha’Allaah! wonderful article!

  • Awesome

    @ Peace,

    Can you at least make an effort to use better English? And if you can’t then can you just use the language that you’re the most familiar with? I’m sure someone here would understand it.

  • Peace

    Islam teaching make a lot of problem with others religious. If that is no more Islam that will more peace among human

  • NurAlia

    Christian Friend…

    You know these ideological wars as the VietNam war. We know them as ‘Indonchinese Conflict’ in which the western occupiers came first to exploit resources, and then to establish a base to control the Chinese ideology from spreading.

    The conflict began alot earlier than Americans understand from thier history writings, and affected alot more places, destroyed and slaughtered alot more people through ‘meddling’ in the affairs of Asian countties.

    I am old enough to remember the French occuping VietNam when a popular uprising took place to remove them, and all of the slaughter resembiling the massacures that are taking place in Syria now by the French against te Vietnamese.

    The Spanish occupiers literally destroyed…for the most part…the indiginous cultures and people of the Phillipine Islands, and part of that was to use missionaries, in much the same way that the American indiginous population was subdued. Either they ‘assimilated’, or they were murdered.

    The people in IndoChina are linked culturally. You might say that travelling the spine of south Asia is like going from the US to Canada. So, we, as a group of people have lost so much as a result of western ideology, and unfortuantly alot of that was wrapped in Christianity.

    So…I am not blaming Christianity itself. Prophet Jesus is part of our religion and held dearly as a great man who gave humanity a message to live by. I know what Jesus taught, and what he did, and how he interacted with people…especially people who were defamed and disinfrancied by the ‘elite’ culturally.

    It is hard for us to find Christians who, in thier actions act, as best that humanity can, the way Jesus did.

    Christianity has a very long and bloody legacy to live down here, and to except them overnight again…especially over the rhetoric and propaganda those who claim to be Christian spew toward my religion…is just a horrible reminder of the past.

    It sends chills down my spine…that again…the nightmare comes.

  • JD

    Pentagon says US special forces in India; New Delhi denies

    WASHINGTON/NEW DELHI: The US special forces are based in India and four other South Asian countries, a Pentagon commander has said. But India promptly denied it, saying Washington has neither sought nor has India approved stationing of US Special Forces personnel in the country.

    The US and India are working together to contain Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar–Taiba, blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attack.

    US has forces in five South Asian nations including India, US Pacific Commander Admiral Robert Willard told a Congressional hearing on Thursday.

    The teams were deployed to help India in counter-terrorism, in particular in the maritime domain, Willard said.

    “We have currently special forces assist teams – Pacific assist teams is the term – laid down in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives as well as India,” Willard said.

    “We are working very closely with India with regard to their counter-terrorism capabilities and in particular on the maritime domain but also government to government, not necessarily department of defence but other agencies assisting them in terms of their internal counter-terror and counterinsurgency challenges.”

    Which will be used by India in Kashmir against people who have real issue with the india goverment and there treatment of Kashmir people and then that will get them mad at us for training them we will keep going in a circle

  • Christian-friend

    woah woah woah NurAlia, please tell me you aren’t blaming Christian for the stupidity of few!

  • NurAlia

    Thank you…

    I hope that now Americans can understand the strong fear of Christians on our soil. I remember the soldiers who stood for thier conviction and not to attack people who were not fighting them in 1968.

    This is the Christian legacy of the land I live in.

    The Phillipines is like the America that most of your Republican candidates and the loons most ofetn mentioned here will look like.

  • Aspie and Atheist

    The U.S continues it’s relentless butchering of civilians….

    The Phillipines would be best placed to form an alliance with other southeast Asian states and then to expel the U.S., as many Filipino leftists desire.

  • Christian-friend

    Thank you for finally making an article about the Moro Crater Massacre, let’s see of Pam Geller can justify such atrocity!

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