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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 80,574 77,076 71,400 43
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,080 1,020 1,050 135
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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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 newspaper editorial.

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 headlines. 

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 communities. 

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.

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