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Aby Sayyaf, Trojan Horse Of U.S Imperialism

By E. San Juan Jr.

13 June, 2010

Marginal Comments of the Bangsamoro Struggle for Self-Determination

[The 1789 Reign of Terror] is the rule of people who themselves are terror-stricken. Terror implies mostly useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves.

---Friedrich Engels, letter to March, 4 Sept. 1870 (Marx and Engels 1965)

Beginning January 2002, hundreds of U.S. Special Operations Forces have been stationed in the Southern Philippines as part of the US “global war against terror” after 9/11. This deployment was called “Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines,” part of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. In October 2004, then President Bush singled out the Philippines as one front (the other two are Iraq and Afghanistan) in the US attempt to assert its hegemony in the Middle East, Asia, and throughout the world (Docena 2008). A direct U.S. colony for about half a century, the Philippines remains a neocolonial formation, with a client collaborative regime (Petras 2007) subordinate to U.S. interests. This singular status of clientship or subordination is erased in current historiography. Consequently, the fallacy of treating the US and the Philippines as equal partners in inter-state relations results in gross misjudgments and absurd expectations.

US Caught In the Quagmire

The strategic US military bases in Clark and Subic Bay, Philippines, was evicted by the Philippine Senate in 1991. However, by virtue of the anomalous Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed by then President Estrada in 1999, the US succeeded in establishing a Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines in Camp Navarro, Zamboanga City, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Mindanao Command. This allows the US to participate in counter-insurgency operations against the Moro fighters in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA), and factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that refused to accept the Arroyo regime. Both the NPA and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ABG) are classified as “terrorist” organizations by the U.S. State Department.

For now, the ABG has become the target of US surveillance by unmanned spy planes (drones); this intelligence gathering directly aids in the AFP’s combat operations. In 2002, for example, a Moro peasant in Basilan suspected to be an ABG follower, Buyong-buyong Isnijal, was shot by US Sgt. Reggie Lane; no serious investigation was made about this incident despite a Congressional resolution. In Feb. 2008, one of the few survivors of the Maimbung massacre in Sulu, Sandrawina Wahid, witnessed US troops engaged in the Philippine military’s assault on the town where eight civilians were killed, including Rowina’s husband, two teenagers, two children, and a three-month pregnant woman. Another incident hit the headlines recently when a Philippine Army captain Javier Ignacio was killed while investigating the previous murder by US military personnel of a Filipino employee Gregan Cardeno. Hired by US company DynCorp International, Cardeno was assigned to the Liaison Coordination Element, a unit of the US military, based in Camp Ranao, Marawi City (Carol Araullo, “Streetwise,” Business World, 11-12 June 2010). The death of Cardeno exposed the clandestine unit engaged in work that appears in violation of Philippine laws and its sovereignty; the activities of DynCorp and other secret companies have likewise not been disclosed, contradicting the US Embassy claim that the US Special Forces are confined to openly conducted civic/humanitarian projects such as building roads, schools, etc.

On September 29, 2009, two American soldiers were killed by a landmine planted by the MNLF in Indanan, Jolo. These two are now considered the first casualties since the Balikatan exercises in 2001, although several US soldiers died in fighting in Sulu three or four years ago. This was a reprisal for the Philippine Marines’ bombing of Muslim devotees in religious rites on September 20 in the same town. A local observer, Prof. Julkipli Wadi noted that the US muted this incident to avoid jeopardizing its humanitarian stance. Wadi cites the October 2009 visit of US embassy officials to the MILF leadership in Sultan Kudarat, Mindanao, where these officials were lectured by the MILF deputy chieftain Ghazali Jaafar; according to Wadi, Jaafar told them that “Washington must help in the resolution of the Mindanao problem by addressing the root cause, which is political, emanating from the grant of US independence to the Philippines,” which “immorally and illegally incorporated the Bangsamoro homeland” (“US Strategic Avoidance,” MindNews, 20 October 2009). Wadi described US soldiers entrenching themselves in many parts of Zamboanga, Basilan, Jolo and parts of Tawi-Tawi, and asks “how long would US authorities pursue the policy of strategic avoidance by hiding under the veneer of counterinsurgency and war on international terrorism while entrenching deeper in the hinterlands and seas of the Sulu Archipelago without being known by the American public?” Obviously, aside from propping up the neocolonial Filipino elite and thus advancing its global geopolitical strategy, the US would like to take advantage of the natural and human resources of Mindanao and Sulu, and its ideal location as a springboard to intervention in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the whole of Indochina as a means of encircling China, their ultimate competitor.

Certainly, U.S. power and legitimacy or cultural authority are at stake. But the preponderant use of military power and logistics undermines any pretense of humanitarian motives. Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich reminds the US public that in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt ordered General Leonard Wood to pacify the Moro province, home to about 250,000 Filipino Muslims then. In March 1906, at Bud Dajo, Jolo, just to cite one incident, the American pacifiers killed 600 Muslims, including many women and children—a “disagreeable” by-product, what is called by the Pentagon “collateral damage” (“Caution: Moral Snares Ahead,” Los Angeles Times, 22 Jan., 2002). It is not just moral snare or hubris that explains this propensity to complacently offer thousands of human lives to the altar of Empire; it is the logic of capitalist expansion, the motor of profit gained from alienated labor/lives, that propels white supremacy and its civilizing mission—the hallmark of US imperial presence in Mindanao and Sulu, an an amoral hegemon whose crimes against humanity elude the MILF leaders, thus their naive plea to Washington to assist their cause by mediating the conflict between them and the Arroyo regime.

But there are other players in the scene, of course. In 1987, the Moro historian Samuel K. Tan expressed his belief that the national community remains divided between the Christian “national community” and what he calls the “cultural communities,” referring to the Moros and the non-Christian Lumads and Cordillera peoples. Is democracy coming to an end in the emergence of “a nation of multiple state-systems”? Tan is critical of the Christian sector’s drive to create a “Christian nation in Asia regardless of the implications to the cultural communities,” as evinced in the program to unite the Philippines on the basis of an ideological secular basis summed up in the slogan “one nation, one spirit” (1987, 72). What Tan ignores is that the secular neocolonial state as it has historically evolved cannot fully exercise its sovereignty over all the communities without the aid of US political, military and diplomatic assistance. It is indeed an instrument to foster global capitalism’s welfare. Moreover, the problem of unequal power is not primarily a question of culture but of control over resources and land, ultimately a question of political leadership and organization. In any case, the fate of the “three communities” is now a matter of international or global concern, as evidenced by the sordid plight of OFWs languishing in jails around the world and by Filipino progressives appealing to the UN Human Rights Council and the World Council of Churches on behalf of thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, and a reign of impunity for crimes against humanity by the U.S.-funded military and police forces of the Arroyo regime and its oligarchic allies. Since the end of the Cold War, the upsurge of counterhegemonic forces against US imperial dominance in Asia, Africa and Latin America cannot be ignored or under-estimated.

At least since the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, the Moro struggle for autonomy or independence has become internationalized. With the entry of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference), the MNLF and MILF have become dependent on the mterial and political support of Islamic countries. The mediating roles of Indonesia and Malaysia as key members of the OIC need no further clarification. The preponderant US role remains ineluctable. What is occurring in the Philippines as an arena of class and national struggles should be analyzed in this historical geopolitical context to understand properly the significance of the Moro people’s struggle for self-determination.

In the last twenty years, particularly after the reinstatement of “elite democracy” with the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the US re-asserted its total domination of the Philippines with the Aquino-Ramos regime. While Corazon Aquino’s “total war” on the Communist-led New People’s Army continued under U.S. direction (sanctioned by numerous treaties and executive agreements), the power of the nationalist movement since formal independence in 1946 demonstrated its subterranean force in the expulsion of the U.S. military bases in 1992. It was the loss of these bases that confronted US imperial planners, a loss immediately solved by means of the “Visiting Forces Agreement” initiated by Fidel Ramos, a general tutored by the Pentagon. But this agreement required justification or legitimacy, which explains the “Abu Sayyaf” phenomenon and the elaborate overt and covert intervention of the U.S.—directly, this time, via the Pentagon, US State Department (via US Embassy), US Institute of Peace, US-AID, and others (see Chaulia 2009)—in the initially secessionist/separatist insurgency led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The Missing Link: CIA Frankenstein

What is most intriguing is the persistence of the “Abu Sayyaf” (ASG) terrorist group as an integral part of an expanding US military presence in the Philippines. Not a day passes when somewhere a news report of the Abu Sayyaf is found with always a mention of its Al-Qaida link, origin, or connection. For example, the Feb. 2005 BBC “Guide to the Philippine conflict” lists down the MNLF, MILF, the NPA, and the Abu Sayyaf as the “main rebel factions” in Mindanao. It recites the oft-repeated factoids: The ASG split off from the MNLF in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajik Janjalani (killed in December 1998), succeeded by his less doctrine-driven brother Khadafi Janjalani, whose death in September 2006 precipitated the disintegration of the group into multiple factions. From a thousand combatants in the beginning, it has shrunk to 400 or less members

Given its record of kidnapping-for-ransom, massacres, and bombings (often mentioned is the October 2004 bombing of the Superferry 14 in Manila Bay, with 116 people killed, the ASG has acquired a high-profile “terrorist” aura. The kidnappings in Sipadan, Malaysia, in April 2000 and the May 2001 raid on a Palawan resort and the subsequent rescue of Grace Burnham, catapulted the group into the status of media celebrity. Meanwhile, the Al-Qaida connection has been reinforced by association with the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) noted for the 2002 Bali carnage. The April 13, 2010 raid in Isabela, Basilan, by ASG members disguised as police commandos, led by Puruji Indama, revitalized its 2 decades of deadly mayhem.

All accounts agree about the origin of the ASG in the US Central Intelligence Agency ‘s (CIA) role in training mujahideens from various countries to fight the US proxy war in Aghanistan against the Soviets (1979-1989). In May 2008, Senator Aquilino Pimentel described the ASG a “CIA monster” trained by AFP officers in the southern Philippines and directed by informers/spies such as its former leader Edwin Angeles (Santuario 2009). In his book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, American and International Terrorism, Jon K. Cooley documented the CIA training and funding of the ASG—freedom-fighters such as Osama bin Laden engaged in jihad against the communist infidel—around 1986 in Peshawar, Pakistan; one of the veterans was Abdurajak Janjalani (Santuario 2009; Bengwayan 2002). Accordingly, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University calls the CIA-created ASG and bin Laden’s followers as “alternatives to secular nationalism,” and fundamentalist terrorism as an integral modern project, for which US imperial aggression around the world is chiefly responsible (2002).

A recent writeup of this “al-Qaida-linked extremist group” now claims that its present leader, Khair Mundus, has been receiving funds from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. It is alleged that he once transferred these funds to Khadaffy Janjalani in 2001-2003. No less than the US State Department alleges that Mundus, while in police custody in 2004, “confessed to having arranged the transfer of al-Qiada funds to an ASG chief to finance bombings and other attacks” (“Abu Sayyaf faction,” GMANews.TV). The US is offering half-a-million dollars for the arrest of this ideologically inspired agent. The Basilan-based group has supposedly given sanctuary to Dulmatin, a key suspect in the Bali carnage, hence the interest of the US State Department (which explains why he has been reported killed several times).

Since Abdurajak Janjalani’s death, the group has lost interest in Islamic goals and degenerated into banditry and “high impact terrorist activities.” But Mundus is trying to revive its Islamic evangelism and unite the factions spread out in Basilan, Sulu and Zamboanga, influencing even Puruji Indama, the guerilla blamed for the brutal beheading of 10 marines in a 2007 encounter in Basilan. A clear tendency of the media propaganda machine has emerged to infuse ideological and political substance to the ASG which, since at least 1998, has simply become a criminal outfit for easy containment by the local police, not by the heavily armed US Special Forces with technologically sophisticated spy equipment and drones. The journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria named Gen. Guillermo Ruiz, former Marine commander and police officials Leandro Mendoza and Rodolfo Mendoza as coddlers/patrons of the ASG (Bengwayan 2002).

Anatomy of a Faction

Clearly, without the presence of this group with its flagrant, highly visible kidnappings and bombings, the rationale for US military intervention would lose credibility. It is not secret that the AFP, so much dependent on US Pentagon logistics and equipment, would not really be able to challenge the NPA, its perennial military target, as long as the political, economic and social conditions warrant its existence. US geopolitical strategy for maintaining hegemony in Asia and around the world requires its presence in the Philippines, hence the need for ASG’s terrorist identity and anti-people behavior.

We can learn more about US ideological rationale from a U.S.Institute of Peace academic expert Zachary Abuza’s recent summing-up in response to the April 13 raid on Isabela City, the capital of the island province of Basilan. Abuza rehearses the founder’s past as an Afghan mujahidin and the founding of the group in 1991 “with al-Qa’ida seed money” (Abuza 2010, 11). Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, an Osama bin Laden connection, and Ramzi Yousef, famous for plotting the bombing of multiple commercial airliners, are mentioned to reinforce its international terrorist standing. ASG orientation changed from being sectarian (1991-1996) to being purely monetary (2000-2001), with over 140 hostages (16 of whom were killed) ranging from Western tourists, school children, priests and ordinary people.

Clearly the ASG will never disappear, if not in reality at least in the media. In 2003- 2004, with leaders Abu Sabaya and Ghalib Andang killed (followed by Abu Solaiman in January 2007), ASG is tied with the Indonesian terrorist JI as well as with Malaysian terrorists. It is at this point that the ASG becomes more frequently associated with the MILF which employs the ASG for bombing campaigns and also for infiltrating the Sulu archipelago, mostly controlled by the Tausug-dominaed MNLF. Despite the loss of its leaders (the latest being Albader Parad), the ASG keeps coming back like a hydra-headed monster, almost chameolonic too in adapting to changing environments. Its public face will metamorphose or metastize relative to the two main groups, the MNLF and MILF.

The latest attempt to spread the ASG contagion to other parties in the region may be gleaned from Abuza’s claim that the ASG has recruited new combatants from the MNLF under Habier Malik in March 2007. But the bombings and kidnappings did not subside in 2008-2009, with two US soldiers killed in the 2009 Jolo bombing. Philippine generals and Marine commanders all concur that the ASG has been decapitated and falling apart, even while attacks are continuing. A new line is being established: the Pakistani connection. One Abdulabasit Usman was killed by a U.S. drone attack in Waziristan, the Afghan-Pakistan border. This Usman is suspected to be a member of the MILP, the JI, ASG, and also “an independent gun for hire.” Abuza nonetheless states as a fact that “What is clear is that he worked at times as a bomber and trainer for both the ASG and MILF.” Thus linkages are at first hypothesized, posited, and then simply asserted as a factoid for the record.

The death of Dulmatin occasions the suspicion that al-Qai’da in Malaysia and Aceh are using the ASG and the MILF as channels connecting Arab militants and South Asian (Pakistan and Afghanistan) fighters with southeast Asian organizations. In any case, the ASG and MILF are now interwoven with Al-Qai’da operations in the Indonesian-Malaysian region. The MILF has been accused of harboring Rajah Solaiman, Pentagon Gang and JI terrorist agents. Jihadist violence and criminal kidnapping-for-ransom characterize ASG with close working relations with the MILF and disaffected elements of the MNLF. Abuza concludes that despite its successes, the “Philippine military does not appear to have the capacity nor the will to finish the job militarily, and the government’s refusal to develop a holistic peace process in the southern Philippines….will continue to support the ASG’s ranks” (2010, 13). The unstated implication is that US military intervention to advance its own strategic geopolitical-cum-economic interest, cannot be given up lest the whole battlefront is lost to anti-systemic Islamic-led extremism.

Provisional Inventory

What is the situation now after 13 years of GRP-MILF peace talks? Let me provide a drastic schematic framework within which to view the current impasse affecting at least 6-9 million Muslims (10% of the total population) in over 700 villages, mainly within the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The 2008 agreement between the GRP and MILF was scrapped in 2008 as “unconstitutional.” The MNLF is deeply factionalized, with Misuari still in jail. From its official emergence in Nov. 14, 1972, immediately after Marcos’ declaration of martial law, to Dec. 1976, with the signing of the Tripoli Agreement, and its final actualization in the 1996 peace agreement between Fidel Ramos and Nur Misuari, the MNLF (with 30,000 fighters in 1973-75) seems to have wasted its decades of lessons and experience. Misuari’s arrest after the failed Jolo and Zamboanga rebellion in Nov. 2001 may lead to the gradual exodus of his followers into the camps of the MILF, the ASG, or even government fronts. Meanwhile, splitting from the MNLF in 1977, the MILF pursued the armed struggle under Hashim Salamat as “jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in the way of Allah)—a sectarian, fundamentalist trend which runs immanent in the peace negotiations with the Arroyo regime (Klitzsch 2009). The peace agreement signed on May 7, 2002, with Arroyo culminated in the Memorandum of Agreement on “Ancestral Domain” (MOA-AD) and the issue of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (JEC), which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008. Now, the March peace talks in Kuala Lumpur witnessed a controversy over the use of the Philippine Constitution and the Republic’s jurisprudence as the existing legal framework (requiring amendment) for a revised peace agreement (Balana 2010; Rosauro 2010). The resort to the internationalist idiom of “self-determination” (with its Wilsonian, not Leninist precedents) does not guarantee actual political/military control over territory and natural resources if it conflicts with the overarching sovereignty of the neocolonial State. Misuari’s experience in administering the ARMN fully bears this out (Dela Cruz 2006).

Given the severely uneven development of the region, diverse class and sectoral interests are involved. The Lumads or indigenous ethnic communities have recently mobilized. The hostility of the Christian landlords, business, comprador, and foreign corporate fronts in Mindanao rests on varied grounds, some diehard and some amenable to compromise. The present regime speaks of course for the US/Washington Consensus, for global capital and transnational corporate interests and their local allies, so that unless the MILF addresses this structural and institutional constraints, the iniquitous status quo will not be altered in any substantial or meaningful way so as to improve the material lives of the Moro masses, not to speak of the Lumads and other indigenous communities.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the mobilization of 10,000 armed combatants and several thousand partisans, MILF ascendancy remains contested, hence their wobbly diplomatic stance. Overall, the primary cause for persisting armed confrontations is the absence of any hegemonic (intellectual and moral leadership, in Gramsci’s sense) power in Mindanao as a whole, though the MNLF once enjoyed such in the Tausug homeland of Sulu. The MILF has suffered from a marked opportunism, as evidenced in Salamat’s January 2003 letter to George Bush “seeking his good offices,” and the MILF’s assent to allowing the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to intervene. In fact, by June 2003, the US State Department laid down its policies for the GRP-MILF peace negotiations. USIP Philippine Facilitation Project Executive Director Eugene Martin’s explanation for US involvement deserves to be quoted here:

The continued conflict was seen as a source of not only domestic instability but a potential threat regionally and even globally. As such, it became part of the war on terror, although the MILF is not considered a terrorist organization. Increased military assistance to the AFP and joint exercises, like Balikatan, were focused on helping the AFP be more professional and effective against designated terrorist groups such as the NDF and the Abu Sayyaf Group (quoted in Santos 2005, 100).

Martin acknowledges that the conflict cannot be solved “by purely military means,” so he cites the underlying causes—poverty, lack of development and education, and displacement of Muslims from ancestral lands—as the reason why the US is involved. This of course does not overshadow the main concern, “the war on terror.” Unlike other commentators, Martin does not neglect naming the NDF together with the ASG as “terrorist organizations.”

In terms of profit-centered Realpolitik, US interest in the Moro insurgents is designed to coopt this force as much as possible and manipulate it for geopolitical ends. This does not preclude its purpose of serving as a pretext or cover for preparing the ground in suppressing the NDF/NPA as well as the possibly more dangerous Indonesian and Malaysian affiliates of al-Qaida/Osama bin Laden. Aside from USIP ideological and political input, the US has made overtures to the MILF leadership on the possibility of using MILF “ancestral domain” for military bases, to which the MILF leadership replied that “everything is negotiable.” Astrid Tuminez (2008), a USIP operative, confirms the US focus on Mindanao as a new “Mecca of terrorism,” a half-concealed rationale which thus legitimizes the thorough involvement of the US government in the current peace talks as well as the regular “Balikatan” war exercises and civic-action activities of the US military contingent in the Philippines.

Never Again “Benevolent Assimilation”

US dominance, both political, military and ideological, cannot be discounted. Even those who purport to be neutral or well-intentioned observers succumb to the fallacy of believing the US a neutral or benevolent mediator in the conflict. In his book, Dynamics and Directions of the Grp-MILF Peace Negotiations (2005) that Soliman Santos Jr., for example, naively claims “that US clout can play a positive role as guarantor of a just and lasting peace agreement” even as he admits that for the US the global war on terrorism is its chief concern.

Terrorism, die-hard separatism, is not necessarily the polar opposite of compromise and bargaining with the Arroyo regime for temporary concessions. Like the MNLF, the MILG knows that it cannot win solely by military means. With the realization that conventional warfare is not feasible to advance a separatist project of full independence, esp. with the loss of fixed camps (first, the Abubakar camp and then the Buliok Complex) and millions of their followers displaced and reduced to refugees, the MILF has shifted to a pragmatic, if somewhat opportunist, mode of diplomacy. While the aim of Islamization seems to persist as a cultural identity brand, despite the passing of Hashim Salamat and his adherence to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s doctrine of jihadism {Klitzsch has ably documented this genealogy of Salamat’s thinking), I think the present MILF leadership has realized that they cannot deliver immediate benefits to its ranks and the popular base unless some gains in the diplomatic/legal front are achieved. While Islamism (jihadist or merely didactic) appeases those militants vulnerable to the ASG appeal, the need to produce material rewards is urgent lest the mass base turn to the MNLF or, even worse, the traditional Moro oligarchy. The tactical changes may be discerned in the 2004 statement by the MILFG Peace Panel Advisor that the MILF “strives for a ‘political solution’—‘neither full independence nor autonomy, ‘but ‘somewhere in between’ “ (quoted in Klitzsch 2009, 166). Murad Ebrahim was also quoted in saying that the territory they will administer as BJE will be “governed with Islamic precepts”

(Robles 2010). Of course, these may just be propaganda ploys or publicity subterfuge.

Varying commentaries on the conflict register as symptoms of disparate theoretical frameworks and axiomatic paradigms. The common error of mainstream academic scholarship, as well as media punditry, in this matter—i.e. the failure to locate the Moro struggle within the US global strategy to maintain its imperial hegemony—stems, of course, from either deliberate advocacy for neoliberal free-market worldview, or from misguided naivete. The shift of the intellectual paradigm from leftist or progressive historicist views to narrow empiricist and even eclectic postmodernist stances may be perceived in a recent volume edited by Patricio N. Abinales and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo. With the single exception of Herbert Docena’s effort to document active U.S. military collaboration in the war against the Moro insurgents, the contributors range from the narrow “all politics is local” stance of Abinales to Quimpo’s endorsement of the view that the situation in the southern Philippines is a product of internal causes, with the US as peripheral or not centrally involved. Quimpo chimes in with Establishment voices that welcome US intervention. Quimpo harps on the bossist, “patrimonial and ethnocratic” Philippine state, as though it had no historical genealogy or political provenance in US colonial and neocolonial control of the country. He even laments that the US has not addressed the corruption endemic to a patrimonial state. Quimpo believes that the USIP is “an independent federal institution” (2008, 189), while the cynical Abinales celebrates “the fading away of the US in the postauthoritarian scene” pervaded by globalization anomie (2008, 199).

In general, the prospect seems bleak to Quimpo and his associates. In his detailed description of the ASG included in the volume, the military-affiliated academic Rommel Banlaoi dismisses the solid, irrefutable findings of the 2002 International Peace Mission published in their report, “Basilan: The Next Afghanistan?” that the ASG is basically the product of local political and social conditions, in a U.S.neocolony. This judgment has been meticulously supported by a rich trove of stories, interviews, and textured accounts of the ASG’s symbiotic ties with the military, local politicians, and government bureaucracy in many books published since the ASG appeared, among them Marites Danguilan Vitug and Glenda Gloria’s Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (2000).

While recognizing that the ASG and other groups are struggling to solve structural inequity and injustice, as well as cultural discrimination and the loss of sovereignty, Banloai’s recommendation is to improve governance into one “more transparent, accountable, responsive and participatory.” (2008, 145). Meanwhile, Kit Collier rejects the primordialist analysis for a more instrumental, postmodernist approach, which uses an ethnographic phenomenological method similar to the anthropologist Frake’s picture of a contested, ambiguous, invented identity of the ASG combatant (see Frake 1998; and my critique in San Juan 2007). All deflect attention away from the larger global context of US re-tooling of imperial hegemony in the wake of the end of the Cold War and, in particular, the post-9/11 “global war on terrorism” launched by George W. Bush and carried on by Barack Obama.

Toward Historical Dialectics

A more serious endeavor to grapple with the vast historical and political landscape into which the Moro struggle is inscribed, is the volume The Moro Reader (2008) published by CENPEG. The volume correctly defines the subordinate role of the Philippine nation-state to the US and its neoliberal program of globalization. What is missing is further elaboration of the concept of “ancestral domain” and the abstract “right of self-determination” within a rigorous historical-materialist analytic. I venture a preliminary clearing of the stage for such an inquiry with a few general propositions/theses.

Only a general review of what is needed can be made here.While I myself (San Juan 2007) have previously endorsed the fundamental imperative of solidarity with the Moro aspiration for independence and separation from the neocolonial domination of the oligarchic landlord-comprador ruling bloc, I would like to reformulate my views in light of the more pronounced MILF ideological doctrine of Islamic evangelical confrontation with the West (deriving either from Egyptian or Saudi Arabian traditions). A theoretical reframing is in order.

Progressive activists need to take into account the primacy given by the MILF and the ASG to Islamization and the project of an Islamic state patterned after Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt and other Arab countries. Unlike the MNLF program, the MILH (to my knowledge) has not come up with a thorough analysis of Manila/Christian colonialism, nor its dependence on the imperial US patron, despite its denunciation of settler greed, injustice, ethnic discrimination, etc. To my knowledge (I stand corrected), the MILF has no anti-systemic (anti-capitalist) policy or operational ideal functioning at present. The marginalization of the secularly-oriented MNLF and the outright rejection of Marxist and other socialist-oriented revolutionary ideas aiming for a class-less society is symptomatic of a retrograde impulse influencing the actual tactics and strategy for autonomy. Some have noted the separatist motivation of the Bangsamoro nation to encourage the development of an autocratic, tributary and highly hierarchical sociopolitical formation. “Self-determination” cannot be an absolute principle but must always be historicized and dialectically apprehended within the manifold determinations of social historical development of specific formations within a global context. Can we envisage a popular, democratic civil society/public sphere flourishing within the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity?

Of course, the everyday practice of Moro militants yields a rich complex of data for formulating hypothesis and theoretical propositions that may engender a socialist-democratic ethos. Since culture is a creative process, such is theoretically possible. But empirical data cannot substitute for a valid theoretical framework. I agree with Kenneth Bauzon (2008) that the current conjuncture has to be read within the framework of a resurgent neoliberal restructuring of global capitalism. This is occurring within the US hegemonic “crusade” against Islamic fundamentalism, or violent extremism, itself framed by the neoconservative Huntingtonian paradigm of the “clash of civilizations.” This culturalist interpretation obviates any structural or systemic critique. This is why the understanding and theorization of terrorism as a political phenomenon is also superficial, misleading, and tendentious. It acquires a life of its own divorced from the analysis of dynamic political forces (for example, the antagonism between capital and labor) and their specific agendas and long-range platforms.

Terrorism becomes a political and moral issue when the political group using it adopts a subjectivist mode of imposing its will on the masses. When Marx objected to the Jacobin use of the guillotine as a tactic to impose bourgeois interests on everyone, instead of developing it within the given conditions, he was objecting to this means of enforcing the interests of a particular group/class on the whole society. In opposing the conspiratorial terrorism of utopian socialists and anarchists, Marx argued his dialectical stand that “socialist revolution must develop from within the given social relations and must be directed to the establishment of universal interests’”(Hansen 1977, 102-103)—the revolutionary process, in short, is not superadded but inheres within the existing nexus of sociopolitical relations. Critical analysis of the interaction between the collective actors and their changing sociopolitical environment is needed, together with constant appraisals of the direction of the changes of both subject and object of the field of conflict, to ascertain what can be changed and what cannot—the possibilities and limits of radical historical transformation in the multi-layered Philippine setting.

In this context, the MILF goal of claiming the sovereign power of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity to rule over “ancestral domain” has been promoted through both conventional war and terrorist tactics (as evidenced by links with Jemaah Islamiya, ASG, and others). Forced to renounce publicly their connections with such groups, Salamat and the MILF leadership has to resort to the OIC and the US to enhance its status as a legitimate political party. Nonetheless, their supreme goal is no longer secession or a separate independent state, but political power over a definite territory and its inhabitants via combination of force and diplomacy. Essentially, it is an attempt to universalize the Will of a political party—the agent of historical change--that claims to represent the whole Moro peoples (across ethnic and class divisions). Now the reality is that any revolutionary party with a democratic-popular orientation has to take into account the social-economic reality and the political alignment of forces both within the Philippines, the southeast Asian region, and within the capitalist world-order (global war on terror by the US-led bloc, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, etc. against Iraq, Aghanistan, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and other nation-states).

Ultimately, the Moro rebellion has to confront the power of global capital (at present led by the US power bloc) as the enemy of genuine Moro sovereignty, freedom and progress in a planetary habitat of peoples with diverse cultures, religions, histories, and aspirations.

Self-Determination as Means or End-In-Itself?

The ultimate goal of self-determination cannot be attained simply by fiat, of course, but by a revolutionary program of rejecting colonial occupation and imperialist domination. The MILF rejects the Manila/Christian state and its military forces and affirms its subjective identity (as the MNLF did in opposing Marcos and its US patron). However, the MILF does not mediate its self-proclaimed Islamic identity by the otherness (the concrete social context of a secular world of commodity-relations) in which it finds itself. Hence, it imposes on its mass base a view absorbed from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic centers while paying lip-service to the history of the anti-colonial struggles of Moros as a whole. It is thus caught in a unity of contradictions. “Ancestral domain” tends to be fetishized in its purely Islamic heritage. An abstract self-affirmation of Islamic identity (to distinguish it from Christian/Western others) remains subjectivist/voluntarist as well as philosophical/idealist, susceptible to terrorist realization. Its obverse is the positivist or pragmatic dependence on the OIC, the US, and other sponsors that it calculates will advance its self-identified agenda, given the current volatile contingencies.

From a dialectical stance, the only way to resolve the contradiction between the subjectivist/voluntarist Islamic self-identification of the MILF and its objectivist/pragmatist resort to US/OIC determinants, is to analyse the nature of the unity of these abstract opposites. In other words, the way to resolve the contradictions is by way of discovering the universal logic/principle underlying the project of revolutionary action, assuming that the MILF is engaged in a revolutionary project of emancipation of the Moro people’s potential for expressing its full humanity with others in the world. The past and the present will have to coalesce to shape the historical agent of change whose interests are not particular but universal, the interest of all members of the given society. The search for the revolutionary class or agent which, from the beginning, is the necessary condition of the present—that agent which will bring the future to the present because of its past—is not a theoretical problem but a practical one: “It is a problem of the unity of theory and practice, the co-determining conditions of which are in the present because of the past. Consequently, whereas the subjectivist [terrorist] desires the restoration of the past by means of externalizing a particular subjectivity, the revolutionary needs revolution to realize what is already given in the present through the past” (Hansen 1977, 108). Hence the revolutionary agent does not force onto people a particular view because his view is already present (though occluded or suppressed) in the existing reality.

In Quest of Critical Universality

From a radical-democratic standpoint, the crucial question then is: what is in the existing reality that needs to be released or brought to self-realization? What is that emerging universal within the historical present? To answer this, one needs to critique the total situation to move beyond the abstract subjectivist/voluntarist position and the positivist/determinist one. One needs to achieve a concrete dialectical comprehension of the whole global capitalist totality. To grasp the concrete universal immanent in the historical conjuncture, one needs to generalize the unique condition of the Moro peoples so as to get beyond the particularity that imperialism/capitalism has imposed on it. Capitalism is precisely what enables particularism in social relations and conflicts arising from this, so that the elimination of distinctions cannot be carried out by presupposing differences (cultural or religious values, for example) without unity.

One manifestation of such a unity is perhaps what Muslim historian-philosopher Cesar Majul had in mind when, at the end of his scholarly history of the Moro sultanates and the Moro Wars, he proposed that the Muslim struggle should “be considered part of the heritage of the Filipino people in the history of their struggle for freedom…part of the struggle of the entire nation” (1999, 410). If the surveys are to be believed, more Filipinos now than before (63% in 2005, compared to 43% in 2002) are sympathetic to the Moro struggle for their right to govern themselves (Robles 2010).

We are not proposing pluralism or status quo multiculturalism, a bazaar of affective flux and performative gestures, either corporate liberalism or individualist libertarianism, both apparent opposites concretizing the ideology of bourgeois society based on the division of labor and its attendant disparities in the distribution of power and resources. What we are proposing is to free ourselves from this enslaving ideology that teaches the idea that authentic self-expression (or, by extension, national self-determination) depends on an abstract property which guarantees authenticity, freedom, fulfillment. In short, we are searching for the politicized, active mass base of the Moro revolution that will universalize its goals by a thorough critique of global capitalism (led by the US imperial power) and, in the process, forge organic solidarity with the entire Filipino people struggling for democratic socialism. Such a critical universality will resolve the contradictions between subjectivism and objectivism I have outlined earlier.

As of now, such a critical universality is absent. One sign is the lack of a critique of the Moro dynasties and clans and the property relations characterizing the everyday experience of the Moro peasants, women, workers, youth (Wadi 2008), or of the prison conditions afflicting Moros in Camp Bagong Diwa (Vargas 2005), not to speak of taking cognizance of analogous Lumad demands for self-determination over ancestral domains (for Lumad aspirations, see Rodil 1993). A way of revising the deployment of the principle of self-determination is proposed by Talal Asad by distinguishing between the concept of Arab nationalism and a classical Islamism that contains an element of “critical universality” by an implicit critique of the secular bourgeois nation-state. It is necessary to define the narrow bourgeois nation-state parameters into which the Bangsamoro nation is being confined. Asad observes:

The fact that the expression umma ‘arabiyya is used today to denote the “Arab nation” represents a major conceptual transformation by which umma is cut off from the theological predicates that gave it its universalizing power and is made to stand for an imagined community that is equivalent to a total political society, limited and sovereign like other limited and sovereign nations in a secular (social) world. The ummatu-l-muslimin (the Islamic umma) is ideologically not “a society” onto which state, economy, and religion can be mapped. It is neither limited nor sovereign, for unlike Arab nationalism’s notion of al-umma-al-arabiyya, it can and should embrace all of humanity….The main point I underline here is that Islamism’s preoccupation with state power is the result not of its commitment to nationalist ideas but of the modern nation-state’s enforced claim to constitute social identities and arenas (2003, 197-98, 200).

One inspiring sign of “critical universality” may be found in the MNLF’s participation in the 1981 Permanent People’s Tribunal and its solidarity with the NDF and other forces in opposing US imperialism. At present, it is difficult to say whether the MILF recognizes the need to achieve a “critical universality” (Lowy 1998, 78) in its program, policies, and diplomatic positions. In my view, subject to the pressures and exigencies of every phase in its negotiations with the GRP and relations with the OIC and the US, the alternating options of subjectivist/voluntarist and objectivist/pragmatist handling of the struggle distinguish the MILF record so far. With unpredictable dynamic changes in the Islamic world vis-à-vis the US, the internal antagonisms in the OIC and its relations with other blocs (Europe, Russia, China), and the advance of the national-democratic forces in the Philippines, it is not impossible that the succeeding generation of leaders and rank-and-file militants will respond to the need for articulating that critical universality without which the revolutionary project of collective emancipation will remain doomed to repeat the horrors of the past and miseries of the present.

The Prospect Before Us

The Moro people’s struggle in the Philippines for national self-determination has placed under critical interrogation the hallowed theories of cultural pluralism, liberal tolerance, and muticulturalism that continue to legitimize the domination of diverse ethnic groups under elite control in contemporary Filipino society. Bourgeois political norms and laws have led since colonial times to the severe dispossession, exclusion, and utter impoverishment of the Moro people as a distinct historical community united under Islamic faith and an uninterrupted history of preserving its relative autonomy through various modes (collective, familial, personal) of anticolonial resistance. Since the Spanish (1621-1898) and American colonial period (1899-1946) up to the present Arroyo government’s neocolonial polity subservient to U.S. hegemony, the Moro people have suffered national, class, and religious oppression. The Moro insurgents are labeled “terrorists” and stigmatized daily by the media, schools, Christian churches, and international business. They tend to be lumped with the Abu Sayyaf bandits, wholly a product of gangsterism involving the military, police, local officials, and the central government bureaucracy. It is the obligation of Filipino Marxists and progressive organizations around the world to recognize the Moro people’s right to self-determination and offer solidarity. In my book US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (2007), I have tried to express this solidarity by a preliminary critique of neoliberal ideology, including sectarian ultra-leftism, that apologizes for, and foments overtly and covertly, the genocidal wars currently raging in the Moro homelands of southern Philippines. This paper is an attempt to explore the theoretical and practical limits of “self-determination” as a political strategy when, in this specific conjuncture, U.S. imperial manipulations are defining this Wilsonian principle for its own hegemonic interests. I propose that a historical-materialist socialist perspective (following Lenin’s use of the principle of the right of nations to self-determination), with modifications as suggested by Talal Asad, be pursued and developed in the light of the singular historical circumstances of the BangsaMoro struggle against local compradors, landlords, and bureaucrat-capitalists allied with the U.S. imperial hegemon and its transnational criminal accomplices.--


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[Based on a talk first presented at the Historical Materialism Conference,York University, Canada, May 15, 2010]