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The American disconnect in Moro Mindanao

Patricio N. Abinales

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'Nationalists will argue about the bad things the Americans had brought on the Philippines...but there are people whose experiences with the US have not always been that negative'

If you read Maria Ressa’s exceptional analysis of the United States’ involvement in the War on Terror in Moro Mindanao carefully, you will find a fascinating disconnect between what she wrote and what others, especially pundits, evaluate from their Manila and American West Coast perches.

Of the latter, there is nothing good coming out of American presence in the South, with the Mamapasano massacre as just one of the many consequences of unhampered American military assistance to the Armed Forces in the Philippines in Mindanao’s war zones.

Ressa’s piece, however, suggests this relationship, admittedly secret and hidden from the prying eyes of journalists and NGO activists, has also had a positive effect not only on mutual military ties, but also on achieving some stability in these war zones. While Mamapasano was brutal and ought to be criticized passionately, it also is an exception to what has been happening down south.

Consider, for example, what Filipino-American cooperation has done to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). When Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani formed it in 1991, this kidnapping-enterprise-masquerading-as-Islamist-freedom-fighter was able to attract as many as 2,000 followers, mainly because of the revenues coming from their hostage racket.

Janjalani was killed in 1998. When the United States decided to work with the AFP in Muslim Mindanao, especially after the kidnapping of an American missionary couple in 2002, both forces began a gradual but systematic campaign to destroy the ASG.  

Soon after, ASG leaders were being eliminated: Abu Sabaya in 2002, Hamsiraj Sali in 2004, Khadaffy Janjalani in 2006, Abu Sulaiman in 2007, Albader Parad in 2010, and Umbra Jumdail in 2012. Other members are in jail: Abdul Basir Latip was captured in 2009; Madhatta Asagal Haipe was captured in 2010 and sentenced to 23 years in prison in the United States; Abdullah Ussih was arrested in Zamboanga in 2012.

The ASG could still strike terror in Basilan and Sulu, but not with the same strength that it had in 1991. Today, military sources say there are only 200 to 400 ASG members left.

The collaboration appears to be doing well, and seems to be appreciated, too. The journalist Robert Kaplan has been described as a rah-rah boy for the US War on Terror, but one cannot ignore the weight of two 2003 conversation he had with local officials in Basilan.

In Isabela, Nilo Barandino, a hospital director in Isabela, Basilan, told Kaplan to “[t]ell the American people that it is a miracle what took place here in 2002…and what was given to us by the American people, we will do our best to maintain and build upon. But there is still a shortage of penicillin. We get little help from Manila.” 

Later, Kaplan met Salie Francisco, a water engineer in Maluso who was more frank in his assessment, telling Kaplan: “We are afraid that Abu Sayyaf will return. No one trusts the government to finish building the roads that the Americans started…. The Filipino military is less and less doing its job here, [but the] Americans were sincere. They did nothing wrong. We will always be grateful to their soldiers. But why did they leave? Please tell me. We are very disappointed that they did so.” 

Note the contrast between Barandino’s attitude toward the Americans and to Filipino leaders in the imperial capital and between American Special Forces and their AFP partners. Sure, this was way back a decade ago, but memories do not fade that fast. Francisco’s pained query why the Americans left has strong resonance to the June 19, 1921, petition by Sulu datus supporting US House Bill 12772, proposed on June 9, 1921, by Congressman Robert Bacon, to separate Mindanao and Sulu from the Philippines. The datus beseeched the American government to agree with Bacon and “not turn over Sulu to the Filipinos in the North to be governed by them without our consent.” 

Two years after, the same leaders submitted the Declaration of Rights and Purposes petition asking the American government to make Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan “an unorganized territory of the United States of America.” The last of these entreaties was  the Dansalan Declaration of March 18, 1935, where Moro leaders (Maranaos, in particular) vehemently opposed the formal integration of the Moroland to the Commonwealth Republic of the Philippines.  

When the historian Michael Hawkins did his field research in the Lanao del Sur areas in early 2000, he again would encounter similar sentiments: his respondents inquired if it was still possible for Muslim Mindanao to become the United States’ 51st state. Hawkin has a new book available.)

There is every reason for nationalists to argue about the bad things the American “Empire” had brought on the Philippines, and history has often been on their side. But it is easy to preach to the converted, especially those who have come to learn about imperial depravities from books on American global power (of which there are countless). 

However, it will take more than a slogan or a passionate essay to convince a people whose experiences with the United States have not always been that negative. It will probably involve nationalists going down to communities and making their case. They have no choice. Kaplan’s essay details the care with which US Special Forces sought to win the hearts and minds of Tausogs in Basilan. It will be quite ironic that this civic action-type approach will most likely be the model for nationalists if they want to make a dent on this resilient pro-Americanism in Moro Mindanao.  

And we are not even talking yet about American civilian presence in Muslim Mindanao! – Rappler.com 

Patricio N. Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He is from Mindanao. 


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