The Rising East


Sunday, June 17, 2001

Arroyo confronts
Muslim terrorist rebels
without U.S. help
—so far

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines has declared war on the Muslim terrorists known as Abu Sayyaf, who have kidnapped Filipinos, Americans and other foreigners in a campaign to set up a separate, Islamic nation in the southern Philippines.

"The nation is faced with a serious and strong challenge from the bandits," the president said on national television last week. "Abu Sayyaf is a scourge to our race. They are a curse to their religion. We will meet fire with fire and more. No ransom. No deal. No ceasefire. No suspension of the military operation. We will not stop the campaign until we have cleansed Basilan and Sulu of the Abu Sayyaf forces," referring to two islands that are Muslim strongholds in the south.

So far, the United States has neither been asked, nor has it offered, to help with Green Beret or other anti-insurgent, special operations forces, U.S. military officers said. They contend that the Philippine armed forces can resolve the issue themselves.

Not all Filipinos share that confidence. In an editorial, the Manila Times lashed out at the generals running Task Force Comet and Operations Tornado, Lightning and Thunder for offering excuses as to why they could not find and subdue the guerrillas. "There should be no alibi that recalls the six blind men trying to make out the shape of the big elephant," the newspaper said.

The government in Manila has 8,000 soldiers in the field, backed by naval gunfire and aerial fighter support against an estimated 450 insurgents in the Abu Sayyaf. That is not the sort of force that military analysts consider to be effective against guerrillas, as witness the Americans fighting Vietnamese guerrillas in the 1960s and 1970s.

Arroyo, evidently citing the ancient adage of fighting fire with fire, may have picked the wrong incendiary weapon. In this case, soldiers trained in anti-guerrilla operations would probably be more effective than regulars, no matter how well trained they are. The U.S. Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers are among the best in the business.

Thus, watch officers at the Pacific Command here are keeping a close eye on the rapidly deteriorating situation in case the United States gets asked for help. Besides the Abu Sayyaf, Manila is confronted with other armed insurgents such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the communist National Democratic Front.

Add to that Christian rightwingers, organized criminals engaged in kidnapping and the drug trade, and Chinese subversives seeking to exploit the troubles. To say that President Arroyo has her hands full is clearly an understatement.

For the United States, not only are American citizens threatened but wider national interests are in jeopardy. When the turmoil in the Philippines is combined with that in Indonesia next door and, to a lesser extent, that in neighboring Malaysia, there arises a danger to the shipping lanes through the South China Sea. The tides of that sea wash the shores of all three nations.

Nearly half of the world's shipping passes through those sea lanes each year, making their open and safe passage vital to the economies of Japan, South Korea, China and Southeast Asia, and indirectly to the industrial nations of North America and Western Europe. A slowdown or even closure of those sea lanes would cause shipping and insurance rates to go sky high, which would result in severe economic damage.

Filipinos appear to be losing hope that Arroyo can get the turbulence under control. A columnist in the Manila Bulletin, Zeneida Amador, wrote: "Many people, dispirited and disheartened by our present situation and the troubles with Abu Sayyaf, have been wanting out. Those who can, have redoubled their efforts to migrate quicker. Those who have no chances are quietly desperate."

A half-century ago, the Philippines was wracked with a similar uprising led by guerrillas known as the Hukbalahaps, or Huks. Along came a minister of defense named Ramon Mag-saysay who, with the help of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, organized and trained forces to fight the guerrillas and instituted a program of amnesty and a livelihood to insurgents who laid down their arms.

Mostly, he persuaded the Filipino people to believe that he would lead them out of the dark valley. He did and they elected him president. Whether President Arroyo can emulate the late President Magsaysay, who died in an airplane crash in 1957, is the question of the hour.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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