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The Philippines - three decades of terrorism

By Paul Wilson - posted Tuesday, 24 May 2005

In 1972 Attorney-General Lionel Murphy asked me to report on how police dealt with organised crime in South-East Asia. The Philippines was my first destination and I arrived a few days after President Marcos declared martial law to meet the Police General, a squat, tough looking man who had no hesitation answering for the rationale for martial law. It was essential to neutralise the current crop of communist terrorists and other insurgents. “We did it before and we will do it again” and, explained how the national government had brutally crushed communist guerrillas terrorising most of Luzon just after World War II, proudly pointing to the medals he won during the campaign. If the New People's Army (NPA), an offshoot of the remnants of the guerrillas, was to be eliminated then martial law, detention without trial and even the political assassination of NPA leaders would be used with a vengeance.

The NPA, founded in 1969, was a Marxist guerrilla group that waged a protracted insurgency from the countryside aimed at overthrowing the Marcos Government and establishing a communist state. The group enjoyed widespread support especially from those sickened by the excesses and brutality of the Marcos regime and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. As it turned out, the NPA was never crushed by government forces but neither, on the other hand, was it able to overthrow the Marcos regime. That task was left to “people power” on the streets of Manila in 1986.

Two years after Cory Aquino came to power I returned and found this euphoria had all but disappeared. Certainly, some democratic institutions had been restored but rich oligarchies still held most of the land and the social gap was, if anything, widening. A renewed sense of optimism appeared when President Fidel Ramos was elected in 1992.


Ramos promised to end the vicious civil war in Mindanao that had plagued the country for the previous two decades. The central government was in conflict with two guerrilla groups - the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The former group once enjoyed support from Libya, Saudi Arabia and nearby Malaysia and originally demanded an independent Muslim state in the south. The MILF, on the other hand, split from the MNLF in the late 1970s over ethnic and strategic differences.

Both groups originated in a province with some of the richest agricultural land in the country yet the economy was in tatters after years of neglect by the Manila government. Muslims in Mindanao also suffered political marginalisation and some of the highest rates of infant mortality, illiteracy and unemployment in the country. But what really drove guerilla insurgencies was a sense of being deliberately swamped by Christian settlers from Luzon.

The Spanish and American colonisations included massive resettlement programs encouraging Christian internal migration and later governments continued this policy. By 1983 it was estimated that 80 per cent of the ten million people living in Mindanao were non-Muslims. Christian agricultural communities were created deep in the heart of indigenous Muslim territories. The bitterness that these settlements generated led to a civil war in 1971 and over the next 25 years led to the loss of 120,000 lives.

To deal with this bloodbath President Ramos signed a peace agreement in 1996 with MNLF leader Nur Misuari, in what was known as the Davao consensus. Some degree of self-determination, and most importantly economic investment, was promised for the region. It looked as though cultural, social and religious autonomy for Muslims living in Mindanao was at last to become a reality. Unfortunately the civil war in Mindanao did not end mainly because the MILF rejected the peace plan on the grounds that the government did not go far enough. To this day the group continues to fight on and so do elements of the MNLF.

I was in the Philippines again during Ramos's election campaign when he promised that his country would become part of the Asian tiger-cub economy in which ordinary Filipinos would benefit under a regime of law and democracy where corruption would be weeded out. I visited the violent, politically volatile slum district of Tondo. The impoverished area was a breeding ground for some of the toughest criminals in the country and infamous for notorious NPA “Sparrow Squads”, who, during the 1960s and 1970s, assassinated police officers and government officials. I began to realise that terrorism was never going to be stopped unless something was done to improve intolerable conditions.

I have seen equally appalling conditions in many other parts of the country. These include rampant bribery and corruption that affects every domain of Filipino society, from police officers to politicians. This spurs the population to behave as their leaders behave, evidenced by the destruction of the huge Clark Air Base in Pampanga province in 1991 after the Americans departed where I witnessed what could only be called mass vandalism and theft. My driver told me that the Americans left more than 116,000 items for the Filipino government to use. But the population stole all of them including every piece of equipment from a five-storey hospital.


Under the Ramos Government Muslim Mindanao never received the economic packages the Davao consensus promised. The planned economic revival that was going to lift the living standards of the Filipino masses never eventuated. Nor was Ramos able to stem the endemic corrupt practices. Then came the election of Joseph Estrada in 1998. The rural masses heavily supported the former B grade actor because he promised to lift them from the quagmire of poverty and despair. But his Government did little to improve the condition of the masses. Though Estrada visited many towns and villages during his presidency and lavished gifts and money on his supporters, the country's economy stagnated, unemployment grew, and corruption became even more endemic.

Estrada did try to deal with the terrorist networks and the civil war in Mindanao but he used brute military force, not social or economic development, as his weapon. A large, well-equipped army was sent against the MILF. Stories of atrocities committed against civilians by troops and vigilante groups abound and provide recruitment fodder to enlist future Muslim rebels. One tactic was the use of special Christian vigilante groups, established by the military, who were formed to ostensibly secure “law and order” in mixed Christian and Muslim areas in Mindanao. I heard stories about many random shootings of civilians by these militias. But I also heard about similar massacres by Muslim vigilante groups in the same region.

What was undoubtedly true was that there were some military successes during the Estrada era. The army closed down the notorious Abu Bakar terrorist camp that trained not only men from Mindanao but also Muslims from Indonesia and the Middle East. Though Estrada boasted that they had “pacified” the Muslim rebels it was clear that the MILF were far from defeated. It was also apparent that corrupt members of the army and police were undermining attempts to deal with terrorist groups and especially with the notorious Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, a radical Islamist group whose activities are now deeply etched within recent Filipino history.

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This is an edited version of an address to the Brisbane Institute in March, based on a paper which first appeared in Griffifth Review. It was first published in The Brisbane Line.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Wilson is a writer and criminologist. He is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University. He co-authored Justice in the Deep North: A History of Crime and Punishment in Queensland.

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