Fighting in Southern Philippines kills at least 22

By Joseph Santolan
6 February 2013

Fighting broke out in the Sulu archipelago in the Southern Philippines on Sunday. The estimated number of those killed varies widely, ranging from 17 to 54, depending upon the source. The conflict involved members of the Muslim National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf fighting over the ransom and release of a Jordanian journalist and two Filipino cameramen being held hostage by Abu Sayyaf.

The underlying cause of the outbreak yet again of violence in the region is the power struggle between the MNLF and its rival break-away group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), for control of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the wake of a peace deal with President Aquino’s government that strongly favored the MILF.

The Sulu archipelago is a spit of islands stretching from Mindanao to Borneo. Seated at the maritime crossroads of the Makassar straits and the South China Sea, it has historically been the site of piracy which plagued first the colonial powers of British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and the Spanish and American Philippines, and then the nation states of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that emerged in the wake of the second World War.

In June 2012, Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network travelled to the region of Patikul on the island of Jolo in the Sulu archipelago to conduct an interview with Abu Sayyaf. Atyani had made his reputation for interviewing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan three months prior to the September 11 attacks. He travelled with two Filipino cameramen, Ramelito Vela and Rolando Letrero.

They did not return. The Aquino government stated repeatedly that Atyani had not been kidnapped but that he was staying with Abu Sayyaf of his own choice. Weeks passed. Then head of the Department of Interior and Local Government Jess Robredo announced that Atyani would be deported and permanently banned from the country upon his return for not consulting with the Philippine government prior to going to conduct interviews with Abu Sayyaf.

By the end of June, however, the government confirmed that Atyani had been kidnapped. They reversed this position several months later, stating that Atyani was feigning that he was a hostage in order to bring in ransom money to support Abu Sayyaf. No evidence was supplied to substantiate this claim.

The Abu Sayyaf group, officially designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department, was created in the early 1990s with the assistance of the CIA. The MNLF secessionist group, under the leadership of Nur Misuari, took up armed resistance against the Marcos regime in the 1970s. Misuari had been a leader in Kabataang Makabayan, the youth organization of the Maoist Communist Party. In 1976, the MNLF signed the Tripoli accord, brokered by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, accepting Marcos’s offer of semi-autonomy. A power struggle took place within the MNLF, and a large group broke away, claiming that they would not be satisfied without the formation of a fully independent Islamic state. This group was later named the MILF.

In the late 1980s, under the presidency of Corazon Aquino, the MNLF received control of the newly formed Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Bloody guerrilla warfare between the Philippine Armed Forces and the MILF continued.

The CIA, seeking to deepen the division between the MILF and the MNLF, helped arm and fund the terrorist organization, Abu Sayyaf. The leaders of Abu Sayyaf included Islamists who had fought in the CIA’s secret war against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as criminal elements in the old tradition of Sulu piracy. President Aquino, mother to current President Benigno Aquino, assisted the creation of Abu Sayyaf.

Since its formation, Abu Sayyaf has been responsible for many kidnappings, beheadings, and terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a passenger ferry that killed 116 people. Abu Sayyaf has taken in tens of millions of dollars in ransom money over the past decade. At its peak in 2001, Abu Sayyaf had kidnapped and then received ransom payment for 140 people.

Over the past decade, the MILF has dropped its demand for independence and openly expressed its desire to supplant the MNLF as the political brokers of a newly constituted Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Washington desired a free hand in the creation of such a zone, both to circumvent stipulations in the Philippine constitution that prohibit the creation of foreign military bases and to set up a Special Economic Zone not subject to even the minimal labor laws of the national state. The US engaged in repeated secret and public meetings with MILF leaders.

The peace deal framework, signed in October by the Aquino government and the MILF leadership, was the direct product of US intervention in Philippine politics. It is part of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and strategic encirclement of China. (See, Philippine President to sign Mindanao peace accord”).

Aquino’s signing of the Bangsamoro peace deal with the MILF was a devastating blow to Nur Misuari and the MNLF. Misuari stated that peace deal “is an insult not just to me but also to the entire Bangsamoro [the Mindanao population], who believe in the MNLF and uphold the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and other agreements…”

He called a conference in opposition to the MILF, claiming that one million people would attend. Several thousand showed up.

Misuari is desperately trying to reassert his role as political power broker in Mindanao. Regional and national elections are scheduled to be held in May 2013. Misuari is running for governor of the ARMM, the region that will be replaced by the Bangsamoro political unit in the next two years.

President Aquino, in a flagrantly antidemocratic move, cancelled previous elections in the region, placing the ARMM under the control of a political appointee for the duration of the peace negotiations. The revocation of the ARMM population’s right to vote was contested before the Supreme Court, but in the wake of Aquino’s railroading the impeachment of the chief justice, has continued to stand.

In an effort to garner political support, Misuari ordered the MNLF to negotiate the release of hostages from Abu Sayyaf. Negotiations in Patikul took place over several weeks. Ransoms had been paid, channeled by the MNLF. According to the Manila Standard, the ransoms for the cameramen were successfully transferred, but the P30 million for Atyani, paid by an unnamed Jordanian diplomat, were intercepted from the MNLF by bandits. The MNLF claimed that Abu Sayyaf had taken the funds, Abu Sayyaf countered that they had not. The MNLF furthered insisted that Atyani could only be released to Misuari himself.

On Saturday night, the two cameramen were released and placed on horseback. They made their way to Jolo, and were thus free of Abu Sayyaf. The negotiations over Atyani soured and a gunfight broke out on Sunday, February 3. The most consistent estimate in the press is that 22 people were killed, with casualties on both sides.

Three hundred families—over 2,000 people—were displaced by the fighting. The Philippine military has now surrounded the area, to “cordon” the fighting. The MNLF has stated that they expect gunfights to recur.