Operation Balikatan:

“Shoulder-to-shoulder”... suppressing the Philippine masses

In February of this year, Operation “Balikatan” (meaning “shouldering the load together”) began in the southern Philippines. It was advertized as “phase two” of the Bush government’s “war on terrorism”. With straight faces, all the official spokespeople declared that 660 US troops, including 160 special forces cadres, were going to be teaching the Armed Forces of the Philippines (the AFP) how to fight Abu Sayyaf, a rag-tag group of about 100 men said to have “links” to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Some 7000 AFP soldiers were already deployed in the region and Abu Sayyaf was concentrated mainly in Basilan province, an area the size of Los Angeles. Prior to Sept. 11, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo viewed Abu Sayyaf as a mere gang of petty bandits without significant connections to any international group. (And according to two respected Philippine journalists, the main thing preventing Abu Sayyaf from wiped out completely was the fact that local police and military colluded in their kidnapping and terrorist activities.) But Arroyo “forgot” this when she enthusiastically pledged allegience to the “US-led coalition against terror”. Now she castigated everyone who questioned the premises of the new “Balikatan” as "protectors of terrorists” and “allies of murderers”.

The Bangsa Moro Struggle

Actually Abu Sayyaf is just a tiny (and largely irrelevant) section of the large Bangsa Moro, or Moro people’s, movement. The Moro people share a common adherence to the muslim religion as well as a common history of being attacked by Spanish and American colonial encroachment. The 5-6 million Philippine Muslims inhabit several southern islands, Mindanao being the largest. Even by Philippine standards they’re very poor, with most being peasants or fisher folk. And their regions have increasingly become the focal point for expansion of Philippine and international capitalism. Historically, this has meant such things as government resettlement schemes whereby Christian settlers were sent into the Muslim areas. The native peasantry resisted this, and the government responded by attempting to disarm them, arming the settlers, and stepping up its military occupation of these regions. In these conditions the fairly secular Moro National Liberation Front was formed in 1972. It organized an armed struggle for self determination which resulted in then-president Marcos sending 70% of the military to Mindanao. More than 100,000 people were killed, and 200,000 people turned into refugees. But the struggle was too strong to crush by military means alone. Thus Marcos maneuvered by “recognizing” the right of the Moros to self-determination (the Tripoli agreement) while keeping the military pressure on. Subsequent Philippine governments have continued to maneuver, including with the 1996 a peace agreement with the MNLF which conceded limited autonomy to some Moro areas. But the government maintained many prerogatives, and did not come through with many of its initial promises. Moreover, the elected MNLF governor Misuari showed himself to be blatantly corrupt. Meanwhile, in 1977 a number of clerics had split from the MNLF to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. They too were able to raise an army of many scores of thousands, but with a more religious appeal. The MILF was not part of the 1996 agreement, and engaged in heavy fighting in 1997, 2000, as well as earlier. The government made several agreements with it as well, the most recent being under Macapagal-Arroyo in August, 2001. Despite such agreements, in the 21st century the demands of the Moro people remain unmet while the government accelerates the building of its repressive military machine. Abu Sayyaf was formed in 1991 by fundamentalists, several of whom had fought in Afghanistan as Reagan’s “freedom fighters”. Its ultra-reactionary creed has not resounded widely among the Sunni Muslim Moros, and it remains very small. (And despite its brutal methods, many local villagers fear it less than they fear the also-brutal forces of the central government.) But it’s gained notoriety for high-profile kidnappings and ransoming, murder and beheadings of innocents, etc. Thus it provides the convenient excuse for the Philippine bourgeoisie to build a military machine to use, not mainly against the tiny Abu Sayyaf, but against the progressive struggles of the Filipino workers and peasants. The Bangsa Moro struggle is just, but in a short article we can only treat it briefly. Our defense of the struggle is not the same thing as endorsing its present leaders or their politics, or of the Moro class forces these politics represent. Our unity is with the oppressed masses.

The US is beefing up a "friendly" repressor

The AFP has been battling several groups in addition to Abu Sayyaf which are much more formidable than the latter. These include the above-mentioned Moro fighters as well as the maoist New People’s Army, the military branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and other groups not connected to the Moros or the NPA. Over the last several years more and more of the growing number of desperate peasants and poor people have taken up arms against the central government. The Philipinne bourgeois establishment may certainly like to rid the country of the likes of Abu Sayyaf, but the sheer scale of the military machine being constructed shows that the bourgeoisie is preparing for wider counterinsurgency operations and building a security apparatus to suppress any progressive or democratic opposition. Macapagal-Arroyo has plans for a National I.D. system, she’s increased the military budget by 25% this year, and she’s now brought in American troops. Increased violence against all opposition, whether reactionary or progressive, and suppression of the masses for the benefit of Filipino, American, and other capitalists -- this is the real aim of Operation Balikatan.