The Moro people continue to face a militarized community, most of them becoming more vulnerable with the deployment of massive government forces and foreign troops in their communities. According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, four brigades were deployed only in pursuit of “Muslim militants,” roughly more than ten thousand government troops are dispersed in the Moro communities.
In addition to these are undetermined number of US troops and American spies all over Mindanao. Since 2002, US troops being trained for the war in Afghanistan and Iraq come in hundreds to Mindanao. The Joint Operations Task Force in Zamboanga City and the different Moro communities in Mindanao are used as their base of operation.
This year, the Arroyo administration also signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Australia, which will send troops for anti-terror training next year in Mindanao. There were also reports of Australian spies sprawled all over in Mindanao in preparation for the military training.
Women and children fall prey to the terrorist hunt, civilians bear the brunt of the military’s reprisal against their failure to catch the real Abu Sayyaf or if they lose their fellow soldiers in encounters against elements of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation.
In a rough estimate of the violations committed by state agents the Arroyo administration since 2001, KAWAGIB Moro Human Rights Organization presents the following list culled from the reports from different organizations providing legal and other support services to Moro victims of human rights violations: 191 killed as a result of the three all-out war policies against the MILF and MNLF in Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, North Cotabato and Sulu; 125 cases of illegal arrests and detention for alleged Abu Sayyaf and MILF members, 442,000 persons who were displaced from their ancestral homes because of military operations, and millions worth of properties, farmlands and livelihood destroyed because of the series of military operations.
OPLAN Ultimatum I and II
This year, the Armed Forces of the Philippines unleashed its OPLAN ULTIMATUM I and II against the Abu Sayyaf and JI militants, instead scores of Moro civilians were affected by the aerial bombardment and actual combat operations conducted by the military. Members of the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Sulu and Basilan were also engaged in the encounters as elements of the marines, army, air force and US troops conducted their hot pursuit operations in the MILF and MNLF camps. In every encounter, the hierarchy of the AFP declared those MNLF and MILF they have encountered as “lost commands.”
Two military task forces from the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command led the implementation of the Oplan Ultimatum I and II – the Task Force Comet based in th 104th Infantry Brigade in Jolo, Sulu headed by Major General Ruben Rafael and the newly resurrected Task Force Thunder based in Isabela City, Basilan under Philippine Marines Brig. Gen. Juancho Sabban. Task Force Comet was responsible for the military operations against Abu Sayyaf and MNLF since 2000 while Task Force Thunder, which has 5,000 strong soldiers, was revived five years after by AFP chief Hermogenes Esperon to continue pursuing Abu Sayyaf in Basilan. An anti-terror task force called the Joint Special Operations Force based in Indanan, Sulu under Brig. General Ruperto Pabustan also assists in the operation.
According to the AFP, the July 10 incident where ten elements of the Philippine Marines were found headless after their encounter with the MILF in Basilan, the Oplan Ultimatum turned into a more offensive stand. President Arroyo transferred the headquarters of the Philippine Army to Zamboanga City purportedly for this purpose.
Since August 2007, three marine brigades have been deployed to Sulu and Basilan. These include four Marine battalions, three infantry battalions of the Philippine Army, one Scout Ranger battalion and one special force battalion, and one light reaction battalion. There are more than 10,000 to 12,000 troops deployed in Basilan and Sulu for Oplan Ultimatum. Not to mention an undetermined number US Air force, Marines and Army conducting medical and other civic actions, infrastructure and witnesses say were also involved actual combat during AFP’s operations against the MNLF and the MILF.
Cases of Human Rights Violations
According to KAWAGIB Moro Human Rights, From January to November 2007 alone, there were 21cases of human rights violations committed by the Philippine military, police and intelligence agents against the Moro people. These include violation of civil and political rights, violation of right to life and violation against property. (See the Cases of Moro Human Rights Violations – 2007 Report prepared by the KAWAGIB Moro Human Rights Organization).
More than 75,000 Moro civilians have been displaced in Basilan, Sulu and Midsayap, North Cotabato from January to November this year. Sulu was the hardest hit by a combination of ground troops commandos and indiscriminate aerial bombardment, with a total of 58,500 persons displaced due to three military operations conducted by Task Force Comet (combined units from the Philippine Marines, Army, Air force and CAFGUs) against the forces of MNLF Sulu State Chairman Khaid Ajibun and MNLF leader Ustadz Habier Malik on the pretext that they are colluding with Abu Sayyaf Group and JI militants or they are coddling them in their territories. The military operations affected nine municipalities in Sulu this year. In May this year, warrants of arrests were ordered against the two MNLF leaders which affected the (schedule) of the GRP-MNLF-Organization of Islamic Countries tripartite (review).
Basilan was hit in July because of a false report that kidnapped victim Fr. Giancarlo Bossi was seen in an MILF territory in Basilan. Elements of the Philippine Marines under the Task Force Thunder of Brig. Gen. Juancho Sabban, entered the camps of Basilan MILF chair Ustadz Hamsa Sapanton without informing the local committee on the cessation of hostilities, hence the MILF forces engaged the Marines in a firefight. The encounter ended in a controversial incident where 10 elements of the Marines were found decapitated in Albarka municipality, prompting reprisal by the military. That operation and the Marines reprisal forced almost 15,000 individuals to evacuate from three municipalities in Basilan.
Women and children often become victims of the military operations. In Midsayap, a certain Moro woman named Noria was killed during an aerial bombardment by the military in Bgy. Mudseng in Midsayap on January 29. Sarah Lumandong of Tipo-Tipo Basilan was hit while elements of the Task Force Thunder were having a test mission of their artilleries in her area on August 9. Lumandong, a mother of a ten-year old baby, was hit in her left leg while harvesting her crops in Ungkaya Pukan.
Children and youth become targets of anti-terror operations
It is disheartening to know that instead of protecting the rights of the children and youth killed or wounded during military operations, the military identifies them as Abu Sayyaf casualties. The most publicized case was Almujayal Padiwan, then 7 year-old survivor of a massacre of his family by elements of the 35th Infantry Battalion in their home in Kapuk, Punggul, Maimbong, Sulu on February 1, 2005. His case was brought to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Human Rights, but instead of protecting his rights the AFP declared Almujayal as an Abu Sayyaf member. He became a fugitive when decided to escape the hospital where elements of the army threatened to kill him. His grandparents decided to relocate him to another community to avoid military reprisal.
Despite of this case, the military in Sulu continues to disregard the rights of the children and youth in Sulu. On January 18, an 11-year old son of an MNLF member was killed with his father when elements of the Marines based in Patikul, Sulu shot MNLF members on board a Tamaraw jeep that went past a makeshift marines detachment in the main road of Timpuuk village which is the way to the main municipality to Jolo.
On February 20, Abdulhakim Abilul, 15, was shot by the army stationed at his community in Kilometer 4. Kasambahan Village in Indanan, mistaking him as an Abu Sayyaf member. Abilul and his cousin were on their way home after watching a late night television series in a neighboring village when they encountered the army in their community. The military offered a P15,000 settlement to his family and a waiver telling them not to file a case against them.
In August 19, eight youth ages 4-16 yrs. Old were psychologically tortured allegedly by members of the Joint Special Operations Force under Brig. General Ruperto Pabustan in Jolo, Sulu. According to Cocoy Tulawie, a former Jolo town councilor and vice-president of Suara Bangsamoro Partylist, the kids and their fathers were rounded up by members of the army in their community in Bgy. Tanjung in Indanan, Sulu and brought to the main base of the Task Force Comet, JSOF and 104th Infantry Brigade in Camp Bautista, Jolo. Elements of the army pointed knives on the necks of the eight kids, blindfolded them, interrogated them to find the guns of their fathers and asked them to dig their own graves.
On September 25, local media in Zamboanga City reported that seven teens including a 16-yr old student identified by his family as Nadzala Zaila, were killed in the main camp of Basilan’s MILF chair Ustadz Hamsa Sapanton in Baguindan, Tipo-Tipo, Basilan.
Legitimate Groups and Individuals are Demonized
Individuals belonging to religious and progressive Moro organizations are also demonized by the combination of the anti-terror policy and anti-insurgency operation plan of the Arroyo administration. Identifying them as terrorists in public give license to military, police and paramilitary groups to kill or abduct them.
On June 9, elements of the army and US soldiers distributed copies of the Rewards for Justice Recognition Handbook during a civic action in Bgy. Samak Talipao, Sulu. The handbook contains pictures of known Abu Sayyaf leaders and it offers a corresponding bounty for anyone who can identify them in the community.
The family of Ustadz Yahiya Sarahadil Abulla, a religious leader in Sulu and officer of the Ulama Council for Peace and Development, saw his picture in the handbook identified as ASG leader Yasser Igasan. He immediately reported the incident to the 104th Brigade and asked them to clear his name. The Army apologized and tried to pull out the copies of the handbook.
In Cotabato City, Moro activists also fall prey to the Oplan Bantay Laya implemented by the army in Maguindanao and North Cotabato. Moro activists are being labeled as terrorists and communists and the progressive organizations they belong to are labeled as fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Streamers bearing the name of Suara Bangsamoro was accused of being a front of the New People’s Army while the names of the officers of Suara Bangsamoro were identified as terrorists in Cotabato.
In July 2007, 15 Ustadz or religious leaders in Basilan were listed in the Warrant of Arrest issued against members of the Abu Sayyaf and MILF in Basilan suspected of beheading elements of the marines on July 10. Several of them complained in a media conference asking the government to clear their names, claiming they were not members of the ASG or the MILF, nor were they present during the encounter in Albarka municipality.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s penchant use of “Moro terrorist” hysteria to cover-up issues of corruption and political controversies in her administration is teeming with Islamophobia. In this light, it is good to note the report delivered by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism Mr. Doudou Diene to the UN Human Rights Council which defines how governments behave in the face of a terrorist threat. According to Diene, some media and political leaders in Europe ‘were equating Islam with violence and terrorism’ and some were even seeking to ‘silence religious practices.’
These conditions have led the Moro people to question the sincerity of the Arroyo government in bringing peace in Mindanao. Although there is an existing peace negotiation, the Moro people do not feel safe under the Arroyo administration.
It will help lift the deplorable human rights situation of the Moro people if President Arroyo withdraws the anti-terror policies and stop the massive troop deployment in Mindanao. But there is no guarantee from a very unpopular President that it will stop using the Moro people as scapegoats to her unfavorable policies. Hence to achieve peace in the Moro communities, the Moro people should link with the rest of the Filipino people in calling for the ouster of President Arroyo.
Military Deployment in Mindanao
The Western Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines is in charge with the “Muslim militants” in Mindanao. It covers the six provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao: Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao del Sur. Major General Nelson Allaga heads the WestMin Command.
Aside from the three task forces implementing the Oplan Ultimatum in Sulu and Basilan, the biggest concentration of the military is situated in Central Mindanao, the central gravity of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division is based in Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao headed by Major General Raymundo Ferrer. It controls the 603rd Brigade under Col. Mario Mendoza which covers the old Camp Abubakar area of the MILF in Shariff Kabungsuan province, the 601st Brigade in the province of Governor Andal Ampatuan and the 602nd Brigade headed by Col. Soria III in North Cotabato.
The offices of MILF chairman Al Hajj Murad, Vice Chairman for Political Affairs Ghadzali Jafaar and Chairman of the MILF Peace Panel Mohagher Iqbal are within the territory of the 6th ID. The community of the late MILF chairman Ustadz Hashim Salamat is within this territory.
The Philippine Army also has brigades in Sulu and Lanao del Sur. The 104th Brigade based in Jolo, Sulu is headed by Col. Antonio Supnet while the 103rd Brigade in Lanao del Sur is under the command of Col. Raynard Ronnie Javier.
However, the Philippine Marines and the Navy controls the island areas of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Three Marine Brigades are running after Abu Sayyaf and MNLF’s Ustadz Habier Malik in Sulu and MILF’ s Ustadz Sapanton command in Basilan. The 1st Marine Brigade is based in Tabiawan, Isabela City under the command of Col. Rustico Guerrero. The 2nd Marine Brigade is based in Jolo, Sulu under Brig. Gen. Cesario Atienza while the 3rd Marine Brigade is located in Patikul, Sulu.
The Naval Force is concentrated in Tawi-Tawi with an additional 2nd Marine Battalion Landing Team who were deployed in Tawi-Tawi after the stand-off in Fort Bonifacio last year. The Naval Force teams up with the Philippine Marines in pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf and from time to time the Naval Task Force in the province also reports apprehending Abu Sayyaf in the province.
Foreign Troops in Mindanao
When the US Government declared Mindanao as the Second Front of the War on Terror, an undetermined number of US forces have been deployed in the Moro areas in Mindanao. In 2002, it started with 660 personnel based in the Joint Operations Task Force base in Camp Navarro, Zamboanga City and 160 troops deployed for training Filipino troops in Basilan under the Balikatan Military Exercises.
According to news reports, through modifications in the Visiting Forces Agreement and Terms of Reference, US deployment now exceeds 1,000 forces: 160 Special Forces, 340 Seabees and Marine guards in Basilan, 440 Support and training staff in Zamboanga.
Every year there hundreds of US troops arrive in Mindanao, some suspects amounting to 5,000 troops and personnel. In 2007 alone, 340 troops were deployed in Zamboanga in a span of five months.
Since 2002, three military exercises that called for inter-operability cooperation of US troops and the AFP confined in the military camps in Basilan and North Cotabato. But there were also reports that US troops participated in actual combat involvement like the incident on July 27, 2002 where a US soldier shot and wounded a Moro farmer in Basilan.
Since the Buyong-Buyong Isnijal incident, the Balikatan exercises were confined to medical civic action projects in public. From 2003-2007, US troops were seen giving medical missions and trainings in Sirawai, Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan and North Cotabato.
However, they were also seen leading the AFP troops in their fight against the MNLF at the base of Sulu State Revolutionary Chair in Indanan, Sulu in November 2006 and against the MILF during an encounter with AFP troops in Midsayap this year. This is often denied by US officials from the Asia Pacific Command, because this is in violation of the Terms of Reference of the Balikatan exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement’s.
Several numbers of US troops are also seen in different parts of Lanao del Sur during election period this year. Members of US Armed Forces were also stationed for six months at the 1002nd Infantry Brigade of the Army in Malungon, Saranggani province. They were ordered to leave by Sarangani governor Miguel Dominguez after receiving complaints from his constituents.
Even if they are confined to military detachments, the civilian populace is still vulnerable to the military exercise. The first case was in Malagutay, Zamboanga City, where a resident Arsheed Baharun was shot and wounded while the US troops were conducting marksmanship training using live bullets. The second case was Buh Bizma’s in Indanan, Sulu in November 2006. While conducting test fire mission using live bombs, one US soldier fired at a wrong direction hitting Buh Bizma’s family lot. Shrapnels of the bomb hit Buh Bizma’s back who was washing clothes at that time.
No cases were filed against the US troops, and it did not even reach deliberations at the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement Commission. At the victim’s level, the AFP immediately offer settlements like paying for the medical needs of the victims in return they will sign an waiver that cases will not be filed against the US troops.
Despite of reports of violations, the US government vows to continue giving military aid to the AFP. This promise was sealed when five US lawmakers visited the JOTF US troops base in Zamboanga City in August this year. This was done despite of reports that US troops were seen leading combat operations at the height of military operations in Basilan and Sulu last August.
An undetermined number of US spies, FBI and forensics were also seen in Mindanao who immediately offer their services whenever a bomb blows up in different malls, markets and bus units in Central Mindanao and Davao.
However, US troops offered no explanation as to why an American national believed to be working for the Central Intelligence Agency was found with bombs in his hotel room when he accidentally blew one of the bombs in March 2003. Agent Michael Meiring was taken by FBI forces from his hospital bed and flown to the capital in a military helicopter.
This year, the government also signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the Australian government and reports of presence of Australian spies in Mindanao abound. Elite Australian troops is expected to arrive next year to make Mindanao their training ground for anti-terror promising to supply 30 high speed gunboats.
Foreign Corporations in Mindanao
Aside from hunting terrorists, US and Australian governments were also hunting for possible reservoir of oil, natural gas and important minerals in Mindanao to fuel their industries.
US corporations like UNOCAL and Exxon Mobil are exploring oil reserves in the Sulu Sea Basin in Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi, while Australian’s BHP Billiton has already started its mining explorations in South Cotabato through the Indophil Corporations.
It is worthwhile to investigate why the US troops are conducting their Medcaps and Balikatan exercises in areas where there are also reports of mining explorations of gold deposits in Siocon and Sirawai in Zamboanga Peninsula, Shariff Kabungsuan and Lanao del Norte. There were also reports of nickel deposits in the former Camp Abubakar area.
Foreign Aid Institutions also abound in the Moro areas in Mindanao, led by USAID with infrastructure projects under the Growth Equity in Mindanao and LEAP. Australia also has the Basic Education Assistance in Mindanao for the teachers and the students.
Japan also has a big presence in Mindanao through the intercession of the Malaysian government. Japan is included in the International Monitoring Team that monitors that implementation of the GRP-MILF cessation of hostilities agreement. Japan offers trainings for the MILF members under the Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA.
However, it is worthwhile to note that a paper called the Green Base expose reports that Malaysia’s Petronas already signed with the Philippine National Oil Corporation for the exploration of natural gas deposits in Liguasan Marsh.
The US government is also asserting its part in the GRP-MILF peace agreement through its agency the US Institute for Peace, tasked by US President Bush to explore ways how the US government will benefit in the agreement.
The US government also declared it will give $30 million should the MILF sign the final peace pact. A Mindanao Trust Fund was created to encourage the MILF that there’s already money for reconstruction and back to the government program for the rebels. Countries such as US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Malaysia put their money for the trust fund. These same countries all have their foreign aid institutions in Mindanao as well as corporations for mining explorations. (Kawagib Moro Human Rights Organization)