Sulu: Why now?

Mr. Buencamino does political commentary for Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of BusinessWorld, March 14, 2005 edition, p. 21.

The military sees no strategic reason for the attacks in Sulu. They
claim the latest outbreak of violence is simply in retaliation for the
death of innocents in a skirmish between soldiers and rebels. However,
the sequence of events following those bloody encounters seems to
indicate that there is more to this current disturbance than meets the
eye.

The rebel attack on a battalion headquarters makes one wonder whether
the attack was truly spontaneous. It’s no cakewalk to attack a
battalion headquarters, nor is it easy to hit a bull’s-eye with a
mortar shell fired from a considerable distance.

The coordinated terror bombings that followed the government
counter-attack smacks of considerable pre-planning too. The rebel press
release following the Valentine’s Day bombings shows it was not written
on the run, it was well-crafted and well-thought out.

Was the arrival of at least two dozen Jemaiyah Islamiyah terrorists in
Mindanao last January completely unrelated to Sulu and the Valentine’s
Day bombings? Isn’t it plausible that there is a strategic reason for
the timing of the attacks by the MNLF /ASG group? Consider the
following.

Malaysia is currently deporting thousands of Filipinos from Sabah.
These deportees are presumed to be Filipinos on the say-so of Sabah
authorities. It makes no sense. How do two governments determine the
true nationality of hundreds of thousands of undocumented people who
look exactly like all the other inhabitants of the island? Sabah is an
island full of undocumented indigenous tribesmen, Indonesians and
Filipinos. They all speak Bahasa. Who is what?

The truth of the matter is these “illegals” are, for all intents and
purposes, Sabahans. Accepting some of them as Filipinos without any
real procedure or system to verify nationality is simply allowing
Malaysia to create more problems for us while helping them keep the
“Filipino” population in Sabah to manageable levels.

The government’s resources will be strained by the influx of deportees.
Where will the government find jobs and livelihood for these people?
The government has nothing for them. That’s why Mrs. Arroyo was
desperately begging Malaysia for a quick turn-around of deportees for
re-employment in Sabah.

Unfortunately, the majority of deportees will remain in the Philippines
because only those who can find employers or those whose employers want
them back can re-enter Sabah. The government will have to take care of
the rest. If government fails, the result will be discontent and
desperation – the active ingredients for new rebel recruitment to the
alleged dwindling ranks of rebels from Sulu.
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The situation in Sulu will force the government to spend money it does
not have to finance a war, monitor and neutralize probable terrorist
threats, and care for refugees from conflict areas while dealing with
the problem of absorbing thousands of deportees Where will the
government get the money for all these simultaneous expenses?

The government will have no choice but to run to Uncle Sam for
assistance-for arms and ammunition, and for the civilian costs related
to refugees, war damages and reparations. American involvement will
intensify and that will play right into the hands of those who want to
internationalize the conflict.

More American involvement is not exactly the kind of thing that Muslim
countries who have been trying to broker peace in the south want to
see. They will not sit on their hands while a Protestant government
provides Catholics with arms, ammunition and intelligence data to use
against their brother Muslims. If the Sulu conflict escalates and
Muslims suffer, these countries will, without a doubt, find a way to
send whatever assistance is necessary for the self-defense of their
brother Muslims. There are other consequences of the
internationa-lization of the Sulu war.

First, the moribund Nur Misuari has been resuscitated. There are calls
to release him from custody and exile him to Saudi Arabia. Nur Misuari
is no ordinary insurgent. He may not have made the transition from
outlaw to governor but as a rebel leader he is without peer. If he is
exiled to Saudi Arabia, he will regain OIC observer status for his
faction of the MNLF. The MNLF faction cooperating with the government
and sitting as observers to the OIC are clowns compared to Nur.

Second, the Philippine application for observer status to the
Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) will be jeopardized because the
transfer of observer status from the MNLF to the Philippine government
depends on the peaceful relationship between Manila and Muslims. The
Philippines is in a situation like Russia whose application for
observer status was also held in abeyance because of Moscow’s Chechen
problem.

Third, if the war in Sulu continues indefinitely, the MILF will have to
side with the Sulu rebels. There is no way for the MILF to maintain
control over their more radical members and to keep “respectability”
with JI and Al Qaeda, from whom it presumably gets some support for
providing training camps within territories it controls, if it remains
neutral in a war waged by an American backed government against
Muslims.

The attacks leave the government in a bind. It cannot call for a
ceasefire without appearing weak and it cannot wage a never-ending all
out war because it is in dire financial straits.

The Sulu attack couldn’t have come at a better time or produced a
better outcome for the MNLF/ASG group-the government’s resources will
be strained, an essentially local conflict will become
internatio-nalized, Nur Misuari is a player again and the MILF will
have to take sides or lose credibility among Muslims.

How’s that for a spontaneous retaliation to an accidental killing?

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