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Guest Opinion: 500Yrs. History So Easily Forgotten

By Amir Butler
Executive Director Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee

The second-phase of Operation Enduring Freedom was launched last week: to hunt Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Basilan and Sulu. Whilst originally a breakaway from the Moro (Muslims of the southern Philippines) independence movement, the 800-strong Abu Sayyaf have devolved into a gang of bandits whose primary objective seems to be lining their pockets with the proceeds of kidnapping tourists and missionaries. They are hardly international terrorists.

Yet, like India with its maneuverings against Kashmiri militants, or Russia with its war against Chechen separatists, the Philippine President knew which button to press to get US sympathy. She termed her opponents "terrorists", and linked them to Bin Laden. This was based only on a 1995 meeting with Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifah, and some contact with Ramzi Yusuf, the 1993 World Trade Centre bomber.

So, once again, the West is entering into conflict in a region whose complexities most of us know little about.

The struggle of the Moro people for freedom and self-determination is one of the longest, if not the longest, struggles in the history of mankind.

Their struggle began with the "discovery" of the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who claimed the island for Spain. The Moros rejected his claim, and he was subsequently killed by Lapu Lapu, a Moro Muslim leader. From then on, the Moros were in a fight for their independence and freedom.

The Spanish differentiated the two natives of the archipelago into pagan Malays (Indios) and Muslim Malays (named Moros after the Spanish Moors). Their policy was simply to convert the Indios to Christianity and kill the Moros.

The military resistance against the Spanish lasted over 350 years, until the Spanish were defeated by the Americans in the 1898 Spanish-American war. Despite the fact the Spanish had never colonized the Morolands, Spain included Mindanao in the Treaty of Paris, which transferred sovereignty to the United States.

The US then attempted to subdue and disarm the Moros. Such was the resistance, that the US Army ordered the upgrade of the standard issue Colt .38-caliber pistol to the more powerful Colt .45-caliber, in order to stop the knife-wielding Moros. Their frenetic and oft suicidal style of fighting gave us the expression, "running amok".

The colonial administration then began passing laws that would quell Moro aspirations of independence by migrating large numbers of Christian Indios to the region.

In 1903, all Moro land holdings were declared null and void and made open to land-grabbing. In 1913, law was passed allowing Christians to own up to 16 hectares, whereas a Muslim could only own 8. In 1919, Christian land entitlement was generously extended to 24 hectares.

When independence from the US was imminent, the Moro leadership pled not to be included in the new "Independent Philippines". Yet, on July 4, 1946, when independence was proclaimed, the Morolands were incorporated against their wishes, as they had been with the handover from Spain to the US.

The pattern of migrating Christians to Moro lands continued. In the 1950s, Northern peasants formed the New People's Army and staged a Maoist rebellion. In order to defuse the situation, the government, under the auspices of the Economic Development Corp (EDCOR) began migrating these peasants to the Moro south and giving them seized parcels of Moro land.

In 1968, anger at Manilla reached a new level, when the US-backed Ferdinand Marcos executed nearly 70 Muslim commando recruits to keep secret an aborted plan to invade Sabah, in Malaysia's Borneo.

When Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, the Moros went to war after a quarter of a century of relative dormancy.

Shortly afterwards, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed, which called for an independent Moro state - Bangsamoro. They fought the US-armed Manilla regime for twenty-five years, leaving at least 100,000 Moros dead, and 250,000 driven from their homes.

In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace deal with the Philippine government.

In a war that has been criticized for it's double-standards, this latest US military adventure will do little to change perceptions.

America is helping fight the 800-strong Abu Sayyaf, whilst overlooking the New People's Army, who represents a force of over 12,000 fighters. They've been staging a communist insurgency in the north for the last 30 years, and have killed over 40,000 people so far, including an American hiker and his German companion killed last week.

The problems in the Morolands have little to do with international terrorism, but have everything to do with the injustices meted out to the Moro people for centuries.

The solution to the Moro problem is the same as the solution to the East Timor problem.

There must be a referendum under UN supervision similar to the one conducted in the former Portuguese colony.

After over 450 continuous years of struggling for independence, the Moros don't need "Operation Enduring Freedom", they just need freedom.


Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC)


Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC)
PO Box 180
Tel/Fax: +61-(0)3-8300-7556

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