Books on The Philippines
Update No: 056 - (29/08/08)
Ask anyone who does business in the Philippines or who is
involved in negotiations in the Philippines: they will likely confirm that
invariably there is a hidden agenda behind any action or position taken. Where
else do you see fierce legal battles between rival boards, presidents and
shareholders that have little to do with the business of the organization and
everything to do with issues that are never openly discussed at the time? Take
the case of Philcomsat—the “private” company that handles international
satellite telecommunications in the Philippines. Over at that company,
government nominees to the board of directors appointed by President Arroyo, and
without owning a single share in the company stock have, allegedly, been
involved in an exercise of asset stripping.
According to press reports, the millions of pesos that are being stolen from
sequestered firms such as Philcomsat usually end up with somebody in, or close
to, Malacañang. That at least is the suspicion since the nominees come from the
so-called Presidential Commission on Good Governance, which is possibly one of
the greatest misnomers in the Philippines. The hidden agenda of such
presidential nominees is not the good management of a company on behalf of its
shareholders but the funnelling off of assets to private accounts. Then there is
the recent widely publicized case of the so-called National Press Club where
last year a furore was created in the journalistic community by the sale by then
club directors of a famous mural that had been donated back in 1995. It seems
that true journalists are nowhere to be found at this particular club anymore
which, “since the martial law years has included among its members some of the
shadiest characters on that side of the Pasig, among them diploma- mill
“journalism professors,” sleazy reporters on the take, and the PR flunkies
of the worst politicians on the planet.” That at least was the view of one
Even the GSIS—the Government Social Insurance System, a government-owned
corporation, got into the act by filing qualified theft charges against the Club
directors on the grounds that it was the GSIS that owned the building (and by
implication owned the mural even though club members had paid for it). Those
charges were last month withdrawn and replaced with the crime of ‘estafa’
(embezzlement to non Filipinos) to the relief of the new owner who no longer
faces the prospect of being jailed for the possession of stolen goods. But it
once again brought the story of shenanigans in high places back into the
There is a twist to this story which is worth telling. When the issue of the
mural sale surfaced publicly, a new mural was commissioned to replace the
original but it had to be altered at the last minute and after inspection by the
Presidential Security Force which ordered the removal of the faces of those
journalists depicted known to be left-wing and critical of President Arroyo
before she would unveil it: So much for press and artistic freedom.
All of this is by way of introduction to the main theme of this month’s
essay, the so-called peace agreement with Moro rebels in Mindanao and the hidden
agenda that most people in the Philippines believe to be behind it.
Around five percent of the population of the Philippines are Muslim. The
other 95 percent are nominally Christian of which all but two percent claim to
be Roman Catholics. The majority of the Muslim population lives on the southern
island of Mindanao which is potentially rich in agricultural land, in fisheries
in the surrounding seas and in the extent of its mineralization.
Over the past fifty years and especially during the Marcos years, the
Christianization of the region has been accelerated with landless peasants from
Luzon being relocated to rural Mindanao during this period and being gifted land
to till. For the most part Christians and Muslims live peacefully together and
intermarriage within communities is not uncommon. Muslim men take Christian
wives and Christian men take Muslim wives. Quite often the children of such
marriages adopt gender-based religious beliefs. Sons take the religion of their
father; daughters take the religion of their mother.
The Christianization of traditionally Muslim areas created the roots of the
present tension although left to themselves most communities are able to live in
peace under such arrangements.
But of course quite often those with their own agendas will not leave such
communities to live peaceably together. Muslim extremists have a long history of
wanting Mindanao to be a separate state. The Spanish during their tenure left
Mindanao largely to its own devices; the Americans attempted pacification but,
outside of the main cities, largely failed. As part of an independent
Philippines, Mindanao has for a long period been all but ignored. This explains
why the incidence of poverty in Mindanao is the highest in a country where the
level of poverty is already high. For the Philippines as a whole, around 30
percent of the population live below the poverty line; in some Muslim areas of
Mindanao, that level increases to around 70 percent.
Neglect by Manila and outright hostility towards Muslims, especially during
the Marcos years have created deep-seated distrust among Muslim (Moro) leaders.
An initial peace agreement with the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro
National Liberation Front or MNLF was reached in 1996 after protracted
negotiation and which gave autonomy to those areas with predominantly Muslim
populations. A new Administrative Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created.
The more radical Muslim elements rejected the agreement and formed a breakaway
faction known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which to this day has
been agitating for an extended Muslim area claiming that the agreement reached
by the MNLF was a sell-out to the Muslim cause.
This then is the origin of the fighting in Mindanao that has continued over
the past decade and which has led to occasional terrorist acts in Manila,
protracted guerrilla actions in a number of Mindanao provinces and in the
various kidnappings of Filipinos and foreigners, including a U.S. missionary
couple that have taken place from time to time.
The Arroyo administration has adopted a policy of fresh negotiations with the
Muslim rebels but until recently there was little to show for it despite the
“cease-fire” issued by the MILF back in 2003. In the meantime, order has
been kept by an international monitoring force led by Malaysia.
Troop withdrawals started earlier this year and the peace-keeping mission
formally terminated this past month. This provided the urgency for President
Arroyo to come up with a fresh peace deal.
Elation that initially greeted news of peace in our time, turned quickly to
frustration and then to anger. Plainly speaking, President Arroyo again botched
it. The question on people’s minds is whether this botching was a deliberate
act of sabotage and whether, once more, hidden agendas were at work.
The agreement was negotiated in secrecy without consultations among those
affected and the terms of the agreement have not subsequently been made public.
It is known that Mrs. Arroyo conceded to the main demand of the MILF which is to
have a large, autonomous “ancestral domain” that encompasses much of
Mindanao and includes as many as 700 villages, many of them with predominantly
Christian populations. It gives the MILF the right to practice Shari’ah law
within the region and also the right to renegotiate mining and minerals deals
that have already been implemented. Need anyone ask why foreigners are unwilling
to invest in the Philippines?
Needless to say, once details of the agreement came out, reaction was swift:
A number of Catholic politicians from Mindanao challenged the agreement in the
Supreme Court. This prevented the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement that
had been scheduled in Kuala Lumpur with no less than the U.S. Ambassador to the
Philippines as a witness to it.
But what caught the eye of most people was the fact that a number of aspects
of the agreement went against the Constitution of the Philippines. “Not a
problem” said the President, “we can convene Congress into a ‘constituent
assembly’ with the power to amend the Constitution.”
Indeed, most people in the country see the agreement as yet another ploy to
change the Constitution and give President Arroyo the ability to stay on in
power until after 2010. The likelihood that an agreement of this nature would be
approved is virtually nil but once called any other matter related to
constitutional change can be placed on the agenda, including allowing President
Arroyo to run again or to be a titular president in a parliamentary democracy.
The hue and cry was sufficient to force once again a presidential retreat and
for President Arroyo to withdraw the proposal. With its withdrawal, the
government argues that any case before the Supreme Court becomes moot. The
Justices see it differently and have yet to hear the arguments of the Solicitor
General for a motion seeking to nullify the deal.
Not unexpectedly, with the collapse of the peace agreement, the MILF feels
betrayed and there has been an upsurge in fighting in Mindanao which is seen to
be the worst in a decade, with at least 37 civilians killed in the latest
fighting. Ominously the killings have led in turn to the resurgence of an armed
Christian vigilante group, the Ilaga, which has threatened to kill ten Muslims
for every Christian killed. The group was feared during the 1970s when it was
involved extensively in atrocities and human rights abuses against Moro
At this stage a further escalation of fighting appears to be likely including
terrorist attacks outside of Mindanao. The peace process is effectively dead.
While some moderate Moro leaders continue to talk of restraint, there is
mounting evidence that the “centre” is unable to control extremist groups
allied to it including those with links to Al-Qaeda and who want a pan-Islamic
state across much of South-east Asia. Even if a peace deal of sorts is cobbled
together with the mainstream MILF, it will have little impact on routing out
terrorism from the southern Philippines.
Peace in Mindanao may be a dead issue for the time being, but surely the
aspirations of Mrs. Arroyo to cling to power by any means are alive and kicking.