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Philippines Standoff Actually Rebellion’s Last Gasp

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 23, 2013

Police and military bomb experts search for fragments and residue after a bomb exploded and ripped through a passenger bus, killing three people on Friday night, in the coastal village in Zamboanga City, southern Philippines on September 21, 2013. The military believed the bomb explosion could be a diversionary attack by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels, who are engaged in standoff against the government forces that has already killed more than a hundred and left scores of others wounded, local media reported. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters) Police and military bomb experts search for fragments and residue after a bomb exploded and ripped through a passenger bus, killing three people on Friday night, in the coastal village in Zamboanga City, southern Philippines on September 21, 2013. The military believed the bomb explosion could be a diversionary attack by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels, who are engaged in standoff against the government forces that has already killed more than a hundred and left scores of others wounded, local media reported. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past two weeks, a rebel group in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines, which long has been plagued by numerous insurgencies/bandits, has essentially laid siege to the southern city of Zamboanga, taking numerous hostages and sparking a protracted response from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The rebels, who came from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) group, had at one point taken more than one hundred hostages, and the fighting between the MNLF and the army has now killed nearly 120 people and displaced over 100,000 Filipinos. The siege has attracted significant international media attention, because the fighting has forced so many to flee, and the rebels have made whole residential areas free-fire zones, hiding among civilians and taking seemingly as many hostages as possible.

The current violence has been brutal and actually started some four weeks ago, when a group of fighters loyal to former MNLF leader Nur Misuari began launching attacks. The MNLF actually had signed a peace agreement with Manila in 1996, and Misuari had become regional governor of part of the southern Philippines, but his misrule as governor eventually led even many of his own followers to push him out of office, and sharply curtailed the popularity of the MNLF, now part of the southern government, among southerners. Some MNLF fighters stuck to the peace deal; others, including Misuari, took up arms again, as the MNLF argued with the government over the implementation of the peace deal, including how to share the proceeds of mining in the south, how former MNLF fighters would be employed, and other issues.

But the sad brutality of the siege, made worse by the Philippines’ military’s scorched earth tactics (Human Rights Watch chronicles abuses on both sides here), does not mean that the southern insurgency is gaining ground. In contrast to southern Thailand, where the insurgency has gained adherents and caused increasing casualties over the past decade, overall the fighting in the southern Philippines, which has gone on since the MNLF was founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, actually has been winding down. Although southerners retain intense grievances at being a permanent minority in the Catholic-dominated Philippines, and having little representation at the highest levels of government, the south has begun to develop in recent years, after being granted some degree of economic, cultural, and political autonomy.

Indeed, most people in the southern Philippines have grown tired of insurgency, and the government of President Benigno Aquino III has bypassed the MNLF holdouts and conducted effective peace negotiations with the insurgent leaders willing to work on a final status agreement that would hammer out all major issues relating to the future of the south. In fact, Aquino, who has personally overseen the peace process, investing his credibility in it, is close to signing a permanent peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another southern insurgent group that, in recent years, has become more powerful and more popular than the MNLF, which bungling its attempt to govern part of the south.

Given the MNLF’s waning power, and Aquino’s effective peace negotiations, the Zamboanga siege, then, though tragic, should not be viewed as the eruption of new waves of violence in the southern Philippines. The fighting is unlikely to lead to more, similar attacks, or to attract young southerners and lead them to form their own, new insurgent cells, as has occurred in southern Thailand in recent years. In reality, the siege of Zamboanga is a desperate attempt by the MNLF splinter group to show that, in the face of Aquino’s peace negotiations, and of the rival MILF’s growing power in the south (after the peace deal is concluded, former MILF leaders well could be governing much of the south), parts of the MNLF, including Nur Misuari (who is 71 years old), still have some clout. The Zamboanga fighting, indeed, is a last stand.

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